February 22, 2010 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Western Michigan's Coaching Options

by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor

There hasn't been a very big "hot seat" in college hockey in recent years. There were times you could list a bunch of names, but over the last 5-10 years, the quality of coaching has increased to even higher levels than it had been before, and the parity is increasing too.

Some would say someone like Minnesota coach Don Lucia is on the "hot seat." I guess he's always there, in one sense, but it seems ridiculous to even question getting rid of him. Bowling Green coach Dennis Williams, 29, who still has the "interim" tag after his late replacement of Scott Paluch last summer, will more likely than not be "upgraded" at some point, as soon as Bowling Green feels it's on totally solid footing.

Two names, however, that seem to always surface are Western Michigan's Jim Culhane and Ohio State's John Markell. Both are very easy to deal with, so this is written with the ever-present caveat that it's nothing personal.

But Western Michigan has spent too many years in the doldrums during Culhane's 11-season tenure, and the school finally decided to make the switch — allowing Culhane to close out the season.

That leaves Markell. Ohio State hockey made great strides during his tenure, making the NCAAs six times — including a somewhat surprising run last year that had followed three straight sub-.500 seasons. But there has been a gnawing sense that the program could do even more. And with a NHL-sized arena on campus hanging on him like an albatross, the program has dipped in the last few years. Markell is on the last year of his contract and hasn't been renewed, which is unusual.

Meanwhile, we're hearing rumblings that the donations to the program have dried up. Long-time supporters are fed up.

So, whether it's fair or not, once the money dries up, that's when athletic directors really start to take notice — even ones who don't typically show as much care about hockey as perhaps some of the other CCHA schools do.

Between that, neighbor Miami's rise, the pressure from the Big Ten Network, and so on — Ohio State is looking like a strong candidate to make a move. Don't expect any big names, however. There's no Jeff Jackson sitting out there. And just because Ohio State is a "huge" school with lots of potential resources, doesn't mean other big-name college coaches will leave where they are. Can you name anyone who would leave their spot and consider Ohio State a better opportunity? I can't.

We'll have more to say on that if the situation ever arises. For now, let's handicap the Western Michigan opening instead.

Western Michigan

There's no reason Western Michigan can't at least be a pretty good program. It has a nice building, with good facilities, and a reputation for strong on-campus student support. But to get there, if the school wants to, it will have to step up its budget, including coaching salaries.

“It’s time to upgrade this and to upgrade it right,” athletic director Kathy Beauregard told the Kalamazoo Gazette. “And that’s why we need to strategically really think it through and figure out the support that we can truly get and get the respect back of the CCHA and where Western really should be in the mix.”

Outgoing coaches always love to hear that things will be upgraded AFTER they leave. Thanks.

Anyway, like Ohio State, however, don't expect any big-name guys to be flocking to Kalamazoo.

On the other hand, Western Michigan has a bevy of alums in the coaching profession, most of whom have a connection to former head coach Bill Wilkinson, who most recently lost his job when Wayne State's program folded. There is no chance, by the way, of Wilkinson returning, given how he left — but it is interesting to think about him leading the Broncos to the 1996 NCAAs.

Most of the names are pretty obvious, but I'd be remiss not giving a big tip of the cap to the guys at the BroncoHockey blog (http://broncohockey.blogspot.com/), who do a stellar job following the team. They also recently broke down the candidates, and we did get some inspiration from them.

There are no less than five prominent names out there with Western Michigan connections:

Scott Garrow, Cornell assistant — Western Michigan alum, he played under Wilkinson and Mike Schafer, then later coached with Culhane. Schafer is now his head coach at Cornell. Garrow went to Cornell after Jamie Russell left to take the Michigan Tech top spot.

Derek Schooley, Robert Morris head coach — Another alum. The former Air Force assistant has done great work building the Robert Morris program from scratch, now in its sixth year. They have been giant killers, though that still hasn't resulted in an NCAA appearance.

Joe Bonnett, Colorado College assistant — Yes, another alum, recruited by Wilkinson and Schafer, then went to Miami as a grad student to work under Mark Mazzoleni before heading to CC in 2001.

Brent Brekke, Miami assistant — Another alum with a Wilkinson/Schafer/Cornell connection as well. He was Cornell's assistant until leaving for Miami before last season, and did a great job there coaxing a lot out of a very young defensive group.

Frank Serratore, Air Force head coach — Transferred to Bemidji State after spending two years as a goalie for the Broncos. That makes him and Schooley the only current head coaches with a WMU connection. He's happy at Air Force, but perhaps he's taken that as far as he can go, and wants another shot at a big conference. He was the coach at Denver before being replaced in favor of George Gwozdecky in the mid-'90s.

BroncoHockey also mentions the intriguing option of Danton Cole. Of course, Cole is a Michigan State grad and was an assistant in the CCHA, before taking the Alabama-Huntsville job. But now, that program doesn't have a home. Cole has said publicly he's committed to helping UAH get through this, but he can't be blamed for having higher aspirations. If he puts his hat in the ring, he'd be a major candidate.

There are of course a bevy of well-qualified, long-time assistants sitting out there. BroncoHockey mentioned Brian Renfrew (Michigan State), who is also a WMU alum, but is also in line to replace Rick Comley. Same can be said for Michigan's assistants, who are always bandied about. But then there's Mike Hastings (Nebraska-Omaha) and Andy Slaggert (Notre Dame).

There's also John Hill (Minnesota), Buddy Powers (Boston University) and Stan Moore (Providence), all of whom have been Division I head coaches. Moore was a two-time ECAC Coach of the Year, once at Union before he resigned to return to Colgate as an assistant; and another at Colgate when he filled in for Don Vaughan during a one-year hiatus. Hill spent four years at Alaska-Anchorage before leaving to be an assistant at Minnesota. Powers was at RPI then Bowling Green for many years, before being let go by the Falcons.

Paul Pooley is another former D-I head coach turned assistant again. Now at Notre Dame, he had some good moments at Providence, but was eventually let go and his successor has fared no better. He's an Ohio State alum, however, and maybe he'd be more interested in that, if they wanted him.

Keeping with the Cornell connection, what about Casey Jones? He has the benefit of having been a long-time CCHA assistant at Ohio State, before heading back to his alma mater last season. Is he waiting in the wings at Cornell, or is this a job he'd take?

Another Eastern assistant I always mention is Dartmouth's Dave Peters, as well qualified as anyone there is, though it will be tough for him to make a big impression with a "Western" school given all of WMU's options.

Then there's David Quinn, who coached in the USHL, then at BU, and was a major candidate a Nebraska-Omaha, before the Mavs made the big splash for Dean Blais. So Quinn left BU for the American Hockey League.

As always, there will be lots of intrigue here, and no shortage of qualified candidates — big name or not.

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