A college hockey coach was fired on Sunday.
That may not seem like a big deal in athletics these days.
Coaches come and go quickly. Many are in search for their next big paycheck. Others are bounced because of intense pressures to win by rabid fan bases.
But college hockey has been different.
When UMass let go of coach John Micheletto on Sunday, he became the first college hockey coach to be fired in nearly two years.
The last one was Princeton’s Bob Prier, who was let go after three subpar seasons in May 2014.
Not a single one of the 60 college hockey coaches were fired after last season. The only coaching change occurred when North Dakota’s Dave Hakstol accepted a job to become the head coach of the Philadelphia Flyers.
That job opening lasted about 120 minutes. Two hours after Philadelphia’s announcement, UND agreed to terms to elevate assistant coach Brad Berry to the head job.
Exactly 50 percent of all college hockey coaches have been at their current position for a decade or longer.
It’s a staggering difference from FBS college football, where only 7 percent of coaches have been at their position for a decade or Division I men’s basketball, where 18.4 percent have done it.
No other major college sport—baseball (38.6 percent), women’s college hockey (28.6), women’s college basketball (23.2) or FCS football (15.6) come close to the retention rates of college hockey.
In the pros, lifespans for coaches are even shorter. Not a single NHL head coach has been at his job for longer than a decade. Of the 138 major pro sports teams (NHL, NBA, MLB, NFL, WNBA) only six are at the 10-plus year mark.
What makes college hockey different?
“There are two real destination coaching jobs in hockey, the NHL and the NCAA,” College Hockey Inc., executive director Mike Snee said. “I think the environment of a college coach is very attractive. It’s very desirable.
“We do include that in our informational presentation (for prospects). When you commit to a program, you’re committing to a coach. And it’s very likely that you will have the same coach when you’re a senior as when you’re a freshman.”
Why the longevity?
When Gary Wright accepted the head coaching job at American International College in 1984, he didn’t expect it to become a longterm job.
He applied to a few other jobs in his first few years, but then settled in and has been there ever since. He just completed his 32nd season.
Along with Michigan coach Red Berenson, they are the deans of college hockey.
“This has been my workplace for a long time,” said Wright, who didn’t coach against Berenson until Year No. 30. “Obviously, I’m getting up there at this point now. I certainly have enjoyed the profession. My dad was a coach at the prep school level and I’ve been able to carve out a pretty long career. I don’t know how much longer I’ll do it, though.”
Including 32-year veterans Berenson and Wright, a total of nine coaches (15 percent) have been at their jobs for 21-plus years.
Different coaches have different theories for the longevity.
Berry, who just led North Dakota to the Penrose Cup as National Collegiate Hockey Conference champions, has had at least two offers to join NHL teams as an assistant coach in the last three years, according to multiple sources. But he has opted to stay in Grand Forks instead.
For him, it’s the allure of building a team.
“College hockey is special in the fact that you have a chance to recruit the players and have a hand in the character and culture you build,” said Berry, who has previously been an assistant with the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets and the American Hockey League’s Manitoba Moose. “I think that’s special. I think that’s why a lot of coaches who have a chance to move on to pro hockey stay in college, because you’re the general manager and you’re the coach.”
Minnesota coach Don Lucia, who is in his 17th season with the Gophers and his 29th as an NCAA head coach, said the landscape doesn’t shift very often.
“There aren’t 300 schools playing hockey, so you don’t move around from job to job,” Lucia said. “That’s not as much of an option. You also don’t see a lot of East to West movement. If you grew up on the East Coast, you coach on the East Coast. If you grew up in the Midwest, that’s where you end up. So, now you’re talking 25 jobs.”
Lucia also thinks that college hockey may be a more welcoming atmosphere than other college sports.
“I think our body, for the most part, is very ethical,” Lucia said. “There’s not a lot of rule breaking. I think that helps. I think the kids graduate. We deal with a good element of people in our fraternity. They run their programs the right way.”
Athletic departments also are wary of paying buyouts.
UMass will owe Micheletto more than $250,000 next season, even though he’s not coaching. That’s not a price most schools are able to pay in the current economic climate.
The big college hockey schools are trying to scrounge up funds to pay for Full Cost of Attendance Scholarships in order to remain competitive. There’s not much money sitting around to pay coaches not to work.
Some schools, like Minnesota, are already paying buyouts to coaches in other sports—the Gophers spent more than $3 million paying Tubby Smith not to work in 2014—and don’t want to add on to that figure. Prior to that, the Gophers spent $600,000 buying out football coach Tim Brewster.
Massive buyouts have become commonplace in football and basketball.
“In football, you only play one game a weekend,” Lucia said. “So there’s so much pressure to win. It’s such big money. Even hockey is getting to that. It’s getting more and more difficult with social media. The days of being some place for 20 years, might not exist anymore in the future.”
Summer of upheaval?
Micheletto’s ouster may be the first domino to fall in a summer of change for college hockey.
All eyes will be on the Big Ten.
Berenson, a fixture at Michigan for more than three decades, is in the final year of his contract. It is set to expire at the end of the season. When he signed his last extension four years ago, Berenson said this would be his final contract. He turned 76 years old in December.
In Wisconsin, coach Mike Eaves has drawn the ire of Badger fans after a second-straight last place finish in the Big Ten.
Average paid attendance at the Kohl Center has plummeted from 13,226 in 2010-11 to 8,849 this season. In his 14 years at the helm, the Badgers have one national title (2006), but have never won a regular-season conference title.
In East Lansing, Mich., fifth-year coach Tom Anastos hasn’t been able to rebuild the Spartans as fast as fans demand. Michigan State hasn’t reached the NCAA tournament since 2012 and hasn’t won a game in the NCAAs since 2008.
And in Minnesota, some fans and alumni are clamoring for a coaching change, even though Lucia could wrap up his fifth straight conference championship this weekend.
Lucia acknowledged that the pressure on coaches is much greater these days. He pointed to Hakstol, who reached the NCAA Frozen Four seven times during his 11 seasons at UND but didn’t win a national championship.
“He did a phenomenal job, but for some, that wasn’t enough,” Lucia said. “You can’t win every game every year.
“We want to be successful. We want our kids to graduate. All of that plays into it. But it’s going to be hard as we move forward. It’s more difficult than it ever has been. I think the days of seeing a Red Berenson at the same school for 30 years-plus are probably over.”