Q&A With ... Danton Cole
Last week, Danton Cole was named the new coach at Michigan State, his alma mater.
CHN: When were you first contacted by Michigan State, what was the process like and when did you find out you were hired?
Cole: I called [Michigan State Athletic Director] Mark Hollis and left a message and just told him that, obviously as a coach, nobody likes to see other coaches not coming back — but the situation was what it was and I knew he was extremely busy, and when he had a chance to give me a shout. We touched base fairly quickly after that. ... Then over the course of the next couple weeks, Mark was very busy with NCAA basketball, being on that committee [was] taking up a lot of time. So [Associate Athletic Director] Shelley Appelbaum was doing quite a bit of the work and fact finding. So it was an interesting process and lots of questions and [it] went off and on for a couple weeks. Then the last little bit it kind of ramped up and [I] spoke to Mark and we had a couple of comments back and forth and he said he would get back to me either [last] Sunday or Monday. Finally when he called back he said they had a decision and they offered me the job. It was fairly painless, it's just hard as a coach when you're interviewing and the time and the process you [have] to wait it out. I thought they did a nice job and handled it really well and took their time, which is good, and obviously [I’m] happy with the conclusion they came to.
CHN: What’s the first thought that went through your mind when they told you they hired you?
Cole: A weird combination of excitement and relief. It's hard. With a job like this, the only thing guys like myself, and there's a lot of us, that play at their alma mater and then get a chance to coach at it, it's a very personal thing. I was lucky enough for seven years to coach for my country and wear the colors every day and I feel very much the same way about Michigan State. It's part of my fabric and I take a tremendous amount of pride in it when I was playing there and when I'm a fan of the university and now that I'm coaching. It was a really good feeling and it had been something I aspired to do and wasn't sure I was ever going to get a chance to. When things like that happen, it's a pretty neat moment in someone's life.
CHN: You went through process in 2011 and came close. What did you learn from that experience that helped you this time?
Cole: Having been around the coaching position for a long time, you realize that there's very few situations that end up working out. You have to know that there's some patience and there's some luck and there's timing and you can't really control a lot of that. I talked to my guys that've played for me [about the draft and] one of our phrases is, the most important day of the draft is the day after the draft. What do you do afterwards? Are you a first rounder? Did you get passed over? The important thing is get back to work because if you're not, somebody else is. That was kind of the approach I took.
Sure it was disappointing. I mean I can’t lie to you, it was, but I was at a great spot, I had a great class, the [NTDP] '94s was probably one of my favorite teams I've ever had. I owed it to them to get back to work and continue to get better. You've got to read. You've got to steal stuff from other teams and other coaches. You've got to talk to people. You've got to educate yourself within hockey with psychology and just keep getting better. The next time a good opportunity rolls around, if it happens to be you, then that's great and you've put yourself in a good position.
CHN: You talked about stuff I don't hear coaches talk about very much in terms of stealing things from other coaches and studying psychology. How do you make yourself a better coach?
Cole: I think you have to be a lifelong learner. I think as a coach, ultimately, at the end of the day what you are is you're a teacher. And you've got to be able to instruct guys to sometimes change lifelong habits that they have. Whatever you can learn, whatever you can use to get better at that and to be a better influence on them. I'm a big believer that not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers. There's tons of books and there's tons of help and you can surround yourself with some of the smartest people in the world every day and get your hands on it. And not just about hockey. Coaches are great, business things are great, religion, psychology, whatever you can get your hands on. You never know where the next great idea’s going to come from. Watching NHL games or watching college games, you see a certain way a team plays or a certain way a play unfolds. "Hey, that's a drill," or "Hey, that's a concept that we can add to something that we’re doing." You have to be on the search for it. You have to be hungry, and that's our job. Our job is to get better and pass that on to guys. If we're not learning, if we're not getting better, if we're not inquisitive, shame on us as coaches.
CHN: What’s the biggest difference in having that effect on molding players at the pro, collegiate and junior levels?
Cole: I found there's an awful lot of similarities. The pro mindset, the guys that have the growth mindset, they want to get better every day. It's not just the average players that need to have that, it's the really great ones. If you look at guys like Auston Matthews and Jack Eichel, some of the guys that have come through and played for us, those guys are hungry. They're hungry to be coached, they're hungry to get better, they're hungry to be the best player on the ice every day. We had Seth Jones and Jacob Trouba with us for a while and our challenge to them was, "Hey, one of you guys is going to be the best player on the ice every day." They were good friends and we just challenged [them to] compete against each other every day. The great ones, they have the skill they have the attributes to be a good hockey player, but they have the mindset. You pass that along and then the ability to teach and the ability for the young men to learn just grows so much. Phil Jackson says it, it's that thunderbolt moment when things kind of come together for them. When you hit that, it's a beautiful thing and that's when coaching's fun.
CHN: Part of being a good coach is knowing how to interact and push certain players to get the best out of them depending on their personality. How long does it take you to learn the different personalities and how long will it take you with this team?
