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What to Make of Western Michigan?

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Jim Culhane hasn't always been a real popular at Western MIchigan. If the majority of their fans had their way--and their athletic department had the money--he probably would have been fired long ago. At the midway point of the CCHA season, I mentioned how hard it would be to justifty keeping him around.

But then a funny thing happened on the way to Culhane's inevitable execution. The Broncos managed to take 12 points--a pretty significant amount when you're talking about teams at the bottom of the standings-- in their final 8 league games, and somehow ended the season in 7th place, and hosting a first round playoff series.

So what exactly do you make of Western Michigan's season? They weren't a very good team by any stretch of the imagination. They finished the regular season with a 12-17-7 record, and a 9-13-6 conference record. They had a -11 goal differential in conference play, and were even in goal differential in their non-conference games. Odds are pretty good that they may sneak through this first playoff series and then get hammered by whichever top four team they draw in the second round.

But at the same time, finishing in the middle of the pack in the league and hosting and winning a playoff series isn't all that terrible. They also had the leading scorer in conference play in Patrick Galivan(He would not have been my first guess for leading scorer in CCHA play. Nor my 100th.) and one of the best defensemen in the league in Tyler Ludwig.

The issue here is something probably half a dozen other programs are going to have to face when it comes to making coaching decisions. College hockey has changed over recent years. It used to be that the smaller schools could compete and win against the biggest programs in the country. That's not so much the case anymore. Even if these teams may play in the same conference, there's a pretty clear line between the major programs and the mid-majors. This year is the 15th anniversary of Lake Superior's last national championship, and since then, no school of their stature has gotten close since.

People want to judge Western Michigan and schools like them based on how they finish in their conference, but is that really fair? I'm pretty sure Western Michigan's football and basketball coaches aren't graded on how they do compared to Michigan, or Michigan State, or Notre Dame, and if they were, they probably wouldn't look that great as well.

The one exception to this would probably be Miami, who is a MAC school, but has put a huge investment into their hockey program and is seeing some nice returns. The lesson here is that you get what you pay for. Schools like Western Michigan, or Ferris State, or Bowling Green, or Lake Superior are going to have a tough time competing with college hockey's major programs. The money to do it just isn't there. So it's probably best to judge them against each other, rather than against schools that hold a big advantage over them. All the coaching in the world isn't going to change that around too much.