Rush to Judgment

Former Duke lacrosse coach discusses his forced resignation during the 2006 Duke rape scandal and his hard road back to coaching

The following script is from "The Rush to Judgment" which aired on April 12, 2015. Armen Keteyian is the correspondent. Coleman Cowan, producer.

Nine years ago this month, the Duke rape case exploded into front page news across America.

Three star players on Duke's No. 1 ranked lacrosse team were accused of raping a stripper. It took more than a year for the story to unravel, the three players to be declared innocent, and the district attorney who led the charge against them to be disbarred.

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Mike Pressler
CBS News

A forgotten chapter of the story is what happened to the Blue Devils' head coach at the time, Mike Pressler. The reigning National Coach of the Year, Pressler was the only person at Duke to lose his job as a result of the scandal that wasn't.

Pressler has never spoken at length about what happened to him at Duke -- the rush to judgment that has left a mark on his life to this day.

Mike Pressler: Google up one of the boys' names, my name, and then, you know, on the computer you saw the word "rape," "sexual assault" next to your name. That, to me, that just was-- even today, I get emotional about it. Because it just-- everything you built, everything-- all-- everything you stood for. And to have two of those type of phrases or words associated with your name just-- even right now, as I speak to you, Armen, I'm getting angry over that.

"Google up one of the boys' names, my name, and then, you know, on the computer you saw the word 'rape,' 'sexual assault' next to your name. That, to me, that just was-- even today, I get emotional about it."

On March 13, 2006, the Duke lacrosse team held an off-campus party at this house which included alcohol and two strippers, one who later claimed she was attacked and raped in a bathroom. When Pressler, then in his 16th season at Duke, found out about the party and the woman's claims, he confronted his captains.

Armen Keteyian: Describe your emotional state at that point in time.

Mike Pressler: Really pissed. Really shocked that they would have this party first and foremost. But anyway, I asked each one of 'em to their face, one at a time. The astonishment on their face. And when you know your people, I knew exactly from their reaction to the allegations this was absolutely untrue.

The problem was, few others did. This is how the late Ed Bradley described the media storm surrounding the Duke rape case here on "60 Minutes":

The district attorney, Mike Nifong, took to the airwaves giving dozens of interviews, expressing - with absolute certainty - that Duke lacrosse players had committed a horrific crime.

Mike Nifong on "O'Reilly Factor": There's no doubt in my mind that she was raped and assaulted at this location.

His comments fueled explosive news coverage and fed public suspicion of the team, before much of the evidence was gathered. D.A. Nifong referred to the lacrosse players as "a bunch of hooligans" whose "daddies could buy them expensive lawyers."

Armen Keteyian: When Mike Nifong starts to bring race, using words like "hooligans" and a "wall of silence" from a team that wasn't being silent, what are you thinking?

Mike Pressler: You could just see that they were-- there was a different agenda for these folks.

Nifong was in the midst of a tight election campaign. He fed the growing race and class divide long simmering in Durham -- refusing to consider any evidence that didn't fit his narrative of the players' guilt.

[Mike Nifong: I am not going to allow Durham's view in the mind of the world to be a bunch of lacrosse players from Duke raping a black girl in Durham!]

Chris Kennedy: It was transparently obvious that nothing had happened.

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Armen Keteyian and Chris Kennedy
CBS News

Chris Kennedy is the senior deputy director of athletics at Duke, where he's been on staff since 1977, and hasn't forgotten the mob mentality on campus that spring.

Chris Kennedy: A sizable portion of people in the university had turned their backs on those kids. And believed the most heinous crimes had been committed.

Armen Keteyian: At its worst, how bad was it?

Chris Kennedy: Other than the death of my wife, it's the worst thing I've ever been through. It was painful because you had 46 kids who were really suffering who knew for a long period of time that two, three, four, some number were gonna be indicted based on no evidence whatsoever. Imagine the stress of that on the kids and on their parents and everything.

"A sizable portion of people in the university had turned their backs on those kids. And believed the most heinous crimes had been committed."

Pressler soon found the stress bearing down on his team bleeding into his personal life, exposing his wife and two young daughters, Janet and Maggie, to the hatred drowning his team.

Armen Keteyian: You get an email from a certain Duke student. "What if your daughter, Janet, was next?"

Mike Pressler: That was the first time where I just really got-- I think the word "enraged," you know. "We gotta stop this one, this-- this-- this is over the top."

To ease his anger, Pressler told us he spent endless hours, both day and night, walking through Duke forest near his home, literally screaming at the trees.

Mike Pressler: Right now, as I go through this-- on this walk, stuff's coming back to me now that I haven't thought about since that day.

His return with us marked the first time he'd been back in nine years.

Mike Pressler: You wake up in the morning. There'll be signs on your front-- in our front porch. You know, I'd-- I'd get up at 5:00 a.m. to take those signs down. 'Cause I didn't want the girls to see those things.

Armen Keteyian: What did they say, Mike?

Mike Pressler: You know, one was-- that just tore me apart, "Rapist lover." You know, another one, "Do your duty. Turn 'em in," those things, those kinda things. And you know, that's very hurtful. I don't care if it's 10 years ago or 10 minutes ago. It never leaves you.

Three weeks into the scandal, Pressler reached a crossroads: stand by his players, or save himself and his career.

Mike Pressler: I was actually advised early on to distance myself from them and at that time, I-- that was, like, blasphemy. You-- you're tellin' me that? We don't run. We don't quit, you know. That's not how we're made. You finish. You sign on, you finish what you start at all costs, you know. That's it. You finish it.

Armen Keteyian: The word that comes up time and time and time again with you is loyalty. Why is that word so important to you?

Mike Pressler: It's everything. It's - it's everything. And without that, as a man, you have nothing.