Cole: That's relationships. Until you understand a young man or until they understand you, then you don't have that relationship. People talk about [how] it's pushing buttons, it's doing this. Well you're not programming a computer. There's not just this sequence for this character type and this sequence for this personality type. It's more of an art than a science in that situation. You've got to invest time, and kids today, that's what they want. They want someone that takes an interest in them, someone that finds something out about them. You've got to find out how they learn. There's all different approaches and some work for some guys and some don't and that's up to the coach to create that environment. Guys that, like Coach [Ron] Mason, he was a master at it, he just knew what certain guys needed and what certain guys didn't and could put that together fairly quickly. And the quicker you can get down that road the better off it is for the team and the player.
CHN: What were the biggest challenges and benefits of coaching at the NTDP?
Cole: I think they're kind of the same, to tell you the truth. The challenges of the first year, of the guys being an underdog in basically every game, drastically outmatched. Pete DeBoer, whose son [Jack] played for me this year, said we take away every advantage that these young men have — the size, the strength, the speed and the maturity — and put them in that environment. That's a really difficult thing. So as a coach, what we were talking about earlier, you’re trying to motivate them, you're trying to stay on the positive side, every Monday after a tough weekend you're trying to say, "Hey, this is getting better even though you can't see the results." It's a huge challenge. You've got 22 guys that come in [from] usually 22 different teams and you're trying to forge them together.
When I said it's kind of the same, I also think that's one of the tremendous things that comes out of it. Because there is a process, there is a system that works over two years that guys built through. As a coach you really learn to work through some of that stuff and keep the long-term vision and plan in mind and not stray from it, have confidence in it and continue to teach and continue to improve. When you go through the two-year [NTDP] process, it’s a fantastic thing. I always felt like one year [at the NTDP] was like three years of coaching. You just pack so much in and you learn so much about yourself and the players and about coaching that it's just a tremendous thing. I have an awful lot of love for the program and really, really value what they do and the people that do it here.
CHN: You've just taken over a program. What's the plan going forward and what's the first step in that plan?
Cole: First and foremost we have to have a type of culture and a type of program that young men want to be a part of, that elite players want to come to and know that they can develop, know that if they put in the time and the work and god has touched them with enough individual ability that they'll be able to further on their careers. And if not, that we've got the kind of culture program [where] guys will be successful away from the rink in whatever career they choose. We're going to have to secondly identify, recruit and sign those elite players that want to be a part of what Michigan State has to offer and continue to build on what's already there, the players that are there. Thirdly, we've got to engage and excite. When I was at Michigan State I was in the middle of 320 sellouts. Munn has done very well — we're in the top 10 in attendance the last several years — but we've got to get it to where it's a sellout every night where students are lining up to get in [and] where it's a very, very hard place to play. Fourthly, overall, we've got to get or keep the Spartan Fund project to renovate Munn and add on to the wonderful things they've already done and get the one side of the stadium improvements done.
CHN: For a head coach to be successful it's not only the head coach and not just the players, there needs to be a level of support from the school. I don't know if you talked with Hollis about this or just from your observations with where the school is now, what do you think they have or what kind of commitment has the school shown in terms of putting power behind the program?
Cole: With Mark Hollis and President [Lou Anna] Simon and the Board of Trustees, I don't know that there could be more support and more interest. They're hockey fans, they all have been around and know what we had for that real, real long run. Most of them have been around for two of the national championships that we won — I don't think many of them were around in '66 but I think they're very well aware of that. I don't know if there's anything else I could ask from them from the support standpoint. We're wanting for nothing. Which is a great feeling to have.
CHN: Have you watched any games at Munn over the past few years?
Cole: It's hard for us to get away. We're either playing on the weekends or traveling so I want to say it was a few years ago I got back to Munn, I think there was a Michigan-Michigan State game on a Friday night when we weren't playing that coach [Chris] Luongo and myself, we got to drive down and catch a game. I've been back a few times when we've played, we've been in there with my last few groups, so I have been there and it's a building I love.
CHN: You played during the CCHA era, but now it's gone and the Big Ten is there. I don't know how closely you've followed realignment but what are your thoughts on caching in the fledgling league?
Cole: It's a great league and if you look at the teams that are in there and you look what was accomplished this year, every night it's going to be a dogfight. Adding Notre Dame isn't going to make that any easier. But as a coach I think you look forward to something like that. I was talking to coach [Tony] Granato from Wisconsin and Tony said it's a great league and he said it's a blast and he said every weekend it is a battle and you're working. As a coach, that's an outstanding thing. I think that the league has created a pretty good buzz and I think the teams are moving in the right direction.
CHN: When did you decide that you wanted to be a coach?
Cole: I think hockey decided for me. I was still playing and I broke my leg and it kind of set me back and the next year I couldn't, it was probably going to be my last year and I was trying to play professionally and I couldn't physically play. That was in Grand Rapids with the Griffins (AHL) and they had to pay me and they said, "We'd love to have you stick around and help out coach." So that's how I got started. I really wasn't thinking about that, I was just trying to get back and play. After about a week I found myself really enjoying it and decided I really got the bug and wanted to stick with it. Next thing you know, it's 18 years later and I've done this longer than if you throw my college and pro career together. Playing was a very, very special thing and I loved it, but I may enjoy coaching more than I enjoyed playing.
