You can say this next coaching hire is an important one for Michigan State hockey. But it’s more than that now. Because this can no longer be a program looking to restore what it once was. It’s beyond the point of restoration.
The late Ron Mason’s shadow has no more pull with recruits than Duffy Daugherty’s did when the Spartans brought in Nick Saban as their football coach. It’s been just about that long. No one playing college hockey today remembers Mason the coach. No recruit remembers the Spartans’ last consecutive winning seasons, which, for perspective, came before the Big Ten Network existed. If that doesn’t seem that long ago, you’re getting old.
In deciding that Danton Cole wasn’t the answer – the way Tom Anastos wasn’t before him, and Rick Comley before him – MSU hockey is starting over again, another full-on reboot, another of Mason’s guys who couldn’t recreate an that wasn’t coming back.
MSU fired Cole on Tuesday after five seasons and 58 wins. There were some promising moments in the middle of his tenure, but the wheels came off at the end of this season, with the Spartans’ losing 15 of their last 16 games, which put into question whether Cole was actually making progress.
After a month of conversations, listening and evaluating and looking for reasons to believe Cole could get it done, MSU athletic director Alan Haller decided otherwise.
In announcing he was letting Cole go, Haller stated the need for a “fresh start.”
That really ought to be the mantra for the program – both in hiring its next coach and in coming to terms with what MSU hockey is in the present day. MSU is a long-struggling program which has lost much of its general MSU sports fan base and demoralized its diehards. It’s a program now competing in a league that makes it hard to separate itself. It’s a program finally with an upgraded facility that’ll help, but Munn Ice Arena will never be college hockey’s Taj Mahal.
MSU has to get out of its past and find someone with the energy, relationships and coaching chops to invigorate a program that’s largely off the map, both locally and within its sport.
With this next hire, Haller doesn’t have to win the press conference with you and me, but he’s got to land someone that makes the hockey world think, “Oh.” But in a good way.
That shouldn’t eliminate someone with MSU ties. But MSU ties should no longer be a box to check. Because it’s not helpful or relevant. Nostalgia has gotten this program nowhere.
This job is a challenge. Not a bad gig. But not one that established coaches at good programs are going to race to. This interview process might turn out to be as much about MSU selling its qualities to candidates as it is deciding between them. That’s where MSU hockey is. It has to embrace its reality. It’s asking someone to come in and do a heavy lift.
There are several ways to go about this:
One option is to try to hire one of the hot names currently in college hockey. We’re talking Minnesota State’s Mike Hastings, Quinnipiac’s Rand Pecknold, Providence’s Nate Leaman or Western Michigan’s Pat Ferschweiler. These are well-compensated coaches at winning programs (Minnesota State, Quinnipiac and WMU were all among the final eight schools remaining in the NCAA tournament), perhaps with hefty buyouts. But MSU does offer a larger profile institution, one with a budget supplemented by major college football. MSU should at least kick the tires on these guys. There are also coaches like American International’s Eric Lang, possibly an easier get from a smaller program. As the 16th seed in the NCAA tournament three years ago, Lange’s crew upset No. 1-ranked St. Cloud State. He’s done a lot with limited resources.
Another option is to hire someone from the pro ranks with a college background, perhaps an American Hockey League head coach looking for stability or with an itch to scratch or something to prove.
MSU could also go after an assistant coach in college or pro game who’s ready to shine, if Haller and Co. can stomach hiring a first-time head coach.
Or the Spartans could hire a USHL coach – Waterloo’s Matt Smaby or Dubuque’s Greg Brown, for example, two guys who played in the NHL, were assistants at good college programs and are now running their own show at a level that provides a lot of college hockey’s talent.
And then, of course, there’s Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill, who at points in his career has been in four of the aforementioned categories. You’ll want to at least call Blashill, who may or may not have a job in Detroit by next month. Blashill was lightning in a bottle at WMU a decade ago, a USHL coach who hired a staff he loved in Kalamazoo (including Ferschweiler) and wanted badly to build something there. He won too quickly and caught the Red Wings attention. But Blashill is still known as a development guy, with roots in the college game. You’ve got to know where he stands.
In terms of qualified alums, there’s Lake Superior State’s Damon Whitten, who played at MSU from 1997-2001 and was on Rick Comley’s staff as director of operations for a couple seasons, and Adam Nightingale, who’s a head coach with the USA Hockey National Team Development Program, where Cole was before he was hired at MSU five years ago. Nightingale, who also spent time on the Red Wings ‘and Buffalo Sabers’ staffs, played for the Spartans under Comley from 2003-05 and was MSU’s director of ops under Anastos for four seasons.
Again, it can’t be about their connection to MSU’s program. It’s has to be entirely about their ability to elevate it now.
MORE: A look at some of the MSU candidates might be considered as its next hockey coach
Perhaps nobody understands MSU’s program, where it’s been, where it stands and what it needs more than Tom Newton, who served nearly three decades on the coaching staffs of Mason, Comley and Anastos.
“It’s a little different landscape, because it’s a different league,” Newton said Tuesday. “There’s no coming up for air (in the Big Ten), there’s no what I used to refer to as cycle programs in the old CCHA. They all had great traditions at different times, they’d cycle up and they’d be good for a couple of years, and then they’d be down for a couple of years. Michigan and Michigan State were able to stay at the top of the loop the whole time. Now, it’s really tough. And (MSU is) capable of competing and being successful in that league. But they have to attract the high-level players.
“More than the relationship with the NHL teams, it’s the relationship that you have with the top advisors out there. You have to have good relationships with them. Because they’re the ones that are telling kids where to go. So your track record of developing players at a high level, that go on and have successful NHL careers, is very important.
“Get the right guy that can grind it out and bring in the right people, the right staff, that can relate to today’s kids, and is really up to speed with the game.”
That’s in Haller’s court now. This will be his third significant coaching search already, including hiring Mel Tucker before he was the athletic director.
“This just wasn’t a one-day decision,” Haller said Tuesday. “I’ve been gathering information and making sure that I’m making a decision that’s best for our student-athletes in the program and for the MSU community.”
Haller’s unwillingness to let the program wallow is commendable. Cole didn’t get an entirely fair shake – he worked for three ADs, had recruiting interrupted by a pandemic and never got to coach in or recruit to a completely renovated arena. But, after five years, it’s tough to steer a program to new heights if there’s no momentum. And there was no momentum. Cole said Tuesday he’d be ready to talk once everything was settled.
Haller didn’t want to make this move. He and Cole are two sons of Lansing of the same era, both MSU alums, each landing their dream job at their alma mater. But MSU hockey is not a program that can be left to twist. It’s too expensive. Too high-profile. It’s got too much potential – though none of that has anything to do with what the program once was.
Contact Graham Couch at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Graham_Couch.