Commentary: A Dark Knight
Clarkson's Firing of Roll Misguided
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
This offseason has been eventful already, and will only get crazier. There were, or are, six head coaching openings (it's rare to get more than two or three per season), and the Big Ten news has created an impending chain reaction of activity.
Of the coaches who were let go, you could safely call most, if not all of them, great guys, and even good coaches. But for the most part, the school's decisions were at least somewhat understandable. No one likes to see good people get fired, but sometimes, it really is time for a change.
For Clarkson, however, it's not one of those times.
Not only was the timing of Clarkson's announcement yesterday odd — coming more than six weeks after the team's season ended — but it was a pointless, misguided move. It was a move driven too much by a vocal minority of passionate yet misguided alumni and Internet blatherers — the kind that calls for the heads of people like Dick Umile, Don Lucia and Tim Whitehead on a regular basis.
Clarkson just got rid of a very good coach, and a great person, and has no reason to believe things will get better with a change. It also has plenty of reason to believe things would've gotten better by keeping Roll.
Clarkson athletic director Steve Yianoukos announced the move via a campus-wide e-mail at 7:30 p.m. on a Monday night. Since then, he has declined to comment. Trying to reach him Wednesday was fruitless.
More than likely, he will say that Roll's record wasn't good enough. And it's true that Clarkson is coming off the worst three-year stretch in the program's history. But this is not a good read of the situation.
When George Roll came back to Potsdam, he inherited a mess. Mark Morris had been fired six months earlier, after a lengthy and largely successful tenure. Fred Parker came in as an interim coach, and the program fell into disarray — the inmates were running the asylum.
Roll was a former assistant under Morris. He came back and cleaned things up, got the discipline back in order, weeded out bad apples. In that first year, Clarkson won a first-round playoff series, upset Cornell in the quarterfinals, and made the ECAC Championship game.
Recruiting was back on the upswing, and by 2007, Clarkson was highly-ranked nationally and made the NCAAs as a No. 1 seed. After losing to UMass in overtime that year, Clarkson came back the next season, won the ECAC regular season title, and defeated St. Cloud State for its first NCAA win since 1996 before losing to Michigan in the Regional Final.
From there, the team took a step back. And prior to the 2009 season, two prime recruits were dismissed for an off-campus disciplinary issue. The 2009-10 season was riddled with injury, and Clarkson finished in last place. This year, the team started strong but faded out, still improved to seventh place despite losing two key players to injury down the stretch, and was clearly headed back on the right track.
Now, for people who became accustomed to Clarkson winning 25 games and making the NCAAs every year, then perhaps this wasn't good enough. But they, and Yianoukos, need to face reality: It's not the '90s anymore.
The landscape in college hockey, and the ECAC, is much different in 2011 than it was in 1995. Clarkson has to compete for recruits with teams it never had to compete against before — teams like Union, Princeton and Yale. The Ivy Leagues as a whole are doing a much better job competing for recruits than ever before. Financial aid packages, especially from the big three of Yale, Princeton and Harvard, allow them to give what amounts to essentially a full scholarship for student-athletes whose families are below a certain income level. All of the Ivy League schools have been much more aggressive in their financial aid packages.
Yet for all those too-long memories of the 1990s, Clarkson seems to have forgotten the 1970s. While the Knights were always pretty competitive, a young guy in his first head coaching job named Jerry York took Clarkson to exactly zero NCAA appearances in seven years. He went on to become — shall we say — pretty good.
Meanwhile, the only ECAC teams to make as many NCAA Tournaments as Clarkson in the past eight years were Cornell, Harvard and Yale (note: three Ivy League teams). People look to St. Lawrence and Colgate as great programs, with well-respected coaches in Joe Marsh and Don Vaughan that have been there 26 and 19 years, respectively. And it's true — you won't find many better guys and coaches than those two. But both have been to just one NCAA Tournament in the past decade.
St. Lawrence routinely has peaks, followed by significant valleys. After going to the Frozen Four in 2000 and the NCAAs again in 2001, the Saints had back-to-back 11-win seasons, followed by a 14-win season. SLU won a whopping 9 games two years prior to that Frozen Four appearance. They made the NCAAs again in 2007, then had 13 wins the next year. This season was another bad one, until a late playoff run.
Colgate is very similar. It had an NCAA appearance in 2000, followed by seasons of 10, 13 and 17 wins. Three more strong seasons were then followed by another trough, and this year, the Raiders came in last place — albeit, also, with a late playoff run.
No one calls for the heads of either Marsh or Vaughan, ever. Rightfully so.
Clarkson was doing well this year until a stretch of five straight games against nationally-ranked teams, including two losses to eventual champs Minnesota-Duluth, losses to Union and Yale on the road, and an overtime win over RPI. From there, Clarkson went 4-10, losing a playoff series at home. That probably sealed Roll's fate in the eyes of the administration. But just as egregiously, Roll was made to wait six weeks before a decision was made. The parties seemingly had a deal in midseason, too, when the team was doing well. But the administration kept making Roll wait and wait, then pulled the plug. That is no way to be treated.
Roll is a victim of some bad timing, too. If his contract ran out next year, the school would've given him another season and all would probably have worked out. But Clarkson believed it had to make a decision now, and it made the wrong one.
Most of the time, college programs err on the side of caution with their coaches. It takes quite a lot for hockey coaches to get fired. Consequently, when that time comes, usually you feel the time is right for a change.
Not this time.