CHN: What makes you enjoy coaching?
Cole: I think there's a couple things. As a competitor, it's just great to still be in the arena. It's still great to get to the end of the day and you win, you lose and try and figure out how to get to the next day. All of us that played have that kind of feeling. I think that's outstanding, that's in our DNA. But the main thing that I really, really enjoy about it is the influence and the effect you can have on 22 young men every year. I look back at it on the hundreds of guys that I've been around and you get emails from young men when they get married or they have kids or they start coaching or they get a new job, and it's a really neat thing. I always say outside of my three daughters, the 22 young men that I get to deal with, or 25 young men I get to deal with every year, that's my biggest chance to influence the future and these young men's lives.
CHN: What’s the difference in relationships you can form with players at pro levels versus amatuer level?
Cole: It's different. At the NTDP you've got guys that are kids, they're juniors and seniors in high school and you have to have more of a, I don't want to say father-type situation, but it really is. It's different. And then college is a little older and then pros, guys are men. That's what they do for a living. They try to make money, they've got to pay bills so it just kind of grows that way. If they don't get it done they find themselves not there. I think the younger guys, the amatuer side in that sense can be a little more satisfying. I think there's still a little bit of innocence to it and you're not trading guys. You're in it for the long haul with them and you can teach them and take that time.
CHN: Who’s been the biggest influence or mentor on your coaching career?
Cole: There's probably two guys. Coach [Ron] Mason at Michigan State. [College is] a great time to interact with young men and teach them the right way to go about things and the right way to work and act and be responsible. Coach was really good with that. He treated us like men and expected us to act like men. And I tell you what, when we all went out and we went to NHL camps, we were ready. And I think that's when you really realized how much coach had passed onto you and what an advantage we had over some of the other young guys in NHL camps, whether we ended up making it or not.
[And] I played for Jeff Jackson in the Detroit area. Jeff was coaching midgets and then juniors and he was, he might not have been as good as he is now, but he was truly outstanding. Those six formative years of my life I had really, really good men teaching me how to be a man and how to play hockey and take a high level of interest in my life. That's just kind of the luck of the draw. ... The influence those guys had on me, I hope I have even a small percentage of that influence on the guys that I get to coach.
CHN: Was there any advice either Mason or Jackson gave you when you started your coaching career or during your coaching career?
Cole: There's a lot. I've mostly been a head coach and I know Mase, a few different times where there was some assistant opportunities that I was looking at at different levels [opened up], and I'd call him and talk to him and always came back to him. [He said], "Hey if you want to be a head coach, be a head coach and find yourself in that position." And I've kind of stuck with that and I haven't ventured too far away from it. There's been a few times when I have, but overall I've wanted to be a head coach and that's where I stayed. Outside of that, there's about a million things. Sometimes the patience, with coaches, it's hard to come by it but I think Mase was just a big believer in teaching and doing it until you get it right. I'd say those were probably a couple of things. Most of it was small stuff within a conversation, [like] if you're having trouble with a team or forecheck wasn't clicking with them, and there was always a pretty simple solution. There was always an idea that maybe was a little counterintuitive, but he always had a thought. And I tell you what, most of his thoughts seemed to work. He's a special man.
CHN: Have you decided what you want the team's identity to be yet?
Cole: I would like a team that is extremely hard to play against, a team that physically and mentally dominates another team. It would be an intense team that's intense on the ice, that's intense, love and bond with each other, which means it's guys that will do anything to win. It's guys that have fun working together. I've been around a lot of championship teams, been on some and coached some, [and] those are the intangibles. If there's a certain system or something like that, that's fine, there's a million different ones and there's a million different teams that have won championships for a reason, and it's finding the right one. But the intangibles and the heart and the passion that you have to play with should be evident.
CHN: What are the challenges ahead to turn Michigan State into a winning program?
Cole: All the things are there in terms of what we have on campus in terms of facilities, in terms of training, schedule, commitment from the university and certainly I believe in the coaching our guys will get. All those things are there. There's a little patience, we're going to have to teach and educate the guys that are there and continue moving them down the road and get them better. We're going to have to continue to push out and increase our recruiting and increase the number of elite players that we have coming through and build on that momentum. Patience is probably the biggest challenge, and just understanding that there's some good things to build on here and we're going to build on them, a little bit like the Maple Leafs went through. We've got to believe in that process, we've got to believe in that system and stick with it and not vary with it, like coach [Mason] would talk about [how] it's patience and repetition, and in that repetition is the system that will work that will get us to the end of the day, that'll get us to the high points, that'll get us through the low points. That's up to myself and our staff to implement.
CHN: Have you decided what your coaching staff will look like yet?
Cole: I've got a pretty good idea. I'm working towards that and i'm hopeful that everything will be settled and the dust settled and cleared fairly soon here.