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Help From Above

Friday, November 06, 2009

Courtesy of Kevin Scheitrum,

The Greeks learned, over time, to hate it.

Aristotle wrote severely of it. Later generations, counting Shakespeare and Nietzsche among their ranks, followed suit in railing against the deus ex machina, the ancient Greek plot device in which a crane -- literally, "the machine of God" -- would either pluck a character off the stage and out of trouble or help a god descend to the rescue.

The machina gave playwrights an easy way out of jams. And that's precisely why critics began to despise it. Not just for the sloth of the device, but for its departure from life. Things like that, Aristotle wrote, just don't happen. Change must come from within.

Fiction writers hate the deus ex machina because it doesn't mimic reality. But there's talk in Ithaca, N.Y. -- a town whose name itself derives from an island off the Greek coast -- that maybe, well, it does. That change can come from the outside. And that it can, quick as a phantom hand, make that change happen immediately.

In 2008, the Cornell men's soccer team finished a year that set program records for futility. Records for fewest wins and most losses: 1 and 15, respectively. For fewest goals-scored: 8. It was, in the words of senior captain Matt Bouraee, "probably the worst experience of my life."

Enter Jaro Zawislan as head coach. And see a program that had fallen into quite possibly the deepest on-field despair in 102 years as a varsity team rise, dramatically, back up. Now 4-3-2 going into an Ivy League and homecoming showdown with No. 8 Harvard (7 p.m.) on Saturday after tying defending Ivy champ Penn last Saturday, the talk surrounding the Big Red's resurgence sounds nearly theatrical.

"I don't think we were necessary a 1-15 team," Bouraee said. "I think we had more talent than our record shows, and coach Jaro was able to bring out that talent."

"It's night and day," said sophomore midfielder Jimmy Lannon. "It's really amazing what coach has done. He really brought a new enthusiasm to the program. "It's almost like coach Jaro breathed a breath of fresh air."

"Going into games [last year], it was like we're going to compete, and maybe we'll get a win," said junior midfielder Scott Caldwell. "That was our attitude. Now, it's that we're going to get a win.

The truth is, like most truths, somewhere in the middle. An amalgam, a contract between a team that asked for more from itself and a coach that demanded it.

Zawislan, the 11th head coach in Big Red history, came to Cornell with the mandate of "changing the culture of the program." Hired because of his lineage -- the Poland native started every game in goal over four years for Clemson until graduation in 1993, before taking various coaching jobs at Creighton, Stanford and Syracuse -- as much as for his expertise -- while at Syracuse, he ran the planning and recruiting processes for the Orange, bringing in a top-40 class in 2003 -- he came in to, in short, change everything.

And in front of him was a roster full of players he hadn't recruited and a team still searing from the pain inflicted a year before.

"[2008] felt like a blanket was pulled out from underneath us," Bouraee said. "The program collapsed. We couldn't win a game. Everyone's morale was so low. We went into games almost expecting to lose. There was no enthusiasm left playing."

So Zawislan did what seemed to make the most sense, and something that's not so unordinary for a deus ex machina: destroy everything.

It was a concerted sort of destruction, one bent on severing the 2008 season from the team's memory by wiping it away altogether. Gone were the preconceptions. Gone were the still-fresh images of missed tackles and nets that just refused to let shots in. As far as he and they should be concerned, Zawislan said, Cornell was 0-0-0 -- just like the first-time head coach was.

For the complete story on Zawislan, head to