Providence AD Driscoll Also Has 'Surreal' Union Ties
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
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BRIDGEPORT, Conn. For all of the crazy connections between Union and Providence that have made this potential East Regional final matchup intriguing ever since the brackets were announced, there is one more that has been overlooked.
Nate Leaman isn't the only former Union coach at Providence.
For a few months of one strange year, long-time Providence athletic director Bob Driscoll was also once the coach of Union's hockey team.
Legendary coach Ned Harkness re-started the program at Union in 1975. Coming off a failed, tumultuous stint in the National Hockey League, he was determined to turn Union into a powerhouse Division I team, just as he did at RPI and Cornell previously.
Instead, by the middle of the 1977-78 season, Harkness quit, and so did, essentially, the entire team.
So who else to take over than a 24-year old assistant athletic director and baseball coach named Bob Driscoll?
"I was the only guy in the house who played hockey or knew anything about it, so they asked me to be the acting coach," said Driscoll, who played varsity hockey at Ithaca College when it had a program, where he was a teammate of Vermont athletic director Bob Corran.
Driscoll went to Union fresh out of college, one month after Harkness arrived, hoping to work with the three-time national champion.
"He had his folks (already)," Driscoll said. "But he had come from the Detroit Red Wings and had won a championship at Cornell when I was in Ithaca ... but it was a really exciting time."
Driscoll, of course, knew of Harkness from his time in Ithaca, which coincided with Harkness' time at Cornell, including the 1970 national championship season.
"We used to practice at Lynah Rink when Ned was there," Driscoll said. "Ned was a legendary guy. And we had some interesting conversations early on."
Harkness, as was his wont to do, rubbed many people the wrong way. He had an aggressive personality, and he knew what he wanted to do to turn Union into a major program. He recruited like crazy, and brought in a lot of talent from all over North America, a lot of them older — a similar formula he used at Cornell more than a decade earlier.
"He was a championship-caliber coach. He was an NHL coach that came to a Division III program that wanted to go Division I in hockey, and it was a very academically-oriented program and Ned turned the city around," Driscoll said. "But there was a lot of internal conflict; you had a lot of academics that really weren't supportive of the hockey program because they thought big-time athletics would hurt the academic reputation. So it was a very, very tumultuous time, and as a young guy, I was in the middle of it. But it was one of the great experiences of my life."
There were rumblings of recruiting improprieties, but nothing was ever uncovered.
"I think at some point he just didn't need the aggravation anymore," Driscoll said. "But he took a program that didn't exist and was No. 1 in the country and kicked the (heck) out of UNH. He could coach. He was one of the great coaches of all time.
"Ned was one of the most competitive human beings I've ever been around. He would lock the rink down, you couldn't get in. There were stories where he would turn the heat up in locker rooms, or cut the benches so (the opponent) would sit down low. The most competitive human being I've ever been around in my life. But a phenomenal coach, but tough. I'm not sure his coaching style would survive today, but that's the way I was brought up.
"He was a phenomenal recruiter — he had big-time talent. But he was one of the greatest motivational guys I've ever been around. He was a savant. ... His kids were in the best shape. His kids feared him, but loved him at the same time. He reminds me a lot of (former Providence athletic director and coach) Lou Lamoriello, an old-school guy, really disciplined and guys would give it up for him. There aren't many guys like that around anymore."
With Harkness gone, Driscoll had to scour the campus for players in order to continue the season. Harkness had gone 19-4 and 22-3 in the first two seasons, and started beating up on Division I teams. The Dutchmen were 4-1 to open the 1977-78 when he, and the team, quit.
"I had to go into the dorms and get intramural kids and JV kids," Driscoll said.
The Driscoll-led, rag-tag Dutchmen went 0-19.
"We played the University of Ottawa my first night (actually, Queens. See comments. ed.) — I remember being interviewed — I was 23 or 24, and the guy said, 'How do you think the game's gonna go?' Driscoll recalled. "I said, 'We'll probably get beat 20-0.' The guy laughed. We actually got beat 19-1 and we scored a goal with 30 seconds left and the place was full, everybody threw their hats and gave us a standing ovation, because they were so excited that we had saved the program. Because they were going to drop the program."
Union wound up keeping the program, but in Division III. It brought in Charlie Morrison, and Driscoll remained as his assistant for four years. Morrison got things back on track at least, and Union eventually went to three straight D-III NCAA tournaments, and two final fours. Union finally moved to ECAC Division I for the 1991-92 season, but the school, scarred by the Harkness experience, went into it half-heartedly.
"It hurt them. No question," Driscoll said. "It set it back a lot. They could've been what they are today. And the two people that salvaged it were (now-Vermont coach) Kevin Sneddon and (Nate Leaman). He put it on the map and Rick (Bennett) worked for me, and now he's there. ... And I'm sure right now the national profile of their program really helps the college.
Meanwhile, when it came time to pick a new head coach at Providence, Driscoll was comfortable in turning back to Union.
"That's part of why I went after Nate," Driscoll said. "I knew if he could be successful at Union without scholarships he could be successful in Providence."
And now it's like Re-Union week.
"I think of them playing us (Saturday) and it's surreal in many respects," Driscoll said.