Dear Loyal Readers,
Thanks for your patience! As you might know, I’m buried deep in the Writer’s Cave these days, finishing not one but two books. The first I wrote with ESPN’s late John Saunders, titled Playing Hurt: My Journey from Hope to Despair, which will come out August 7. The second, on the Halifax Explosion (look it up – it’s amazing) will hit the shelves on November 7. So, I’ve been a busy boy! I’ll be touring coast-to-coast for those in the fall, too, so I hope to see you then!
So you’re not likely to see many more Bacon Blogs until I finish Halifax in June, but now you know why! Plenty more to come after that.
Thanks for your patience, and support! Hope to see you this fall.
Now, onto our show!
This week, the University of Michigan did something it hasn’t had to do in 33 years: hire a new hockey coach.
The last time the job opened was 1984. Athletic director Don Canham heard Red Berenson was on campus moving his oldest son, Gordie, into his dorm room. Canham called Berenson to his office, offered him the job for the third time, and Berenson finally took it.
If he hadn’t, it’s not clear who Canham could have hired. After all, the guy Michigan just fired was a failed former high school hockey coach. Michigan was at the bottom of a glorified bus league, with an empty building, and nothing to brag about.
Six years later, Berenson’s teams started a streak of 23 straight NCAA tournaments – still a national record, and it’s not even close. But when Berenson turned 70, seven years ago, everyone started wondering when he would retire – and who would follow him.
Unlike 1984, Michigan can now offer one of the most appealing positions in hockey – pro or college. When former Red Wing coach Mike Babcock said Michigan would have been a dream job for him, he wasn’t joking. If Berenson had stepped down two years ago, when Babcock left the Red Wings, Babcock might very well be Michigan’s coach.
It’s not clear if Michigan offered any NHL coaches the job this time around. It is clear they didn’t have to. They had four obvious candidates: current assistant coaches Billy Powers and Brian Wiseman, and Billy Muckalt, who’s coaching junior hockey. All three played for Berenson.
A fourth candidate, Mel Pearson, assisted Berenson for 23 years. But when Pearson turned down Miami of Ohio’s offer to become their head coach in 1999, I thought Pearson was destined to be a lifetime assistant.
Six years ago he surprised me again when he accepted the top job at Michigan Tech, his alma mater. The Huskies hadn’t made it to the NCAA tournament since 1981, when Pearson was a senior. Honestly, I thought Mel might have bitten off too much, but he got the Huskies back in the tournament two of the last three years. The man can coach.
So, with all the suspense of the other shoe dropping, Michigan hired Pearson. The current players, the former players, and almost all of the fans are happy. But a few grumbled – this is Michigan, after all — that the Wolverines should have gotten a bigger name.
Maybe. But that misses the point. College hockey ain’t pro hockey. You can’t just fire players you don’t like. You’re pretty much stuck with them for four years, and they’re pretty much stuck with you. So coaches have to get to know their players, understand them, and build relationships to get them to play their best.
Another big difference: in pro sports you can plug in a great coach in a great franchise like a toaster, and the toast will pop up, right on time.
But the best college programs have cultures unique to their school, so it’s not as simple as plugging in a toaster. It’s as complicated as performing a heart transplant. You have to make sure your new leader has the right blood type, the right sized heart, and everyone does everything they can to make sure the new organ is not rejected as a foreign body. If any of that goes wrong, things can turn ugly, and fast.
So when Michigan hired Mel Pearson, they got everything they wanted: a proven college head coach who knows Michigan, and Michigan knows him.
I suppose Michigan could have gotten a bigger name, but not a better fit. This is going to work.
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Please join the conversation, but remember: I run only those letters from those who are not profane or insane, and who include their FULL name.
My latest book, “ENDZONE: The Rise, Fall and Return of Michigan Football,” debuted at #6 on the New York Times’ Bestseller List, and is still going very strong. The paperback version,with 57 pages of new interviews with Harbaugh and others, is out. Literati and Nicola’s have signed copies
Radio stuff: On Friday mornings, these commentaries run at 8:50 on Michigan Radio (91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit and Flint, and 104.1 Grand Rapids), and a few minutes later, I join Sam Webb and Ira Weintraub LIVE from 9:05 to 9:25 on WTKA.com, 1050 AM.
I also join Michigan Radio’s great Cynthia Canty on her afternoon Stateside show every Monday for a few minutes, and occasionally on NPR’s Morning Edition, and the afternoon Here & Now show. Check ’em out!
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