With the rape scandal at full boil here at Duke, Pressler was summoned to the office of then-athletic director Joe Alleva, where he was issued an ultimatum: resign immediately or risk being fired. So Pressler resigned, the sacrificial lamb needed to appease protestors and protect the school's gold-plated image.

Chris Kennedy, Duke's senior deputy director of athletics, spoke with us recently over the objections of administrators at his university, who told Kennedy "it was not in Duke's interest or his" to talk to us on camera.

Chris Kennedy: I think that in some quarters of the university administration, there was some belief that this may have happened. And that if that's the case, they had to respond.

Armen Keteyian: But it turns out nothing did happen.

Chris Kennedy: Correct.

Armen Keteyian: And Mike's the only one to lose his job over this.

Chris Kennedy: Correct.

Armen Keteyian: And as we sit here nine years later, what do you think of that?

Chris Kennedy: I think that a lot of officials at the university have come to the realization or came to the realization within a year or so that probably Mike shouldn't have lost his job.

But he did. Almost overnight, the reigning National Coach of the Year had become toxic, an untouchable in the world of college lacrosse.

Pressler applied - and was turned down - for volunteer high school positions. But he still hadn't hit rock bottom. That happened at his alma mater, Washington and Lee, where Pressler had been the captain of both the lacrosse and football teams.

"I think that a lot of officials at the university have come to the realization or came to the realization within a year or so that probably Mike shouldn't have lost his job."

Armen Keteyian: What happens there?

Mike Pressler: You know--wouldn't even interview, get an interview on campus. They met me at a rest stop in Lynchburg, Virginia.

Armen Keteyian: You're at a rest stop--

Mike Pressler: Yeah, rest stop.

Armen Keteyian: --like you're a fugitive from justice or something.

Mike Pressler: Was not allowed to interview on campus.

Armen Keteyian: Did you get to the point where you thought, "I'm never gonna coach again. I'm gonna have to think of doing something else with my life"?

Mike Pressler: I did for a little bit during that time. But then, this hits me like a lightning bolt today -- if I don't coach again, they've won. And they were not gonna win.

Some 700-hundred miles away in Smithfield, Rhode Island, Bryant University President Ron Machtley was in the midst of re-building his athletic department. He did something no one else had done - he listened, and started searching for the truth.

Ron Machtley: We read a number of documents in the papers and we followed up and talked to former coaches at various places. And what I heard consistently was that Mike was a standup coach. He was a great coach. And he had gotten himself into a fire storm in which Duke treated him very badly.

Where others saw risk, Machtley saw opportunity. He hired Pressler in August of 2006 to take over a non-descript Division II program.

Mike Pressler: Everybody got caught up in the Roman numeral, you know, Division 1, "How could you take a Division II job?" Coaching for me has always been pure. The Roman numeral never mattered. The limelight never mattered. I didn't get into this for any of that.

If Pressler knew one thing it was how to build a winner. At Bryant that meant drastic measures.

Mike Pressler: And I'll never forget 77 kids tried out. And we ran a 5K. And I said, "If I beat any one of you, you're cut on the spot. Let an old man beat you?" So, I beat 15 of 'em. And those 15 walked off the field never to be seen in Bryant lacrosse. We had to change the culture. And we had to come with a work ethic, a toughness.

[Mike Pressler: It's like two-hand touch out there!]

Now in his ninth season at Bryant, Pressler has matched that toughness and work ethic with relentless preparation and unfiltered honesty.

Mike Pressler: This is physical, Bryant lacrosse. Nobody runs down the gut and lives to play another day!

His leadership has turned a Division II afterthought into a legitimate top 20 Division I program. Last year, his Bulldogs reached the quarterfinals in the NCAA tournament after knocking off No. 2 seed and 11-time national champion Syracuse.

[Bryant v. Syracuse game call: The Bulldogs stun the Orange!]

...in what was called the biggest upset in the history of the tournament.

Armen Keteyian: Mike, for you, was there a little of, "Hello. I'm Mike Pressler. And I'm back."

Mike Pressler: I think there was a little bit of that, just a little. You know, it-- the reaction from my girls when I got home and the emotion of that, and Maggie said, "Dad, you're back."

Last month, Pressler was back on a North Carolina lacrosse field for the first time since the spring of 2006. His Bryant Bulldogs faced off against the University of North Carolina, ranked second in the country.

On paper, Pressler's team appeared overmatched. But Bryant gave the Tar Heels all they could handle before falling by a single goal in the closing minutes.

[Mike Pressler: You know what? That is the Bryant team I've been waiting to see for the last six games.]

Loyalty and respect are the links that tie Pressler to his current and former players. Several from the 2006 Duke team, including some who were at the center of the scandal, have gone so far as to donate funds to Bryant's program.

Given Bryant's rise, it should come as no surprise that Pressler's turned down more money from a half dozen elite programs.

[Mike Pressler: We got better today.]

...Who have long since forgotten about Duke.

Ron Machtley: and I know every year since that case was dismissed big schools have come to him and said, "We'll pay you three times. We'll give you camps. We'll give you the perks. You'll have the beautiful locker room campus environment that you can't get at a small school like Bryant." And he's never come to me and said, "Ron, can you match this offer?" He has made a commitment to stay here and that, kind of, loyalty which he showed to his team and which his team ultimately showed back to him is something that's very rare in society today.

Armen Keteyian: You've stayed.

Mike Pressler: I didn't bat an eye. No. No, thank you.

Armen Keteyian: Why?

Mike Pressler: Gotta go back to the events of the summer of '06. You know, for me to turn and leave a place and the administration that has given me and my family so much, and to go do it somewhere else, I couldn't live with myself.