Since its inception in 2004, the St. John’s lacrosse team has suffered its fair share of on-the-field bumps and bruises. On Aug. 15, the team suffered its first executive setback, as head coach Rick Sowell announced he would be leaving for Stony Brook University.
Sowell, who suffered a 6-20 overall record in his two seasons at St. John’s, explains that his decision to leave the University in the middle of a multi-year contract was less about St. John’s and more about the environment and opportunities provided by Stony Brook, the fourth stop in his collegiate coaching career that includes Georgetown, Dartmouth, and St. John’s.
“I am extremely excited to take over a winning program,” Sowell said. “At the end of the day, for where I wanted to be at this point in my career, Stony Brook provided me the kind of opportunities I felt were right for me right now.”
For Sowell, a coach notorious for an unquenchable competitive spirit and a passionate and stern coaching style, a chance to win now was just too good to pass up.
“Stony Brook provided me with the best of both worlds,” Sowell said. “I still get to live in an environment that my family and I love and I have the opportunity to play in important games in late April.”
Sowell’s reputation as a disciplinarian admittedly agitated some of his former players, as he explained that he was “sure that some players are glad to see me go.”
Besides his reputation as a passionate disciplinarian, Sowell is well known for being the first and only African-American head men’s lacrosse coach in NCAA Division I lacrosse, a fact that Sowell says “doesn’t mean all that much.”
The outspoken coach made headlines recently as a finalist in the nation-wide, summer-long search for Duke University’s head lacrosse coaching vacancy. Looking for a hard-nosed coach to help resurrect an embarrassed athletic program that suffered through a sex scandal throughout last spring, Duke approached Sowell to guide arguably the nation’s most storied lacrosse program.
“I was extremely flattered that they approached me and strongly considered me as a candidate,” Sowell said. “It was a tough process for me and for them, but they chose a good guy (former Hofstra head men’s lacrosse coach John Danowski). At the end of the day, I was just glad it was over.”
After a long, rumor-filled waiting period, Sowell says he was excited and looking forward to returning to St. John’s for his third season. However, that all changed with a knock at the door from an old friend.
“Pretty much the day after the Duke decision was made, Jim (Fiore) knocked on my door with a blueberry pie and his right hand man,” Sowell said. “When Jim visited, emotionally it was very difficult for me.”
Sowell first met Fiore at Dartmouth, when Sowell served as the Big Green’s head lacrosse coach and Fiore was the college’s athletic director. With Sowell’s name prominent in the coaching rumor mill, Fiore took the opportunity to visit Sowell at his home in Malverne, NY in an effort to convince his old colleague to jump ship to a more established and relatively local lacrosse program.
After a three-and-a-half-hour home visit, Sowell labored over his eventual decision to leave St. John’s.
“My relationship with Jim Fiore played a huge role in me leaving for Stony Brook,” Sowell said. “Leaving St. John’s was very tough for me. At the end of the day, I thought that Stony Brook provided the best opportunity for me and my family.”
“Disappointed,” was how St. John’s Athletic Director Chris Monasch described his first reaction to the news. “But I understand that he has his personal aspirations. Starting a program is a challenge and he worked hard here for three years building up the base that we’ll grow off of. I just think he saw Stony Brook as a program that is obviously more mature at this point.”
Some would argue that Sowell’s departure marks the first failure in his collegiate coaching career, as he led the Red Storm to an anemic 6-20 two-season overall record. However, Sowell claims that the legacy he left at St. John’s maintains a silver lining.
“I feel like I got the program up and running,” Sowell said. “The first two years were tough, but I feel good about where I left the St. John’s program. I don’t regret leaving Dartmouth for St. John’s. The guys were awesome, I met a lot of great people. It was one of those situations where I had some minor frustrations, but overall coaching at St. John’s was an amazing experience… Unfortunately, I didn’t complete what I originally set out to do there.”
Over the past two years, multiple players have transferred out of the program, including attackman Kevan Pimental to Colorado State University and midfielder Devin Madden to Penn State University. Now, with Sowell gone, the Red Storm lacrosse program looks to recover from an onslaught of personnel losses.
“We’re hoping to try and get someone wrapped up at the early part of this week at the latest,” Monasch said about hiring a new coach to fill the vacancy Sowell left. “As soon as Rick told us he was leaving, word traveled fast. People reached out to us, we did a lot of work and we’ve interviewed some people and we’ll make a decision hopefully early this week.”