Hand It to Him: LFC Coach Mike Dau Has More Than 50 National Titles
By Ean Goldstein
On an overcast November day in 1952, an aspiring college basketball player brought a friend to visit Lake Forest College. That friend was Mike Dau, and after that visit, the college would never be the same.
“I got out of that car, and I looked around and I said, ‘This looks like what a college should look like,” Dau recalled about seeing the beautiful setting.
"It’s not a game for the faint of heart," says Lake Forest College's Mike Dau about handball.
After overcoming academic issues, Dau finally graduated in 1958. Following a few years in the Marine Corps and after serving as a teacher in Highland Park and Mundelein, Dau returned to Lake Forest College in 1964 as a residence director at Gregory Hall and assistant football coach. Nearly 60 years later, Dau has seemingly held every possible title at the college -- including athletic director -- and he launched the handball team, which has won 51 national championships since the program’s inception in 1968.
Despite being a little-known sport in the United States, it came naturally to Dau from the first time he played. “I played one match while I was in college with a classmate of mine at the Waukegan YMCA,” Dau remembered. “And I realized I probably wasn’t going to play any more football after I graduated. I was looking for something competitive, challenging, and physically taxing, and handball fit that bill.”
Dau continued to play and fall in love with handball in the Marine Corps and at the Evanston Y after returning to civilian life. He gradually improved his skills significantly after playing some of the best players in the country.
In 1968, when building the new Sports and Recreation Center on the Lake Forest College campus, Dau told then-Athletic Director Nick Wasylik that if he built a few handball courts, he’d try to start a handball team at Lake Forest. Wasylik agreed, and Dau recruited twin brothers from New York City, a player from upstate New York, and a player from St. Louis to make up the first Lake Forest Handball team.
“The essence of the game is quite simple,” the 87-year-old coach said, adding that, “the difficulty of the game is dealing with the ball reflecting off walls, or the ceiling, or the back wall.” Handball is played in several different variations, including both singles and doubles, and using only one wall, typically played outside, and either three or four wall, played inside.
“It’s a game that requires skills with both hands,” Dau said. “It’s a physically taxing game that requires excellent hand-eye discipline, self-control, and knowing where to place the ball every time you hit it. It’s not a game for the faint of heart.”
Over the years, Dau has led Lake Forest College to compete with the likes of much bigger state schools, such as Texas and Tennessee, for handball national championships. He’s been able to do this in large part thanks to LFC’s strong facilities compared to other small colleges in the area, as well as his dedication to the sport, and the many handball clinics he’s ran across the United States and Canada. According to Dau, “Here in the Midwest, we don’t have to take a backseat to anybody.”
Dau thinks back to the memories that have kept him in Lake Forest, as well as what the college and the city means to him. He thinks often of his late wife, Paula. They reconnected after being college sweethearts at Lake Forest and enjoyed a 30-year marriage before her death in 2016.
“Over the years,” Dau reminisced, “we’ve had literally dozens of kids live with us because they were in financial problems and couldn’t handle it. And so we housed them, fed them. She nursed them, loved them, took care of them, became a second mother. It was the happiest time of my life.”
As someone who’s been in Lake Forest for so long, Dau has certainly had tons of experiences from the city and college themselves changing to all that he’s learned in life. “Life is full of ups and downs, ins and outs” Dau said. “We only get so much time on this planet, and you better make the most of it. You get to be my age and you have a greater appreciation for life than you've ever had and a greater, appreciation, hopefully, for the life you've lived.”