With Proof That He's Mortal, Puck Proves He's No Fool

A cancer diagnosis helped solidify St. Lawrence's new head football coach's priorities

Aaron Todd '00, M'06

St. Lawrence’s new head football coach is the first person to admit he doesn’t sound like a typical college football coach.

“I’m a little different,” says Dan Puckhaber, revealing a wide gregarious smile behind his closely trimmed ginger beard. A difference fostered by both professional and personal challenges.

Puckhaber’s recruiting philosophy is grounded in six years of experience at St. Lawrence, the first two as the offensive line coach, the last four as the team’s offensive coordinator.

“After we went 0-10 (in 2012), we realized we had to stop talking about football,” says Puckhaber, who insists that everyone call him Puck. “With our next recruiting class, we only talked about the school and academics. We brought in a group of players who enter their senior year with a 23-8 record over the last three years with four potential All-Americans in that class alone.”

That change in focus might seem counterintuitive, especially after a dismal season. But Puckhaber says football should only be a small part of his players’ St. Lawrence experience. 

“I want football to be the second or third thing that they’re looking at in a college,” says Puckhaber. “Our players’ top priority isn’t 10 Saturdays in the fall. It’s getting a degree and being successful for the next 40 years of their lives. But the kids who are good at setting and reaching important life goals also happen to have the personality traits that make them good football players, as well.”

If Puckhaber’s recruiting philosophy differs from most of his fellow college football coaches, it’s because his life experiences are different. In 2009, at age 29, Puckhaber was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. He started chemotherapy treatments immediately and had two bone marrow transplants. He continued maintenance chemotherapy treatments, once a month to start, then once every three months, for six years. He is no longer undergoing treatment, but multiple myeloma is a disease that doesn’t really go away. He still has to closely monitor his health and has his bloodwork checked every four months.

When he got the diagnosis, Puckhaber had been out of coaching and working in pharmaceutical sales for about two years. While he was doing well financially, he wasn’t happy. After his treatment was complete, Mark Raymond, his defensive coordinator during his playing days at Ithaca College, called to tell him he’d accepted the head coaching job at St. Lawrence and to ask if he wanted to be his offensive line coach.

“I thought about it for about seven seconds and then I said ‘Yep, I’m in.’” says Puckhaber. 

Six years later, Puckhaber is still laser focused on what he wants out of life. Last spring, when Raymond told Director of Athletics and Recreation Bob Durocher he was leaving, Puckhaber was standing outside the office door so he could tell Durocher immediately that he wanted the job.

Despite his success running the Saints’ offense and an endorsement from Raymond, the job wasn’t handed to Puckhaber; a national search was conducted and several candidates were brought on campus for interviews. In the end, Puckhaber was the best candidate because he’s not only a great coach, but also because he views football and life in general through a different lens.

“I know the type of players we have, I know the culture of the school, I know what Canton is,” says Puckhaber, who married women’s hockey alumna Barat Wolfe ’04 last fall. “This was the only job I applied for in six years; this is the only place I wanted to be.”