Comley Returns to Mountaintop
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
ST. LOUIS Three years of his tenure at Michigan State was gone, and Rick Comley was hearing the grumblings.
In fact, he doesn't even try to hide from them.
An avid reader of every college hockey article he can get his hands on, Comley knew that Spartans fans, writers and other pundits were starting to wonder whether he could win at Michigan State — whether the game had passed him by — whether the pressure of taking over for legendary Ron Mason, the winningest coach in NCAA history, was too much.
And then Michigan State made a run to the East Regional final, and the grumblings subsided, and an emotional Comley left last season with some satisfaction.
But this year's up-and-down campaign, with a less-talented group, brought all the grumbling back to the surface.
Until Saturday night.
Now Comley, he of 714 career wins, has as many national titles as Mason, and is one of three coaches to win a national title at two different schools.
"It was written everywhere. I mean, obviously I read College Hockey News, U.S. College Hockey, Inside College — it's been out there," Comley said. "But I know that. And we hadn't won at the level everybody wanted. And if we hadn't won last year, I probably wouldn't be here this year. ... If we'd gone 20-17 again or something.
"But I'm not sure I would've wanted to stay, to be honest with you. The program means too much to me to be a 'survivor.' I don't want that. You can't win it every year, but I want to walk around that town proud and I want people to be proud of us, and I want to be accepted as somebody they like and want there."
Consider that wish fulfilled.
But what makes Comley so engaging as a coach — someone who for decades has been a gentleman and a joy to deal with — is his honesty, and that he 'gets it.' He's not afraid to learn, to admit mistakes. And so when he displays an earnest pride, it's earned, and comes with just enough humility that goes with the territory of this often humbling game of hockey and of life.
Comley came to Michigan State from Northern Michigan, where he won a national title in 1991, and knew the criticisms of Mason's final years — the team had gotten too defensive. Comley tried to change things, quickly. But hockey is different now.
"It's not 1991. My fourth-line center there (at Northern Michigan) had 62 points. It's a different game today," Comley said.
"If I could do it again, I wouldn't try to change it so quick. Everybody wanted the style changed, and I tried to change the style before I could change the bodies. But in the end, we haven't changed very much. Because what I found out is, there's a certain level of player we can recruit. Where maybe BC gets a different kind of kid, or Minnesota does or Michigan does, and I think I've rallied around the style that I believe in, which isn't quite as defensive as it used to be, but is very sound."
At age 61, Comley is not afraid to keep learning.
"You learn. That's why I read constantly, every article I can get my hands on," Comley said. "Because I want to read coaches, what coaches say and how coaches deal with things. That's why I read articles, and (web) sites. Because I'm interested in opinions. I don't always agree with them, but I do (read them)."
In fact, it was an article about New York Islanders coach Ted Nolan that may have made MSU's season. Comley read Nolan, quoting Fred Shero, coach of two Stanley Cup champs in the 1970s with Philadelphia, saying, "Once you pick your team, coach it. Don't wish for what isn't there."
"I think I spent half the year saying, 'God, I wish we had an offensive defenseman, or I wish we had a better forward for our third line," Comley said. "And I read that article, and I just said, 'Forget it. Go after it with what we have.'"
One person who never stopped believing was the legend, who is also his boss.
"That was never going to happen," Mason said about the idea of Comley being let go last season. "That was strictly rumor, talk radio and all the other garbage out there that isn't true. That was never going to be the case.
"I knew the kind of person he was, I knew him as a student-athlete, his record speaks for itself. You're just not going to come into Michigan State and replace a guy that was there 23 years, because no two people are alike."
His players rallied around him Saturday night, too. Chris Lawrence, the only senior forward left on the roster after last season, admitted there were a lot of ups and downs and doubts around the program. But he didn't believe anyone ever gave up on Comley — even through issues like the departure of talented defenseman A.J. Thelan early in Comley's tenure, and last year when reigning No. 1 goalie Dominic Vicari left the program after Jeff Lerg won his job.
"That wasn't really coach, that was just a few bad decisions that A.J. made and that had to be done I think," Lawrence said. "But A.J.'s a great kid and, whatever, that's in the past.
"But when a team goes up down, certainly there's fingers being pointed everywhere — guys, coaches — fans are going to point everywhere, and he's the head guy and he's probably going to get the blame."
Lawrence was speaking for all of the players, many of whom said similar things. But Lawrence had the most perspective.
"Dom had an injury and Jeff went on a run, and coach couldn't make a move with the run Jeff was on," Lawrence said. "And Dom wasn't happy about it but he handled it well and made a decision for himself. It's crazy. Some of the stuff hasn't come out and never will come out about all the ups and downs of some of the individual players and tough times. But this is just a really proud moment for all of us."
And Mason, who coached Comley at Lake Superior State and picked him to replace him as coach there when Mason left for Bowling Green, couldn't help but be proud papa.
"It puts a stamp on it, and I'm so happy for him and these guys because they were probably a little better team last year," Mason said, "but when it comes down to it, you have to win the games — and we won the games."