Northeastern's Coaching Gamble
by Joe Meloni/CHN Staff Writer
Tuesday afternoon, when Northeastern unveiled Jim Madigan as its newest head coach, little surprise filled Matthews Arena. Twenty-four hours earlier, the dissemination of the news had spread at Internet speed, and everyone learned that the former Husky had impressed NU athletic director Peter Roby enough to earn his place on his alma mater's bench.
We knew Madigan would lead the Huskies against Massachusetts on Oct. 7, when the Minutemen trek to Boston to open the 2011-12 season. We knew he was a proud alumnus; a man who valued character and academics as much — if not more — than hockey. We knew these things because Roby, after the calamity that was Greg Cronin's final few months on Huntington Avenue, wasn't going to hire anyone who didn't. It's similar to Michigan State's decision to hire alumnus Tom Anastos, although in some ways, that was even more out of nowhere.
The main thing we didn't really know was who Madigan was. He was a scout for the Pittsburgh Penguins at some point and he played for Northeastern in the 1980s. He studied under Fern Flaman, first as a player, then as a coach before hanging it up in 1993 and easing his way behind the scenes.
Aside from a five-year stay within the school's athletic department, his connection to Northeastern hockey has been tangential, but never really strained. While he was never on the coaching staff nor did he maintain an administrative position within the hockey program, he never lost his influence over Northeastern's short- and long-term futures.
However, knowing a program and scouting players hardly qualifies someone to coach a Hockey East team desperately seeking the consistent success of its rivals in the other corners of Boston.
Sure, he remained loyal to the program he loves, the program he guided — as both player and assistant coach — to its only four Beanpots, and he, as Penguins scout, probably directed Brad Thiessen and Joe Vitale to Pittsburgh. But, seriously, Jim Madigan?
It seems unfair, to an extent, to question Roby's decision after the last six months at Matthews Arena.
In February, Cronin and assistant coach Albie O'Connell received indefinite suspensions for their role in a series of recruiting violations.
The pair returned prior to the Hockey East playoffs where NU upset Boston University in the quarterfinals before losing to Boston College in the semifinals.
Two weeks later, freshman Brodie Reid opted to sign a professional contract — leaving Northeastern without its top five scorers from a season ago.
Days before the NHL Draft, Cronin accepted the position with the Maple Leafs. At the draft, rising sophomore defenseman Jamie Oleksiak became a Dallas Star and eventually opted to leave the program to further his development in the OHL. A few rounds later, incoming freshman John Gaudreau became property of the Calgary Flames. A couple hours past and defenseman Garrett Harr heard his name called by the Washington Capitals. To this point, no one really knows whether either player will attend Northeastern next season.
O'Connell left for Harvard somewhere in the middle of it all and then Roby named Madigan head coach after reportedly courting Merrimack savior Mark Dennehy.
Got all that?
Ostensibly, Madigan represents stability in a place desperately seeking some after an exhausting six months. For Roby, he's a safe pick that could turn the wise AD into a genius in the eyes of fans and alumni.
Roby waxed philosophic about values and identity throughout his time at Northeastern, and it's clear that, at the very least, the program needed more than just a sharp hockey mind.
On the ice, Cronin's club played an aggressive game that irritated opponents and entrenched fans. Off the ice, though, the — ahem — fiery Cronin seemed to struggle keeping his players in line at times. He answered questions honestly and made it perfectly plain — to the player and the press — when someone needed to make a change. These things will serve him well in the NHL. In the college game, though, it just never really clicked. He had his moments, because, well, the guy can coach. The question was whether or not he could lead, if he could instill values, if he could reflect the identity Roby aggressively pursued since becoming the school's AD.
Ultimately, it became clear he couldn't. He said he was never comfortable, and we all believed him.
Still, though, Jim Madigan?
In Tuesday's press conference, the 10th head coach in the program's history insisted Northeastern mattered to him. It represents more than just a step to another job. It is a chance to lead the program he loves to the places he wants it to go. And, for now, Roby can sleep easy, because he and his new coach boast the same goals. They want to win, but they want to represent the university well at the same time. It's not that Cronin didn't. He just valued the former a little more than the latter, and sought a place where that was OK.
Roby says he's found his man, that Northeastern has found its man. In the process, though, he may have set his program back for years to come.
There exists little doubt at Northeastern about Jim Madigan as a man, a positive representative for the university or an experienced hockey mind. As a successful Division I hockey coach, though, the doubt is very real.