Last Saturday morning I was at Mariucci with Jermo and the lovely Mrs. Jermo watching his alma mater take on Breck in the Single A boys hockey consolation game. Sitting in the top row of section 21, I looked up at all the banners hanging from the rafters that celebrated the proud and strong winning tradition of Gopher hockey: the 5 NCAA titles, the 19 Frozen Four appearances, 12 WCHA regular season titles, and 14 WCHA tournament titles. Walking through the concourse it's pretty incredible to see the plaques and displays for the many, many great players that have donned the Maroon and Gold, striving to win the conference and bring home a national championship year after year after year.
Today then marks a sad day for Gopher fans, and the program's great history, as apparently winning at a high level no longer matters. According to Roman at the Strib, athletic director Joel Maturi will offer Gopher hockey head coach Don Lucia a contract extension. Now, let me be clear this is nothing personal against Lucia; I've never met the man but I'm sure he's a great guy. He obviously knows more about hockey than 99% of the people on the planet, as he proved by winning back-to-back national titles in 2002 and 2003, and I'm sure the losing that has happened the past four seasons is killing him. I believe his recent quotes talking about how disappointed he is, and how much he wants to change things at the U and get back to winning conference and national titles. I am sure he is giving maximum effort, and he and his assistants are doing everything possible to win. I have no doubt of that whatsoever.
However, this is not about effort, and it's not about not caring enough: it's about results, and Lucia simply hasn't been getting them the past four seasons. The mediocrity we've seen under Lucia simply should not stand for the University of Minnesota's hockey program, and it should not be tolerated. This is the one program that should be competiting for conference and national titles EVERY season, the way it used to be. This is a program that in the past demanded the best, and if a coach didn't supply it then he was out- no matter how good of a guy he was, no matter how much he cared, and no matter how hard he tried.
From what I've seen on message boards and have heard on radio talk shows, Lucia still has his share of supporters. They say the mediocrity and losing is not Lucia's fault because of players leaving early for the draft, injuries and an assortment of other excuses. Here's the thing, though: EVERY college hockey program has to deal with these things! Seriously, it may come as a shock to some, but the excuses that are used for why Gopher hockey has fallen on such hard times are not at all unique to the U. Believe it or not, and if you're a Lucia supporter you might want to sit down for this because it's going to blow your mind...
...there's other programs out there who have been able to overcome these excuses and continue winning! I'll give you a moment for you to put your brain back together and grasp the wonder and awe of that statement... almost there... just about... Ok, I think we've got everybody back. Yes, as amazing as it sounds, elite programs like North Dakota, Boston College, Denver, Michigan, Wisconsin and more have remained elite programs despite the changing landscape in college hockey. They have adapted well to the fact more to players are leaving early school early- or not showing up at all- and are continuing to compete for conference and national championships on an annual basis- you know, just like the Gophers used to.
So as crazy as it sounds for those who still support Lucia, success in today's college hockey world IS possible, and there are other coaches out there that are making it happen. But you know what? In a way, his supporters are correct- it's actually NOT Lucia's fault anymore, and this contract extension offer is proof. Lucia, like any coach, loves the game and believes he has the answers, and that next year is going to be the year. He absolutely believes what he says, and that he's going to get this thing turned around. Have you ever heard a coach in a losing situation NOT say that? Have you ever heard a coach after a bad season- or in The Don's case, FOUR bad seasons- throw his hands up and say "You know what? Something's gone wrong and I just can't figure it out here. They should fire me and bring in someone else"? OF COURSE NOT! They're coaches! It's ingrained in their minds and personalities and work ethic to teach and to improve, and they've been successful because they truly believe no matter how bad things get and not matter how big the mountain of evidence to the contrary, they can get it turned around.
