Cole Took the Winding Path Home
Big Challenges Now Await at Michigan State
"It took us 21 days, but honestly, it could have just taken us one."
Those were the words of Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis in describing his search for a new head coach. Ultimately, he went with alumnus Danton Cole, who has wanted the job badly since it was open last time, in 2011, when Hollis picked another alum, Tom Anastos, instead.
Of course, Hollis left out some things, such as a flirtation with 63-year old George Gwozdecky, the two-time national champion and a one-time Michigan State assistant under Ron Mason. He was there in 1986, when Cole was a freshman and MSU won its second national title. Whether they couldn't come to terms, or Hollis ultimately decided it wasn't the best idea, is unclear.
Hollis was also chair of the NCAA Men's Basketball Committee, which tied up his time.
In the end, however, he found the coach he was looking for and the coach he needs. Hollis said his criteria were things the players told him they wanted: "approachable, NHL experience, the ability to develop players, a communicator, solid schemes, detail oriented ..." and so on.
"There was a lot of emotions stepping back into the Michigan State locker room," Cole said. "It was all I could do to stop from busting out into the MSU fight song."
Cole had a lengthy playing career, then got into coaching, first in the minor leagues in the AHL and even lower levels. When he was with Grand Rapids, he said he told a reporter that one day he wanted to wind up back in East Lansing.
"It's been on my mind. The timing has to be right, sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn't," Cole said. "That's a lesson you have to learn. And when great things happen, it's a wonderful thing."
It didn't work out in 2011. But Cole wasn't bitter about it as he went through the process again. And he was patient through the 21 days.
The biggest issue for Michigan State, however, won't be how well the head coach coaches, per se. Rather, it will be how good of a staff Cole can put together to recruit. Michigan State was once an attractive landing place for high-end prospects. That tailed off considerably under Rick Comley and then Anastos, for a variety of reasons.
"It might take a little bit of time, it might not be the least painful thing, but nothing good ever is," Cole said.
"It's important to have a plan. It starts with maintaining and building on the culture. The type of program we want to have here — excellence, energy and excite. That's what Michigan State should be. Hockey should bring that to the university, something people want to be a part of."
Of course, Cole said many of the same things Anastos did before him. He wants to attract elite players, he wants to engage the community, make Munn Arena a tough place to play again.
Anastos had moderate success with that at first, but players weren't developing, and things tailed off again. Cole's biggest job will be putting together a first-class staff that can't recruit, teach and develop. The Xs and Os are the least of their worries.
Cole has the connection with the national program that will be important, as head coach there for the last seven years, coaching U-18s and U-17s. David Quinn has had a pipeline of USNTDP players to BU since he was hired, thanks to those connections.
"The NTDP is an interesting place," Cole said. "It's still a bit of secret for how good it is for players. ... It's (also) a candy store for coaches. The motivation factor, the teaching, having a two-year plan. ... It feels like three years of coaching every year you're there.
"Going through the (already-committed) recruits, that will take some time. I'd like to know who's where and who's offered what. The incoming guys I know, but after that, I'd like to get a little better read. Coaching in the USHL, being part of the national program, we start tracking guys at 13, 14. I don't think it's something anyone likes — everything is getting younger — but it's good to know. We used to talk to midget and junior coaches, now it's bantam coaches. It's good to be part of that process, being at the festivals, see where good players are coming from and know what they're attracted to."
Cole wants to recruit the blue chippers, but he did acknowledge that you need to be careful.
"There's going to be (players) that are in for a year and they're out," Cole said. "There's also guys that are a little older and take longer to percolate. You need a combination. If you go too far on one end, you get whipsawed and end up with an empty bench. ... We want guys that come by and if they're here like (Dylin) Larkin was (at Michigan), if they're here a year and that's what it is, that's good, and we'll find another guy. But a good mix is essential. And if you look at the teams that have won a national championship the last few years — Denver, look at their mix.
"But we want to be at a place where elite guys can come and know they can move on."
Though the Xs and Os aren't as important here as the recruiting, Cole will obviously try to mold the Spartans in his own image. With the USNTDP, you take the U-17s one year, then coach them as U-18s the next, then start over in year three with the new U-17s again. In that regard, things will be familiar for Cole.
"There will be some changes in how we attack and play the game, so there's challenges in implementing that," Cole said, in reference to the limited time he'll have on the ice with the team before next season starts.
"It's going to be a lot like the 17 year at the NTDP, where everyone is new and everyone is learning, but that can be a strength too.
"You have to be yourself and the team takes an extension of that. I'm not a heck of a lot different (as a coach) than as a player — aggressive, ornery, I want to impose my will physically and mentally on the other team. But you have to have that attitude, that you're not giving up an inch out there. You never lose, you either win or learn lessons."
In that regard, Cole believes he has some tools to work with. Anastos' team may not have been the most talented, but it never lacked work ethic.
"You can't get off square one as a coach if there's not effort, work and pride and passion," Cole said. "I liked the battle. They kept fighting. There's tons of good stuff there. If you have to try to instill that into a team, that's a long project.
"(Anastos) did a lot of great things. I texted with him earlier (Tuesday). I'm looking forward to spending some time with him and keeping him involved, and to build on some of the things they got started."