March 23, 2012 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Anastos, Seniors Lay the Foundation

Winning Over Players Early Was Crucial to Spartans' Success

by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — One year to the day since Tom Anastos was thrust into an unexpected situation, Michigan State's coach felt like another unexpected situation had just ended as he reflected after his team's NCAA Tournament First Round loss to Union.

"A year ago if somebody would've told me that we'd be in the top 16 teams in the country, I'd say it was not very likely," Anastos said. "The players worked real hard, they found ways to scratch and claw to get in this position. So I'm pleased with the progress today, but we have a long way to go to reach the level we want to be at."

Anastos was hired as Michigan State's new head coach last March, turning heads in the hockey community. He was known as a top administrator, the CCHA's commissioner, but had very little coaching experience at the college level, 20 years prior, and none as a head coach.

Michigan State, in need of a way to get Spartans fans excited again, turned to him as an alumnus with passion for the program, and as someone who gets things done.

But still, no one knew what to expect, and as much as Anastos had confidence in himself, he understood where others were skeptical.

The first, and most important, people Anastos had to win over were the players. The fact that he was successful fairly immediately in doing that, says a lot about why the Spartans got as far as they did this season.

Everyone knew Anastos was brought in to boost recruiting, but the first thing he did was tell the returning players emphatically that they were his guys.

"That was the most important thing to us," MSU senior defenseman Torey Krug said. "Any coaching change, they'll say al that stuff. But it means a lot that he actually meant it — we know he meant it."

It's clear they believed Anastos from how they responded to him.

"If actions speak, then yes, because those guys dove in and started immediately and worked incredibly hard," Anastos said. "We pushed them very hard because we wanted to establish a mentality.

"I've watched lots of teams, and I'm not saying coaches are saying those things, but outsiders — 'When he gets his guys ...' But these guys are my guys. They're just like me. They're Spartans for life. So I really believe that, from the beginning, and I believe that to this day ... you'd have to ask them, but based on the commitment to me and the coaching staff, I'd have to say absolutely (they believed me)."

But despite the good first impressions, not all of the trepidation was going to be eliminated right away.

"I'm not gonna lie, we were surprised too," Krug said. "But it was an unbelievable feeling. With any coaching change there's a period of nervousness and anxiety, but our period of nervousness was very short-lived. He won us over on that very first day.

"Guys were a little curious to how he'd do on the ice, running practice and running the bench. That was right out the door the first day on the ice."

With a team of pluggers, the Spartans clawed their way to an NCAA Tournament bid, the first one since 2008.

"At ice level, you see the margin of error is very small, and the difference between good and great is very small," Anastos said. "So we have to keep pursuing it."

Everyone has the greatest respect for Rick Comley, one of the sport's great gentlemen over the years, and an accomplished winner of two national championships and over 700 games. So everyone is understandably reluctant to say anything negative about him at all. But conventional wisdom held that the program had gotten complacent under Comley, and when he announced his retirement last winter, it was clear he was getting eased out the door.

As much as a coach, Michigan State needed a new CEO of its program — someone who was going to pound the pavement, both for players and for drumming up interest on campus, restoring the enthusiasm.

Anastos proved an axiom — that you put hard-working, organized, disciplined, intelligent, creative people in any role, and they'll get the job done. He'd already done it as one of the most respected administrators in the sport, so why not in head coaching?

Those skills will serve Anastos well going forward. And in the process, he's won over some other people too — such as former Spartan Rod Brind'Amour, who only played one season in East Lansing but was nevertheless on hand Friday.

"It was surprising, but it was good," Brind'Amour said of the Anastos hire. "I'm glad they got it back on track, because now look at it. ... You can go four years or one, that's the thing about college — that group you come in with are your best friends for life."

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