Knight in Shining Armor
Can Casey Jones Bring Clarkson Back to National Prominence?
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
With Clarkson coming off the worst three-year stretch in its 90-year history, the school decided to fire eight-year head coach George Roll. He was replaced in May by Casey Jones, a one-time Clarkson assistant and Cornell forward, who went on to successful assistant coaching stints at Ohio State and, most recently, his alma mater.
Few doubt Jones' ability to right the ship in Potsdam. His recruiting prowess is well known, he has built a solid staff, and he knows the area.
But questions pervade the Golden Knights' program as the new season approaches. First and foremost, can anyone get Clarkson back to the heights of prominence last seen — consistently — in the 1990s? And was firing Roll — coming six weeks after the season ended — the right thing to do?
The latter question is not Jones' to worry about. The former one is.
Roll took over a program in disarray, and led a comeback that included back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances in 2007 and 2008, including one win. Things went south again quickly, but Roll seemingly earned the right to turn things back around again.
Last year, the team played well in the first half, but faltered down the stretch, which may have sealed Roll's fate. There was a lot of hue and cry from fans and alumni, dissatisfied with the three straight losing seasons. And with Roll's contract left to expire — after a number of hollow assurances during the season — he was cast aside. Clarkson athletic director Steve Yianoukos sidestepped most direct questions about the situation.
Agree with the decision or not, it certainly wasn't artfully handled. Clarkson may simply be in and up-and-down cycle like many other programs in the ECAC, such as Colgate and St. Lawrence, two non-Ivy ECAC schools with successful programs that nevertheless have seen their share of down years.
"Clarkson needs to face the reality that it's not the '90s anymore," said one ECAC insider. "Things are different, Ivy League financial aid packages make them so much more competitive, and major junior is winning recruiting battles all over hockey."
Clarkson's administration, at least, isn't buying into this, and clearly laid the blame at Roll.
Jones, therefore, enters into this landscape pressured with meeting the high expectations. Of course, he welcomes the challenge, but acknowledges the difficulty.
"It's harder, no question. But we'll have to recruit and get people to be excited about Clarkson," Jones said. "But our goal is not just to recruit well, but to develop well. We have to make our players better. That was a focal point of putting my staff together. We'll recruit, but we don't want to overlook development. That's a separating factor."
The staff is new, beginning with former Clarkson defenseman Phil Roy, who was plucked from Merrimack's staff.
"I went after Phil," Jones said. "I recruited him when I was a coach here. He's passionate about Clarkson. I thought it was a natural fit for our staff. He's a high energy guy, and he's going to be a positional coach for the defense. (Second assistant) Andy (Jones) is someone we dipped into the USHL for. He's well respected. In my dealings with him over time while out recruiting players, I found him to be analytical, he thinks things out.
"When you're an assistant and you're in the trenches recruiting, you're around and connecting with a lot of guys on the road. You see how they carry themselves. You get a real good feel for guys."
The pressure is not just at Clarkson. There were eight coaching changes this offseason in college hockey — out of just 59 schools — as more programs put an emphasis on winning, and quickly and consistently.
This kind of atmosphere has changed the recruiting landscape.
"We're the only sport that has a gentleman's agreement (with verbal commitments)," Jones said. "All the other sports are hard core. ... It's getting further and further away from that.
"A lot of programs are being held to a standard to win. Guys do what they have to do to get it done."
That's not all that has changed it, Jones said. College hockey made a lot of inroads on major junior hockey over the years, but in the last five years, those inroads have gone the other way, and fast. Major Junior teams are winning the recruiting battles, and players are leaving college hockey — or backing out of previous commitments — left and right.
In Clarkson's sphere of influence, just south of Ontario, that issue is heightened. Jones said recruiting against major junior is a bigger concern to him than recruiting against other college teams.
Amid all of this, Jones sees hope — or else he wouldn't have left his alma mater. Especially when he leaves behind a recruiting class that's considered one of the best in the East.
"My goal was to be a head coach," Jones said. "There was no hesitsation from that perspective. You forge relationships (with players). That's the hardest part of changings jobs. A lot of kids make those commitments, they realize it's a business after that.
"I wanted to be at a place I knew my family would like. You have to put in the long hours to do the job correctly, so you want to be somewhere that you can be successful. Clarkson presents that."
Even in recruiting, there is still plenty Clarkson can do.
"Recruiting is still regional. There's still a chance to get players in close proximity to Clarkson. That will never change," Jones said. "It's a fantastic opportunity here. We want to make our development model something the kids want to be a part of. It will take time to assure that. But for the most part, what we've seen with the kids coming through the door is positive. Our guys will be our salesmen for that in the future. I feel strongly that we'll compete. We'll compete in the ECAC. And that will put us on the national forefront."
Though playing entirely with Roll's recruits, the cupboard was not left bare. There are upperclassmen that have been expected to produce, and can still do so. And the recruiting class was solid.
"We all have the same goal, we want to get things going in the right direction. And by the looks of it right now, hopefully we can pull it off," Clarkson senior goalie Paul Karopowich said. "We want to get Cheel (Arena) back to being a tough place to play. We're going to come out right off the bat and take control of every game."
Said Jones, "The thing that stands out is our leaders and gave who have come back in tremendous shape. That's the best sign right now. It gives us a chance to be competitive. I'm excited about our guys and the look in their eyes.
"As long as these kids are committed to themselves, I don't see why they can't have success this year. We'll see how committed they are. There's some ballplayers there. We'll see how committed they are to work hard."