Q&A with Rick Comley
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Rick Comley announced he was stepping down as Michigan State coach at the end of this season. He has coached 36 straight seasons in Division I, starting at Lake Superior State when he was 26 years old. He left to start Northern Michigan's program in 1976, won a national championship there in 1991, and was athletic director for 14 years. He left in 2002 to replace Ron Mason as head coach at Michigan State, and won another national championship in 2007.
CHN: The big question of course is, why now? Why did you decide to announce this yesterday?
Comley: There's been a lot of frustration. In this modern age, the way the contact is with players, the Tweets, Skype, Facebook, I honestly believed that this decision was going to be made by the end of the year. There was a lot of speculation if there was a need for a change. It was a distraction for the players. Right or wrong, doing it now gives everyone a chance to let it settle in for a couple days and get on with the rest of the year. I still think we're capable of doing something this year.
This was better than all the doubt and confusion. The players were being pounded by, 'Why aren't you winning more? Will there be a change?' Winning solves everything, and I want the program to have the success it's had. If i'm not getting it done, someone else needs to.
CHN: That's a very honest assessment. You're acknowledging the possibility the administration could've decided to make a change at the end of the year.
Comley: I think so. And it's two-sided. It's an honest and accurate assessment, and I understand it from both sides. I've been honest about what I'm providing and can provide and what we're accomplishing. I've never professsed to be perfect. I always want to do things the right way. I've had a very, very good career I'm proud of, but everyone reaches a point where it's time for a change.
CHN: So it doesn't sound like you're going to ride off into the sunset.
Comley: I don't know yet. I'm 99 percent sure I'm not going to be a head coach again. Does that mean I don't want to do anything? I don't know. I don't know what's out there. I'll keep the doors open and be receptive. I'm not 40, but I'm not 80 either. So we'll see. In the mean time, I'm going to do everything I can possibly do, and maybe everyone will relax a bit and I can help these kids this year. Maybe even more than before.
CHN: It's much harder these days with the competition and recruiting. People can't expect Michigan State to thrown down 25 wins every year like it used to. It's not necessarily a reflection on you.
Comley: There's parity in every sport. There's a perception that seven to eight programs should always be the best seven to eight. It's not as easy as it once was.
My greatest frustration is not the wins and losses or the kids. It's just the relationship to pro hockey. It's unfair under the present system not knowing who is coming back and knowing if you are recruiting the right kids. It used to be, I need a center, go get a center; you need a big guy or a small guy. Now, you try to recruit the best kid you can, as far in advance as you can, not knowing when they're coming to school or who they'll play with. So it's almost insane to judge coaches and the ability to put programs together. You almost just are judging winning year to year, because we're not judging anything on balance. If I were to see one thing change in the game it would be that relationship. Everyone is concerned about who is coming into college (from an eligibility and amateurism standpoint), I'm concerned about who is leaving.
CHN: This is certainly a problem that's been hovering over college hockey for years now. Do you see a realistic solution out there?
Comley: I was talking to the AD from CC (Ken Ralph), and he feels we should go to a baseball model. You allow a kid to be drafted and if he doesn't sign and comes to school, he cannot be drafted again (or sign with a major league team) until after his junior year. But there are college coaches that feel the players would not come then.
CHN: That's the age old argument, about whether the things that are done would make it so players never come at all. But you seem to be saying that you'd rather have that, and at least know what you're team is going to be.
Comley: I've always believed in putting together a TEAM, and making them better by bringing in what you need. And I think that's gone now.
That's the fear of younger coaches and (College Hockey Inc.'s) Paul Kelly (that more players would choose not to come at all). I'm of the other side. If kid is a good student and is not taking a lot of money, why couldn't he play college hockey? But I respect what Paul is doing.
CHN: So is this the primary reason for stepping down, or is that just part of it?
Comley: It's everything (combined). I'm 64. I still think there are people older than me that are coaching, but you should judge yourself on if you're having the level of success you should have. I'm not apologizing for it — we won a national championship. But I'm frustrated — by this early departure stuff — and I think the program is capable of doing better. It should do better. It's not that I'm tired, or don't think I can do it anymore.
CHN: You struggled for a while when you first came but were able to get through that. Was it harder this time?
Comley: I think so. It's something that's on your mind. It's been almost three years of frustration. Last year we bounced back (off a 10-win season in 2008-09) and had such high hopes for this year, and then we lost three kids (Corey Tropp, Andrew Rowe and Jeff Petry). ... I don't think Michigan State is any tougher than a lot of the high-profile schools in terms of judgment, but it's not the most pleasant thing when things aren't going well. It becomes personal. ... I'm not a big Internet guy, but you get tired of it. It comes from alumni too. And I understand people not being happy, so ...
CHN: It's happened to other coaches, like Don Lucia, who has also won two national championships. He takes it and sticks it out, but it seems like a shame that those things can drive you out.
Comley: Well, yeah, but the players — I'm not in their generation and they let me know. If you're not in their geneation, is this the right scenario?
CHN: Current players say that?
Comley: Maybe that's been my interpretation. If we were 20-2, would I do this? I don't know. The reality of the situation is, this is where we're at. In this situation here, it's the best thing for everyone. I'm not mad at anyone, I don't hold grudges. I want everyone to do well. ... It's a mutual decision. I have no bad feelings towards (AD Mark Hollis). I was an AD for 14 years.