So while I can blame Don Lucia for the losing that's happened here the past four years, I can't blame him if it continues. It's not Lucia's fault he'll continue to be the coach here next year because, if it were up to him, he'd be here forever. It reminds me of the Minnesota Timberwolves, back when Kevin McHale was VP of basketball operations and year after year after year he would prove his incompetence and complete inability to do his job, yet year after year owner Glen Taylor would gladly and willingly bring him back. After awhile, you couldn't get mad at McHale anymore because despite the obvious fact McHale was not cut out to run an NBA team, it was still being left up to him whether he wanted to do it or not. And of course, he kept doing it. It was at that time I started to realize the problem was actually Taylor for enabling him and for failing to make the obvious decision that he should be fired. Taylor finally did fire McHale after 12 years, and has followed that up by hiring David Kahn, who also has demonstrated he shouldn't be running an NBA team. You have to stop blaming the coaches or GM's when the person responsible for their jobs refuses to hold them accountable.
Which brings us back to Don Lucia and Golden Gopher hockey. Yes, Lucia won back-to-back national titles, and two conference titles, but in the past four seasons for what is supposed to be the premier program in all of college hockey, Lucia is 70-63-20 overall, and just 46-47-19 in the WCHA. That's right, what in the past was supposed to be the best program in college hockey is BELOW .500 in conference play the past four seasons! A coach at UND, DU, Michigan, Boston College or Wisconsin wouldn't have been allowed to get through three seasons like that, yet not only did Don Lucia make it through four, but he's getting a contract extension.
It's at this point that we need to place the blame squarely at the feet of the man allowing a once proud program- heck, one we decided a few weeks ago was what Minnesota was supposed to be known for- to become average at best. Despite the evidence just provided as to why Don Lucia is not the man to continue leading Gopher hockey, AD Joel Maturi said this:
"We didn't talk about any [contract] details," Maturi said. "I just wanted him to know I wanted him back as our hockey coach next year."
Wait, what? Why would Maturi want him back next year? Doesn't he care about winning?
"We obviously need to win more," Maturi said, "but we will work hard together to change that. Don has done a lot of things right. He deserves the opportunity to coach the hockey team."
And there you have it. He's had the worst four year stretch of any Gopher hockey coach ever, but he's apparently done enough things right and deserves to keep coaching. FBT wrote about it this morning in his AM Coffee Links, and as usual, it's brilliant:
Here’s an idea for Joel or the next Gopher AD: let the Regents/Kaler worry about the operations of first-rate academic institution and you focus on running a department that gets butts in the stands to generate the maximum revenue possible, and by stands, I mean the seats at The Bank, The Barn and Mariucci. Give the fans something they can cheer about and fork over hard earned cash into the cofers of the AD’s war chest towards. Provide a reason for the whales in the luxury boxes and premo seats to keep spending thousands of dollars a year and potentially donate huge sums of money to the U’s athletics endowment. But most of all, leave the provincalist ideas on the self and become the rabid bulldog needed to run a major D1 athletics department. If you can’t, step aside and allow Kaler to find some who will.
EXACTLY! Maturi is too busy being a nice guy and as long as you're a coach like Lucia who says all the right things, that's good enough for Joel. Results? What results? These guys care and gosh darnit they're trying hard! Who cares if they're not winning? Not Joel. He's proven with this contract extension offer that he doesn't care about results and he doesn't care about revenue. How else to explain the empty seats last year in the two year old TCF Bank stadium, and not just empty seats but empty SUITES-7 of them!- for a Gopher hockey playoff game? AS FBT says, Maturi clearly lacks the understanding of what his role of athletic director is. If he wants to be everybody's friend and glad-hand his way around things without caring one iota about winning and producing revenue, then please, go be an AD at a high school or a small college somewhere in his beloved state of Wisconsin. But he should not be running a Big Ten athletic department, especially one that needs all the revenue it can get.
This contract extension is a clear message that winning no longer matters for the University of Minnesota's revenue generating sports, and it means our once proud hockey program will continue to wallow in mediocrity as long as Joel Maturi is in charge. For him, effort and and being a nice guy is more important than doing his job, and until we get a new athletic director, the State of Hockey's premier program will be leaving a legacy of losing instead of winning.