Leaman Leaves Union With Pride
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
When Nate Leaman took over at Union, then-president Roger Hull was closing in on his infamous statement, the one where he professed glee any time his athletic teams win 40 percent of their games. Union, as a Division III institution without the grandfather privileges of rivals St. Lawrence and RPI, not only couldn't give scholarships, but it faced a lot of resistance from the financial aid department, and the daunting challenge of having to overcome that quote.
Eight years later, there's a new president, financial aid resources are devoted to "foreign" students, helping to attract Canadian players, and the team just won a school-record 26 games, first ECAC championship and first NCAA Touranment bid.
It's in that environment, that Leaman decided it was time to leave, when the opportunity to coach at Providence came along.
"There was a lot of little battles along the way, a lot of growth with the program, learning what Division I athletics was about," Leaman said. "It was my job just as much as a coach to educate the school, and I think there's a lot of things behind the scenes that I'm really proud about the health of the program. This program is in the best shape it's been in its history. There's a team out there that should compete for the championship once again."
Leaman, who was named Providence's new coach Friday, was on the Friars' short list from Day One. Last month, in discussing his decision to fire coach Tim Army, Providence athletic director Bob Driscoll — who started his career in Union's athletic department — pointed to Leaman as an example of what should be happening at Providence.
There were others on the list, but Leaman was eventually offered the position Monday. He took four days to think about it.
"It was, if not the hardest, one of the most difficult decision I've had to make in my life because of my emotional ties to Union and to the players," Leaman said. "It's still hard to look them in the eye a little bit. It's been a tough week trying to decide about the position.
"It took me four days to take the emotion out of it. That was the toughest part — four days to make a decision that was non-emotional. ... I've got a lot of pride in what we built here."
When asked why he decided to leave, Leaman was evasive in offering up reasons. More than likely, he didn't want to make it sound like he was speaking negatively about Union.
"Once you have a child, that changes a lot in your life. That weighed a lot into it," Leaman said. "They've been on down times (Providence), there's no doubt about that. It's a challenge I'm looking forward to. Let's leave it at that."
When push came to shove, Leaman went to a place that will pay him more money, and where he can offer a full set of 18 athletic scholarships. There's nothing wrong with that.
You can see why Leaman would be reluctant to say that in front of Union people he respects. But he shouldn't be ashamed of it.
All along, actually, Leaman was reluctant to admit his interest, to the point of intentionally misleading the media. He'd have been better off being coy rather than blatantly misleading. Again, there is no shame in showing interest in a career move.
And, of course, Leaman can be, and is, proud of what he leaves behind. So on that score, there is nothing Union can be upset about.
"Thanks for believing in me," Leaman said to the administration as the decision was announced. "When you rebuild a program like this, it takes a lot of patience. When we came in, there was a lot of little things we had to accomplish, and sometimes that wasn't all on the ice.
"On the ice, the product got better and better. But our fourth year, we finished 12th. But the fans stuck with us and the administration stuck with us, and they believed in what we were doing, and because of that, it all paid off. And that's part of building a program. Seth (Appert) went through that too (at RPI). This isn't professional athletics. It doesn't happen in one or two seasons by getting free agents. It's something that takes a long time to build, to get the culture that you want to. That's why I'm so proud of the health of this program and the culture created inside locker room that I know all the success is ahead of them, that it will be tough to watch sometimes, but I'll also be really proud."
The impression was left, though not expressly stated, that Leaman would've taken his whole coaching staff with him to Providence if he could. That includes Providence graduate Rick Bennett, who was Leaman's top assistant for six years. Instead, Union stepped up to promote Bennett to fill the head coaching vacancy that Leaman was leaving. Had it not, Bennett would probably have been gone by now too. Instead, Leaman will take the other assistant, Ben Barr, with him.
In the end, because of Bennett's promotion, everyone wins.
"The house is in order," Leaman said. "I know that Rick Bennett will take care of the players and treat them fair. Rick Bennett is one of the hardest working guys I've been around. And I know he'll put his heart and soul into the program. And I know it's going to take about one month and he'll be the most liked guy on this campus."
Meanwhile, Bennett finally gets a head coaching job, after having interviewed for openings three other times, including this year at Mass.-Lowell.
"I'm ecstatic," Bennett said. "This is a great opportunity. It's kind of a bittersweet moment, not being able to work with Nate and Ben. At the same time, spoending so many years as an assistant, it's exciting getting a chance to run your show and see what you have.
"I learned a ton from Nate Leaman. That's why I stayed (six years), the fact I was learning every day and every year it was fun to get started again. Our style will be the same as Nate's. We're going to play hard every time we step on the ice. And everything, off-ice to school — everything is important to me.
"I'm going to go through some pains as a first-year coach, and they know that. By the same token, we'll all go through this together."