Mike Eaves was relieved of his duties as head hockey coach at Wisconsin today. Any time a coach is fired, it's sad--losing a job is never easy, and doing so in very public fashion is doubly hard--but is usually the right decision.
Today's decision, while hard, was necessary. Eaves overall tenure at Wisconsin was a positive one, but the misery of the past two years was simply inescapable. Last night--what we now know was his final night behind the Wisconsin bench--was the perfect juxtaposition for me. In his post-game press conference, a haggard looking Eaves gave a very professional press conference, talking about how difficult it was for his seniors to play their last game, and how quickly the time goes. One could read into the subtext there of Eaves talking about himself as much as the players. I'm not so sure though. I left that press conference feeling like Mike Eaves is a good coach, a good person, and someone that cared very deeply about his players. But I also couldn't shake the feeling that the Wisconsin hockey team I watched last night was not what a Wisconsin hockey team should look like.
Personally, I'm sad to see Eaves go. Whatever else you want to say about him, he was one of the great characters in college hockey. Rarely are post-game press conferences worth the extra 30 minutes of my time, but amid a sea of generic coach quotes, Eaves had a way of phrasing things that often made me stop, think, and laugh.
His teams didn't run into a hot goalie; they "couldn't solve the riddle of young Mr. Lee in goal". Every other coach, when describing something, talks about 'hockey,' Eaves talked about 'athletics,' because, as he often said, it didn't matter if they were playing hockey or tiddlywinks. Eaves pronunciation of 'tiddlywinks' is among what I'll miss the most about him. His teams put plenty of "hay in the barn". He's the only coach I've ever heard use the word 'wacky'.
Last week, on an unrelated search, I ran across this Eaves gem on a pair of disallowed Wisconsin goals:
"I’m not going to go down that path," he said. "Obviously they were critical times in the game. Unless I was willing to give you a $1,000 check right now — unfortunately I called my wife and she said I can’t — I’m not going to say anything about those things."
Last season's large freshman class may have been the one that ultimately doomed Eaves' tenure in Madison, but it gave him some great material.
Another great Mike Eaves quote, though I have no idea what the puppies are trying to figure out: pic.twitter.com/BrM35DSxcZ— Chris Dilks (@ChrisDilks) September 24, 2014
And inevitably, when things went things poorly with that box of puppies...
Eaves somehow just hit the sweet spot of super serious demeanor, combined with enough goofiness to be hilarious. A video clip of him staring could be a laugh riot:
Current state of Wisconsin hockey pic.twitter.com/NaLlEy2PLp— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) March 18, 2016
It would be funny to see any college hockey head coach try to learn the Nae Nae, just out of the sheer awkwardness of it. But Eaves was by far the funniest because of the sheer enthusiasm he attacked it with:
What I'll miss most, and what makes today so hard, is that Eaves felt like a real, three-dimensional person. Most will remember the glowering figured behind the bench, exhorting his team to grind out low-scoring wins with trap-based hockey. But there was a lot more to him than that, and the rare glimpses of that made him endlessly fascinating.
That's why my absolute favorite Mike Eaves quote might be in this video: "I think I'm just a big kid, honestly."
I can't argue that the decision to fire Eaves was the right one. It was. But that doesn't make the day any less sad.