By Aaron Beard
The Duke lacrosse program he spent more than a decade building into a power is two wins from its first national championship. The players he recruited, All-Americans among them, are eager for another shot at the title that eluded them two years ago by a single goal.
But Pressler is not with them.
Instead, he is moving his family into a new home in Rhode Island this weekend, forced by a since-discredited rape allegation against some of his players to watch another coach lead the Blue Devils' pursuit of a trophy that many feel belongs on his mantle.
Pressler remains guarded about his feelings. But in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press on the eve of the NCAA lacrosse championships, he acknowledged cherishing from afar his former players' success.
"I don't think 'pride' or 'proud' even describes how I feel about these young men and what they've accomplished in spite of what they've been through," Pressler said. "It's an amazing story and the story should be focused on them.
"For me, I get gratification to see them succeed at the highest level with everything they've been through. That, to me, is an amazing thing."
In some ways, it seems little has changed for the Blue Devils (16-2) since they last reached college lacrosse's final weekend. All-American attacker Matt Danowski and prolific scorer Zack Greer are among the veterans of the 2005 team on a roster that remains fiercely loyal to Pressler.
"We're his kids, no doubt about that," senior defenseman Tony McDevitt said. "He watches and he wants to be so happy for us because we're succeeding. But at the same time, he's not there with us. And we feel the same way sometimes. He'll always be my coach."
And that's fine with first-year coach John Danowski, who left Hofstra last summer to inherit his friend's job and coach his son.
"This is Mike's team. Who are we kidding here?" he said. "He brought them here. He's responsible for the development of this team, and I'm just kind of the caretaker."
Pressler appeared to have Duke on track to return to the national title game last season. The Blue Devils were 6-2 and highly ranked when allegations emerged in March 2006 that three players raped a woman at a team party where she had been hired to perform as a stripper.
The allegations wrecked the life Pressler had built in 16 seasons on the Duke campus, where the expectations of winning are set high by the school's best-known face - men's basketball coach and three-time national champion Mike Krzyzewski. The university canceled the remainder of the season and accepted Pressler's resignation the following month, shortly before players Reade Seligmann, Collin Finnerty and David Evans were indicted on charges of rape, kidnapping and sexual offense.
Pressler told his players their season and his time at Duke were over in an emotionally wrenching meeting. It was the final move in a Blue Devil career that included 153 wins, three Atlantic Coast Conference championships and 10 trips to the NCAA tournament _ including the one-goal loss to Johns Hopkins in the '05 final that at the time seemed to be the start of so much more.
Nearly a year later, when North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper dropped all remaining charges and declared the three players "innocent" victims of a "tragic rush to accuse," Pressler became one of the biggest victims of the case.
"I don't think there's any question of that," senior defenseman Casey Carroll said. "Since Day One, if you asked any of the alumni or anyone who's played for him, he always treated us as adults, but also looked out for us. Everything that happened wasn't a lapse of his judgment at all. It was just an unfortunate occurrence of events that he couldn't control. I think the reasons why he left were completely unfounded."
Now the coach at Division II Bryant University in Smithfield, R.I., Pressler has helped write a book about his experience that goes on sale next month. It will arrive in stores the same day the prosecutor who labeled the lacrosse players "hooligans" goes on trial for several ethics violations tied to his handling of the case.
Though others might, Pressler refuses to call himself a victim or dwell on all that was lost. He says he and his family have moved on and that he wants the focus to be on Duke's players.
He even hopes to attend Monday's championship game should Duke beat undefeated Cornell in Saturday's semifinals. Still, it's clear the wound hasn't completely healed as he talks with wistful pride about their tournament run.
"It's been a very difficult situation," Pressler said. "We're getting through it. The parents had a difficult situation. They're getting through it. The players had one and they're getting through it. We're all doing our best to make the right thing happen."
"It's about the players and their day in the sun," he said. "They've earned this."