CHN: Have you spoken to Ron Mason?
Comley: Yes, sure. He's very proud also. He wants the program to do well also. But he's removed (from the situation).
You can't lose sight of the fact that I've done this for 38 years. I started when I was 26. It's not that I feel empty. I could've done this for 10 more years. But my cup is full.
CHN: Well, how about we go down memory lane a little. Do you remember your first game coaching at Lake Superior?
Comley: You know, I don't. I remember the first game at Northern. At Superior, maybe I was just too young. I was caught up in it. It's almost like — I was a player at Lake Superior, I started young, it was more of a whirlwind there. I honestly feel I rounded out my coaching abilities when I started the program and Northern Michigan. (At LSSU), I had no background in coaching, no preparation. There were seniors on the team I had played with. I don't think that could be done today. The thing is, when they were freshmen, I was married already. I wasn't someone who was going to be going out with them. ... It was a dollar and sense thing as much as anything. I was running a dorm, coaching JV, making $7,000 a year. I had been a really good student, really good player — it was an easy hire in some ways. It was convenient. ... We won the CCHA that first year with a 5-3 record.
CHN: So what was it like going to Northern Michigan?
Comley: I had been at Northern in grad school. We really liked Marquette, and I really liked the idea of starting a program. It was a bigger school, a bigger town. We played for a national championship four years later (1980). You could tell in that third year we were getting close. The fourth year was when the first group was seniors — Don Waddell, Tom Laidlaw, Bill Joyce. You look back at the talent of that team, it's startling.
CHN: How did you put that together so quickly?
Comley: I accepted the job in late December. Then Lake Superior gave me an 8:00 class (to teach) Monday morning (for the second semester). They let me finish the year coaching. So we would play Saturday night, then I'd get in a car and drive to Detroit or Toronto (recruiting for NMU), then drive all the way back for Monday's class. We didn't have a full-time assistant. We had a (grad assistant) and I had friends in the area. We could offer people a chance to come in and play a lot.
It was a great experience. That's why we'll go back to Marquette (to live). We'll go back and get a home. It's a special place.
CHN: And then you were the athletic director. That's not easy to do both, and is probably almost impossible now.
Comley: I wouldn't recommend it to anyone. I would be AD in the morning and at noon go do hockey. One year, we had 13 sports and 10 made the NCAAs. I liked it a lot. I really enjoyed it. I liked that aspect. The last year or so I did not (enjoy it). We had a new president and what not. It's a different time now. Recruiting is more difficult. It's harder for head coaches to get out as much. There was a time you could do it more. Now, even being in a better location, it's more difficult to.
CHN: Jerry York said he remembered fondly sharing a lot of weak coffee with you in arenas while recruiting.
Comley: (Chuckles). Yeah. Jack (Parker), Jerry, you become really good friends. So many years together bumping heads.
CHN: Was there anyone who maybe you were antagonistic with over the years, who you get along with now?
Comley: Not really. I guess I've got selective memory. I am kind of a private guy. I was never much of a bar guy. I made a lot of friends, but I let things go when they're over. I was more intense when I was younger. But I didn't carry grudges. There was just a lot of good rivalries.
CHN: You've been tough at Michigan State as far as having zero tolerance for any shenanigans. Has that been at odds with the modern player and caused issues?
Comley: You want it to work out perfect for everyone, but players who have left — it's been 14 or 15 that have left in eight years — was it because they were not happy here, or was it because they wanted that challenge at the next level? The players who don't play leave. It isn't always to become a pro.
I believe in being fair. It's more than just being an athlete. You have to do things the right way, whether it's in school or social behavior. There's certain behavior you can deal with, but then there's a line.
CHN: So getting back to memory lane, the 1991 national championship is legendary (a 3-OT, 8-7 win for Northern Michigan over Boston University). Is there anything that you can tell us we don't already know? Anything that stands out?
Comley: I think the most human elelment of it was — we had a three-goal lead late in the game and everyone was starting to celebrate. Then you lose the lead and your goalie has to make an unbelievable save with two seconds left on Tony Amonte. Then your team has to leave the ice after the third period, walking by the trophies that were assembled by the gate that a minute and half before were going to be presented to you. You have to go rally your team to believe they could win. ... The players and talent in that game were amazing.
You say all the things coaches say — "Hey guys, it's 0-0 going into overtime. If I told you coming into the game that you've have a chance to win in overtime, would you take it?" Meanwhile, you're dying inside. But it was never a question of talent. You knew you were really talented. And it was really intense hockey, up and down, Shawn McEachern hitting both posts (on a shot in overtime). There was every range of emotions.
CHN: What were you thinking a couple years ago as Rico Blasi went through the same thing with Miami?
Comley: I was sitting up there (at the 2009 title game in Washington), watching him. They were so good and had such a storied year. To have it that close in your grasp, I was sick for them. But they'll win one day. They're really good.
CHN: You were also chair of the Ice Hockey Committee at one point. You've always been so involved.
Comley: That's a highlight for me. I really liked that. That's my administrative background. I liked that so much, and the shaping of the WCHA and the WCHA tournament when we came over (with Northern Michigan) from the CCHA. ... There's been lots of things and lots of good people to deal with.
Everyone should know, I'm not bitter. I'm not mad at Michgain State. I've been blessed to be a part of it.