I didn't get the chance to talk about this earlier in the week, but of the six WCHA programs that have already seen their season end, three of them--Minnesota, Minnesota State, and Michigan Tech-- had fanbases making pretty legitimate arguments for the removal of their coach. For a league that hasn't had a new coach since Dave Shyiak and Bob Motzko came into the league in 2005, potentially seeing 25% of the head coaching gigs in the league turn over is a pretty noteworthy thing.
We'll start with Minnesota, where Don Lucia held his end-of-season press conference earlier this morning. It seemed most Gopher fans were hoping for nothing less than Lucia walking in with John Hill's scalp in his right hand, and a samurai sword to commit seppuku in the left. Instead, they got what has become the normal "We know we weren't very good and we have to be better in the future" quotes from Lucia.
After meeting with Minnesota athletic director Joel Maturi on Monday, it was reported that Lucia will be offered a three-year contract extension. Lucia wants to leave Minnesota some day on his own terms, and with the program in good shape. But at the same time, he's just taken the program through one of, if not the worst four-year periods in the programs history. At what point do these down years stop being considered a fluke for Minnesota?
It's also worth considering how Minnesota's other two major sports factor into this. With both the football and basketball seasons being disasters at Minnesota, it may have taken some heat off Lucia from the athletic department, as they scrambled to hire a new football coach and keep their basketball coach. But is also increased the heat from the fanbase as they yearned for something positive from what is usually their most reliable program.
I guess in the end I'm not totally surprised Lucia won't be let go. He probably should be based on performance, but I can also understand the feeling of how hard it is to cut someone that has proven they can be an excellent coach. He's maybe over-stayed his welcome as head coach, but he's also someone that has earned the right to do so, and earned the right to a couple extra cracks at redeeming himself.
Michigan Tech also resolved their head coaching uncertainty on Wednesday, though with a different result. After a nightmare 4-30-4 season that included only a single win after the first weekend of the WCHA regular season, Jamie Russell resigned as head coach of Michigan Tech. It's sad to see that things didn't work out with him and Michigan Tech because one would be hard-pressed to find a more liked and respected coach than Russell, but ultimately Michigan Tech sunk to such a low level this past season that a change had to be made.
It's true that Michigan Tech probably would have at least been competitive in the WCHA if they hadn't been hit by a freakish string of injuries. And with this year's large freshman class, next year's recruiting class with Tanner Kero, and the class after that with Jujhar Khaira, Tech is a position to have one of the most exciting, and deepest groups of forwards the team has seen in decades. But they were a program that needed to completely start fresh after such a terrible season. Whoever replaces Russell will have a lot more to work with than Russell ever had at Tech, and they'll have Jamie Russell to thank for that when they start receiving praise for turning the program around.
That just leaves Minnesota State and the future of head coach Troy Jutting unresolved. It's unlikely any move would be made this offseason, with Jutting still having two years left on a four-year contract extension, and Minnesota State's athletic department in a pretty dire financial situation. But it's a move that probably should be made with the Mavericks carrying a league-worst drought of 8 seasons without winning a WCHA playoff series, and a team that finished a dreadful 11th place in the conference and four games below .500 overall.
It's tough to question his ability to get the most out of his players, but the talent he and his staff have recruited, especially on the blue line in recent years, has been sub-par. The Mavericks were paper-thin on defense all year, with a rotation of only four players in key times, and perhaps consequently, gave up game-tying goals in the third period 12 different times this season, including both of their playoff losses.
Jutting is in a similar situation, albeit with much less success, as Don Lucia. His long tenure at Minnesota State makes it all the more difficult to unseat him, but at a certain point, a change has to be made if the status quo keeps producing the same unacceptable results. Attendance figures over the past few years have proven that about 25% of MSU's potential fanbase will show up to watch a competitive team fighting for home ice in the playoffs, but not a bottom-feeder. Perhaps those economics will be the driving factor, should any decision be made.