Emotional Day For Blais as Hunt For Successor Begins
Saying he still has the burning desire to win, Dean Blais stepped down as head coach at Nebraska-Omaha today, after eight seasons on the job.
"You keep getting these things from AARP and keep wondering what this is for," Blais said. "But finally it's going to happen. I don't know if I'll totally get out of hockey, I might be coaching my grandkids or having fun with it somewhere. But certainly I felt it was the time. People always said, when it's time to step down, you'll know it. And I think I knew it.
"I'm not calling it a retirement because that insinuates that I'm old. I don't feel old. I just felt it was time to step down."
Despite all of that personal passion for coaching, telling his players was the hardest part of the decision.
"Obviously it was real emotional saying goodbye to the team. It was another step of emotion when players came in and said goodbye one to one. That just broke me up," Blais said. "Because I'm not the most lovey, feeley guy when I coach — it's totally the opposite. But when they came in one by one and thanked me for their one year or four years, it was tough — tougher than I expected."
There are still questions, however, as to exactly why now. Blais steps down with one year remaining on a contract that was set to pay him over $320,000. Unless there was a deal arranged, he'd be leaving a lot of money on the table.
"I talked to (UNO athletic director) Trev (Alberts) this morning and I said, 'The only thing that's going to bother me is that I know I can still coach and I still have that burning desire and hate to lose,'" Blais said about his discussion with the former University of Nebraska football standout. "And he said, you may have that until you're 80 years old. You might not ever lose it. And here's the Butkus Award winner telling me that he still has that as an athletic director. So I'm not expecting anything different out of my next 20 or 30 years.
Alberts was the one that brought Blais in eight years ago. Alberts was fairly new at the job at the time, and as a former football player, people wondered how much he would pay attention to hockey. He answered those questions fairly quickly, by moving Mike Kemp, the program's first coach, up to a management position, and making a splash with the hiring of Blais.
Blais had stepped away from college hockey in 2004 after winning two national titles at North Dakota, to take an NHL position. Soon, however, he returned to the amateur ranks, taking a job as head coach with Fargo-Moorhead of the USHL. Alberts was looking for a big hire. He called Blais. Blais said no at first, but Alberts was insistent, and Blais finally relented.
At that point, Alberts and Blais together worked on bringing the program to new heights. First, the program moved from the CCHA to the WCHA, a place Blais was more intimately familiar. In 2013, the NCHC was born, and UNO was a charter member. Then came a Frozen Four bid in 2015 and a new arena.
"To go from the CCHA to the WCHA to the NCHC has been real rewarding," Blais said. But he noted how tough the competition has been. "Maybe it's built for a younger guy."
Blais had talked all along about how he probably wouldn't stay very long — build things up then pass it off to someone else. But there was always another reason to stay.
His comments now suggest that he still had the desire to go on, but something was pushing him, or tugging at him, that now was time to step away.
Before the season, he made remarks to the local newspaper expressing concern that the school was changing leadership. He wasn't sure the new leaders would support hockey as strongly. Then the coach's radio show was discontinued. UNO still doesn't award full cost of attendance scholarships, something most of the rest of the NCHC is doing now that the NCAA started to allow it.
The new arena has been losing money so far, according to reports, thanks to a series of mistakes and challenges.
"Leveraging profitability in hockey has been a strong priority for us (with a) resource-challenged department," Alberts said on local radio today.
This budget challenges would figure to impact the decision on who the next coach will be. Though Alberts says not.
"The hiring of the next coach will not be driven by finances," Alberts said.
Alberts also said he will try to make a move soon.
"A matter of weeks," Alberts said.
Blais expects to have at least some input into choosing his successor. Current assistant coach Mike Gabinet is a UNO alum, so that's one possibility. Blais called him a perfect fit, but also expects Alberts to open things up.
Former North Dakota assistant Cary Eades, who has done well as head coach in the USHL, is a possibility. Another UNO alum, Rob Facca, who was an assistant at Western Michigan for a while before taking a scouting job in the NHL, could be in the mix if he wants to be. There will surely be other strong candidates that are currently assistants and other surprises.
Then there Mike Hastings, the Minnesota State head coach, who spent 14 years in Omaha in the USHL. And current Minnesota assistant Mike Guentzel, another person with Omaha ties. Both, however, may be too expensive for what UNO is looking to do.
Blaid did have some advice to the next coach, though, no matter who it is.
"I set the table for you. You better win," he said.
"The community of Omaha expects to win. When I took over that wasn't the case. It was play hard, and see what happens. But with recruiting and Baxter Arena, this is our home, and the community expects us to win."