The Visible, Invisible Legacy of the 1990 Syracuse Lacrosse Team
The undefeated Orangemen of 1990 are widely considered the greatest college lacrosse team of all time. Thanks to the NCAA, they remain, officially, nonexistent.
As Syracuse kicks off its 100th men's lacrosse season this month, the banner commemorating the school's 1990 national championship will be rebelliously hanging in the Carrier Dome like a flag on a pirate ship.
The Orange went undefeated in that season, completing a streak of three straight national titles. They went 42-1 over that span. The 1990 team, largely considered the best there ever was, produced seven All-Americans, led by twins Paul and Gary Gait, two transcendent stars who revolutionized the way the sport is played.
But the NCAA does not recognize that team, that title, or its dynasty.
A two-year investigation completed in 1995 found that Nancy Simmons, the wife of head coach Roy Simmons Jr., co-signed a car loan with Paul Gait's wife, Katherine. The NCAA ruled that Gait was ineligible during that season, and Syracuse's title was later vacated.
Because Nancy Simmons was considered to be a school official, the NCAA came down hard on the program, even demanding that the school return the 1990 trophy. But when Jake Crouthamel, Syracuse's athletic director at the time, went to get it from the trophy case in the Ernie Davis Room at the Carrier Dome, the actual hardware was missing.
To this day, its whereabouts remain a mystery—a mystery at the heart of the 2015 documentary The Lost Trophy, which tells the story of the 1990 team and was produced by former Syracuse players Fred Cambria and Brett Jefferson.
Within and around the school's lacrosse program, theories about what happened to the trophy abound: Some say it was buried with Simmons' father, Roy Sr., who also coached at Syracuse. Others think it's buried under the turf of the Carrier Dome. Or stashed in a bar someplace in Central New York.
Many suspect Simmons—who vehemently denied any wrongdoing and opposed the NCAA's punishment—had something to do with the disappearance. When questioned about the trophy by the NCAA, Simmons reportedly said only that the hardware remains with "friends of Syracuse lacrosse."
When Jefferson and Cambria first pitched ESPN on a documentary about Syracuse's 1990 squad, they weren't primarily focused on the missing trophy. Both men—Cambria is an Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker; Jefferson works in finance—had played for the Orange in the 1980s, and both understood the profound, downright revolutionary influence the 1990 team had on the entire sport of lacrosse.
Like the NBA's current Golden State Warriors, Syracuse's 1990 lacrosse squad was historically good, especially on offense: the Orange outscored opponents by an average of more than 10 goals per game. They tore through the NCAA tournament that spring, knocking off Brown 20-12 in the quarterfinals, North Carolina 21-10 in the semifinals, and then Loyola 21-9 in the final.
The 12-goal differential in the championship game remains the largest margin of victory ever in an NCAA final.
"They were pretty damn good," said Dave Cottle, whose Loyola team lost to Syracuse in the 1990 championship game. "They were as good a team as I've ever seen in the NCAA.
"When [the subsequent NCAA investigation and punishment] came about, at Loyola we had to decide what position we were going to take. And we just took the position that we played the game on the field and we got beat. We were a really good team. They were a great team."
"Everybody knows that the 1990 team was the best team in the country, not only that year, but maybe ever," Denver coach Bill Tierney says in The Lost Trophy.
Also like Golden State, the way Syracuse dominated helped change the sport. Gary and Paul Gait remain lacrosse legends—introducing flashy play and behind-the-back goals that had never been seen before, and augmenting their unparalleled stick skills with a then-unusual combination of speed and strength.
"I can remember scrimmaging them when they were freshmen," Cottle said. "We had wooden poles back then and we must have broken 10 poles over their thighs and they never stopped running. They just ran through guys. They were just beginning to play and understand how great they could be."
The Gait's style and artistry came to define Syracuse lacrosse. So did the eccentric Simmons, an accomplished sculptor and painter who encouraged his players to think and play creatively, and whose unconventional coaching methods included taking his team to art museums during road trips.
"They played at a pace that was so hard to replicate in practice or games," Cottle said.
All of that was wiped away when the NCAA vacated the 1990 title. The association launched an investigation into Syracuse in 1993, after former player Jerry DeLorenzo accused the program of wrongdoing in an article printed in the Syracuse Post-Standard. DeLorenzo, who played goalie for the Orange in the late 1980s, alleged that Simmons improperly gave him $40 in cash, that Syracuse assistant coach John Desko helped to fix his grades and that the university improperly sued him for an overdue tuition bill of more than $5,000. The paper also reported that an improper car loan was made, attracting the NCAA's attention.
DeLorenzo, who is currently the head coach of the Florida State men's lacrosse team and has been referred to as a "rat" on some Syracuse message boards, said his issues with the school have been resolved. He declined a VICE Sports interview request.
Simmons, who retired in 1998, has always been critical of the NCAA's decision, arguing that his wife was independent of him and the school.
"The NCAA is a puppy without a leg to stand on," Simmons told the Baltimore Sun in 1995. "This is a cold, timid and heartless decision. This is not Miami football or UNLV basketball. Anybody making Miami give back a trophy? There were mitigating circumstances.
"My wife didn't make any payments. No money ever exchanged hands, just signatures. It had nothing to do with recruiting, and it didn't change the level of the playing field. It was a decision made between two independent women without my knowledge. I will not accept this gutless decision in my heart and I will not give anything back."
Speaking of giving things back: whatever happened to the 1990 trophy? Even after making The Lost Trophy, Cambria swears he has no idea. Syracuse will celebrate a century of lacrosse this season; the school's greatest team remains a huge part of its unparalleled legacy within the sport; and the hardware symbolizing said greatness remains missing, a totem that has become part of college lacrosse lore.
"I'll be honest with you," Cambria said. "I don't know."
While making the film, Cambria conducted an interview with Simmons at his father's gravesite. The filmmaker walked away convinced that wasn't buried with Simmons Sr. He also picked up a tantalizing clue.
"I can't tell you where it is," Cambria said. "But I can tell you where it's not. It's not buried. I know it's not buried with his father, which is where I thought it was prior to this. But there's a telling quote from coach when, at the end of the film, he says, 'If the NCAA were to relent, the trophy would be found.'
"So it's accessible. That's all I know."