By ZACH SCHONBRUN | MAY 8, 2015
A Syracuse Lacrosse Team Transformed a Sport, Clung to a Disputed Title and Lost a Trophy
The banner still hangs defiantly inside the Carrier Dome, recognizing what many in lacrosse contend was the greatest college team ever.
But since the N.C.A.A. vacated Syracuse’s 1990 national title — its third consecutive championship, with the Gait brothers, Gary and Paul, dominating at the height of their careers — an asterisk has marred one of the storied program’s proudest achievements.
Twenty-five years later, the still-bitter dispute surrounding the N.C.A.A.’s decision to penalize the program over an improper car loan signed by the coach’s wife has been overshadowed by a mystery: Nobody seems to know what happened to the trophy.
It is missing; has been since 1995. Today in Central New York, the subject of its whereabouts is steeped in as much intrigue as the mythical sea monster of Lake Champlain. Tall tales and conspiracy theories abound.
Some say it is somewhere in a remote bar in the Catskills. Some say it was stolen. The prevailing claim is that it was buried with Roy Simmons, the father of Roy Simmons Jr., the coach of the 1990 team.
Others have even more absurd ideas.
“It’s kind of like the Jimmy Hoffa story,” the former Syracuse attackman John Zulberti told the makers of the documentary “The Lost Trophy,” which will make its debut on ESPNU on Saturday. “It’s buried under the Dome.” The hourlong documentary, directed and produced by Fred Cambria with the executive producer Brett Jefferson, both former Syracuse lacrosse players, tells the story of the 1990 team, which outscored opponents by an average of more than 10 goals per game and was the culmination of a dynastic run for the Orange, who went 42-1 over three years.
But at this year’s lacrosse Final Four — taking place in Philadelphia from May 23 to 25 — the N.C.A.A. will not recognize the 25th anniversary of the sport’s most controversial team. Instead, a fan vote was held to determine the “champion of champions” (with the 1990 Syracuse squad not included among the 16 eligible teams). The 1997 Princeton team won and will be invited to Lincoln Financial Field for an on-field ceremony.
In 1995, a two-year N.C.A.A. investigation concluded that Nancy Simmons, the wife of Roy Simmons Jr., had signed her name on a car loan for Paul Gait and his wife during the 1990 season. The university argued that Roy and Nancy Simmons had an independent relationship and that she should not be viewed as a representative of the university’s athletic interests. Butthe N.C.A.A. ruled that Gait had participated while ineligible.
That stigmatized a revolutionary team that had set new standards for offensive productivity and creativity. Including the Gaits, Syracuse had six players named as first-team all-Americans a total of 12 times from 1988 to 1990, and the free-spirited Simmons was an unconventional orchestrator of the game, preferring to stand in the middle of the field like a ringmaster during practices as the action buzzed around him.
“It was showtime,” said Matt Palumb, the goalie from 1987 to 1990. “It was just a very magical, special time.”
The filmmakers, Cambria and Jefferson, examined how Syracuse’s style and sizzle paved the way for other transcendent players like the brothers Casey, Ryan and Michael Powell, and later the Thompsons: Miles, Ty and Lyle. Cambria and Jefferson were assisted by John Jiloty, who was the editor in chief of Inside Lacrosse magazine for 13 years. He said fans today saw only the asterisk and did not recognize just how transformative the 1990 team had really been.
“They blew everybody out of the water,” Jiloty said. “I don’t think we’ll see a team that dominant.”
The film also delves into the revered and eccentric Simmons — an accomplished sculptor and painter off the field — and explores the shadowy circumstances behind the disappearance of the national championship trophy.
“It’s a dream story,” Cambria said. “It has so many tentacles.”
After 1990, the trophy sat on display in the Ernie Davis Room inside the Carrier Dome. When the N.C.A.A. announced that it was vacating Syracuse’s title, Jake Crouthamel, the athletic director at the time, went to the Dome to retrieve it and discovered it was gone.
The N.C.A.A. questioned Simmons, who maintained that the trophy had been abducted by “friends of Syracuse lacrosse.” The N.C.A.A. left town empty-handed, and the trophy never resurfaced.
Simmons, who retired in 1998, has always been suspected as the trophy’s kidnapper because of his public disgust with the N.C.A.A.’s ruling at the time.
“He’s a very proud man,” Jefferson said. “He always stood up for what he thought was right. I don’t think he ever was able to grasp that something was done that was that wrong.”
Members of the 1990 team have adopted a more playful perspective about the trophy’s whereabouts. Nobody claims to know where it is. Everybody has heard a tale of where it might be.
“This is not torture; it’s not bitter,” Palumb said. “It’s a fun little tale of mystery and intrigue, a little bit of scandal. I would call it a harmless scandal.”
In Syracuse’s Manley Field House today, an unsanctioned trophy sits on the pedestal designated for the 1990 team, among the program’s 10 official titles. It says simply “1990 Lacrosse Champion” under a large block S. The program’s media guide notes 11 national titles, not 10.
“While the championship was vacated, we continue to recognize the team and their many accomplishments,” a Syracuse spokesman said in a statement.
Tom Marechek, a first-team all-American for Syracuse from 1990 to 1992, said: “Nothing can take the championship away from that team, because we were such a family. And we were very good. We knew walking on the field every time that we were going to win.”
This year’s Syracuse team (12-2) enters the N.C.A.A. tournament Sunday as the No. 2 seed and hosts Marist in the Dome. Its focus is on bringing home a 12th N.C.A.A. title, or an 11th, depending on whom you ask.
More info and full download available on TheLostTrophy.com
Titles Sequence & Graphic Design by PGM Artists roster client The Brand Gallery