Q&A With ... Alaska Coach Dallas Ferguson
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Just before the new school year, Alaska's university system completed a Strategic Pathways report, outlining how it planned to cut $50 million from its budget, as mandated by the state following a severe budget shortfall. Among the conclusions reached was that athletics at its two campuses, in Fairbanks and Anchorage, would have to be seriously restricted or completely eliminated, immediately putting both Division I hockey programs at risk.
Since then, the school's Board of Regents took a vote that decided athletics should be saved in some way, but no one is quite sure what that means yet. Amid that environment, the Seawolves and Nanooks began their new college hockey seasons.
CHN: How is everyone handling all of the questions you're getting about the future?
Ferguson: When the story broke there was a lot of questions, a lot of trying to get people the information of what the process was that the university as a whole was going through. I think people understand what's going on now. Getting through the first phase of the Stregic Pathways revealed the support that athletics has in our state and community, so that was positive to see. The Board of Regents voted at the last board meeting to keep Intercollegiate Athletics, now they're tasked to figure out what that will look like. But the biggest thing was making sure student athletes and their families had the information about the process, and then just trying to manage the program through recruiting, your alumni and your boosters. So I think people have a better understanding of what's going on, so that can give them perspective so they can continue to support the program like they do. And with the players our focus is just to get them ready for the season.
CHN: What exactly does the Board of Regents' decision mean for the hockey programs? It's still not 100 percent that you'll be around.
Ferguson: I think that's what's being determined right now. Yes there was a vote that Intercollegiate Athletics will be on our campuses and now, from what I understand, there's a committee formed to see what exactly that means and what does it look like — the number of sports, what sports, that type of thing. That's the next step. I know they're working on it and thinking about it, what makes sense for each campus. And we're waiting to see. I feel good that we're moving in the right direction. I think our program adds value to our campus and our community, so that's all we can do, continue to do things the right way and focus on being a strong program and get better and develop student athletes and represent the university the right way.
CHN: It's certainly good that the administrations have been fairly honest about what's been going on, but it must cause issues with recruiting. You want to be open, but it's tough.
Ferguson: We're honest too in the recruiting process. ... Something we've tried to emphasize, it's not just athletics. Everyone is being evaluated for efficiency. It's like anything — in business, people who have anything going on that's performance based, you're constantly evaluation your business. We do it as coaches all the time. We evaluate after every weekend, we evaluate after every practice, after every season, to ensure that we have success. So that's what the University is doing across the campus, not just with athletics. So through the process, there's been tremendous support in the community and with university leaders that athletics is important to this university, and the Board of Regents recognizing that. And maybe it stays the same. I don't think anyone is saying that there's going to be a change. But just because it's an evaluation it gets to be public, and all of a sudden people who are a long ways away from it start to think that maybe the worst thing is happening. I think we're past the worst thing, now it's about what does it look like and let's move forward. We have to manage it in the junior hockey world and where we're recruiting, and it's hard. But prior to this news breaking our program had a great reputation for being competitive and developing good hockey players and good people and our kids are graduating. So that's not changing, we're still the same coaching staff, the same university, it's just right now the university is going through a process that we're a part of and we need to respect.
CHN: There was a report quoting Anchorage that they were suspending recruiting. They walked it back, but that couldn't have helped either.
Ferguson: I always say I have enough things to worry about than worrying about other people's programs and other things going on. I'm not sure how that came about or if it was taken out of context or not, but our program has been moving forward and finding the best student athletes that are a right fit for us. I think so far the response in junior hockey — I think the first thing is, "What's going on out there." We explain the process to them. We're not hiding anything, and at the end of the day, our body of work, nobody wants to see us go away and what we've done over the course of a couple decades of growing the program and making it into a viable and competitive Division I program. The people we've been recruiting from over the years, and the coaches and programs we're recruiting from, understand that and when we give them the information, we'll get through this.
CHN: There's no doubt you guys have a great reputation as a coaching staff, but people are going to be wary at least a little. You can't blame them.
Ferguson: No. If there's any uncertainty ... it can be like that with a program that isn't having success and all of a sudden it's, "Well, will that coaching staff be around and what's going on?" So there's always uncertainty. but you need to build the relationships so that you can get through things like this. That's what we've always prided ourselves on. It's not the program's first taste of adversity and it probably won't be our last. But the way you get through it is being honest and recruit good people and stick together. You look at our locker room right now, we've got great leadership. And we have kids that have been here just over a month that have bought in and will be part of this going forward.
CHN: Has your confidence ever wavered? You have enough challenges already. You've been loyal. But has there ever been a moment like, "How much more can I face?"
Ferguson: (laughs) No. I was hired to do a job here. I played for the university and I've been coaching a long time so there's a loyalty there, and there's good people here and we have great fan support and great alumni support. So for me personally it's nice to know that hasn't changed. The other thing is, look at the big picture — we've got a season to play here and it's our job to make sure they are prepared to play. And they can really enjoy themselves when they're having success, and let's just focus on the things we do. Some things can be a little out of our control. So the approach that I take is focus on the things I can focus in on, and that's the program and the student athletes.
CHN: How did you like the changes in the WCHA, adding 3-on-3 overtime and the fully on-campus postseason tournament arrangement?
Ferguson: I like it. ... A lot of coaches would tell you their postseason championships have changed a bit, for whatever reason. And bringing it back on campus will be exciting for the fans, and the players. We have schools that have really fun places to play in and you'll bring the energy back to it. That adjustment is going to be really positive. As far as the overtime, we've gone back and forth with it over the years and when's the right time to make the change — I think it was the right time for us. We have a good, competitive league — you can look at our standings every year. It's going to be even tighter this year with the parity. ... I was a big fan of it in the NHL watching them play 3-on-3. There wasn't many whistles and there was a lot of scoring chances. How do you prepare for that? You have to have a little bit of strategy but I think you need to go out and play and try to win the game.
CHN: What about NCAAs? Do you think that should go back on campus?
Ferguson: We've been to the tournament once, in 2010, and the experience we had in Worcester was great. There were pretty good crowds there and I think the players enjoyed the experience. I'm for the neutral sites because I think when you get onto that stage, you probably have played that team once or twice all season long, but I think there's several times you haven't played that team and don't know them. So making it the most neutral possible is the right thing to do there. At the end of the day, when you're playing with those 16 teams, they're playing to make the Frozen Four and win a national championship. Their focus isn't as much on student athlete experience. Because their experience is going to be 1. you made it; and 2. you get to the next round and the next round. So I don't think they're looking in the crowds as much as they're focused on getting to that next day. ... You have to keep it as level as possible against giving anybody a home ice advantage when you haven't seen them. If you're focusing your (national) tournament just on getting as many people (to attend) as possible, then great. But if you're focusing on your student athletes and winning a national championship, you keep it as fair as possible. And if you have some deficiencies in an area, you evaluate it and say, "OK, are we doing the right thing here in terms of ticket prices, game times, locations, venues?" So you have to constantly be looking at that and be willing to make changes in that area. But I don't think you change the competition level of the tournament.