Red Berenson finally announced his retirement this afternoon, after 33 seasons behind the bench for the University of Michigan. It was an incredible career that took Michigan from a struggling program to one of the strongest, most consistent programs in the NCAA. But time marches, and a new face will be behind the Michigan bench for the first time in over three decades next season. Who will it be?
First for some context. It maybe goes without saying, but this is a a very important hire for Michigan. This will be the first major hire for Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel, and one that will be heavily scrutinized by Michigan fans. Manuel is already behind the eight ball with some, due to the fact that he is allegedly responsible for asking Berenson to return for one more year rather than retiring at the end of last season. I’m not sure a new head coach would have changed Michigan’s fortunes all that much for this season. But as final acts go, last year would have been as close to the the perfect, poetic ending to Berenson’s incredible career as could reasonably be expected(And who knows, maybe it will be some day when we all collectively agree to pretend the latter half of 2016 never happened). Instead, we get the final image of Red nearly reduced to tears after his team was destroyed by Wisconsin earlier this year.
It also comes at an interesting time in the college hockey world. The dream of college hockey someday turning into a profit-generating powerhouse akin to basketball or football some had when the Big Ten hockey conference was formed has died a swift, and rather embarrassing death. The question Michigan--and many other schools around the country--will be facing is whether it is worth spending money to be a major college hockey power, knowing that money likely isn’t coming back, especially if there’s a chance of greater return by spending it on football or basketball.
Regardless, what Manuel does with this hire likely sets the tone of his tenure as athletic director, especially since the two major programs at Michigan seem set in terms of coaching for the foreseeable future.
The good news for Michigan is that Wisconsin reset the market for coaching salary last season, when they gave Tony Granato a contract worth $500,000 per year. It’s no guarantee Michigan is willing to shell out that kind of money--the difference in attendance for Wisconsin between hiring Granato and keeping Mike Eaves was probably equivalent to a full Yost Arena vs. a completely empty Yost, so there isn’t quite the same incentive--but if Michigan did decide to go that route, they’d have no trouble finding the money.
We’ll start with the obvious. I don’t think it will be Mel Pearson. The feeling I’ve gotten from people on both sides of the situation is that two or three years ago, it would have been a done deal. But today, I’m not sure it makes much sense for either party.
Mel Pearson is 58 years old now, and I don’t think Michigan is interested in hiring a guy that is likely there less than a decade. For Pearson, he’s comfortable at Tech and can ride out the rest of his career with little expectations. He’s beloved in Houghton and even though he’s unlikely to have much national success, it would be almost impossible for Tech to finish outside the top four in the WCHA as the conference now stands. If he left for Michigan, there’s no guarantee he would turn Michigan’s program around and in three or four years, could find himself as a man without a country.
Beyond Pearson, I see two classes of candidates for the Michigan job, and think the search could go in one of two directions.
The first class are guys with no connections to the Michigan program, but a resume of success that would necessitate Michigan backing up their dump truck full of money and asking them to grab as much as they can take.
The guys I would put in that category would be Jim Montgomery at Denver, Nate Leaman at Providence, Norm Bazin at UMass Lowell and Jeff Blashill, if he were let go by the Detroit Red Wings. Maybe throw UConn’s Mike Cavanaugh into the mix too, who Warde Manuel hired to lead UConn’s program, though not to the same extent as the other four on the list.
I have no idea if any of those guys would be interested in taking the Michigan job. But if Michigan is really serious about making the best possible hire, they should at least make a competitive offer and hear a “No” from them first before making their decision.
As I said earlier on Monday, Montgomery has been at the top of my list for a while, but has likely played his way out of Michigan’s league. There’s no way Michigan is going to match NHL money, and Denver winning a national title likely prompts them to come close enough to matching whatever Michigan might offer.
The second group would be guys that don’t have as strong of a resume, but would have an advantage thanks to a connection to the program. That group would be current assistant coach Brian Wiseman, current USHL head coach/GM Bill Muckalt. Muckalt would likely have the advantage there, having head coaching experience and running a USHL franchise in addition to NCAA assistant coaching experience. A bigger change in direction might be what is best for Michigan’s program as well after the past few seasons.
If Michigan ended up with this type of hire, it certainly could work out, but the likelihood seems way less than if they hired out of the first group.
Whoever ends up getting hired won’t have an easy job. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done to turn Michigan’s program around, nevermind the fact that they’ll be replacing a legend. But it’s also one of the most attractive, highest-profile jobs in the country, and Michigan certainly has the resources, if they wish to use them, to be a national powerhouse. It will be fascinating to see who ends up in the position, and what they’re able to do with the job.