Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Head Coach Candidate: Mike Kemp

Sixth in a series taking uninformed, uneducated guesses at the candidates to become the first head coach of Penn State's NCAA men's team. Previously: Current Icers coach Scott Balboni, Denver coach George Gwozdecky, Pittsburgh Penguins assistant Tony Granato, Robert Morris coach Derek Schooley, Wisconsin women's coach and American hero Mark Johnson.

For the latest HCC installment, I offer Mike Kemp for your consideration, the man perhaps best known as the first coach at the University of Nebraska-Omaha's relatively young NCAA program.

Kemp might be the only coach in this series other than Scott Balboni with experience coaching a non-varsity team - UNO in 1975-1976, when he was 23 and straight out of college. The university was looking for a quick club-to-NCAA transition 20 years before NCAA hockey actually took hold, and when the plan fell through, the team was disbanded and Kemp sought employment elsewhere. Thankfully, the many torch-bearers for the Icers over the years had slightly more persistence than UNO administration.

"Elsewhere" in Kemp's case meant five years at NCAA Division III Gustavus Adolphus, his alma mater, one at the late Illinois-Chicago program, and 14 at Wisconsin (in two stints) - all as an assistant. The second stint at Wisconsin was the most noteworthy. In 13 years under Jeff Sauer and serving as the lead recruiter, Wisconsin won four WCHA regular season or playoff titles and went to eight straight NCAA tournaments, a run that included the 1990 national championship.

Kemp was named UNO's first head coach on June 26, 1996 and the program began play in the 1997-1998 season - that lead time should sound familiar to anyone keeping a close watch on the Penn State situation.

It might be forgotten that UNO was actually pretty successful pretty quickly. Some of the highlights of Kemp's time as coach:
  • Beat both Denver and Maine in the Mavericks' inaugural season (1997-1998).
  • A surprise run to the championship game in the program's first season of CCHA play (1999-2000).
  • 24 wins in 2000-2001, the program's first winning season.
  • Climbed as high as No. 5 in the polls (in 2001-2002).
  • After some doldrums from 2002-2004 (21-48-10), a bounce-back season of 19-16-4 in 2004-2005, which netted Kemp CCHA coach-of-the-year honors.
  • Continued improvement in 2005-2006 leading to the program's first NCAA tournament bid.
  • 131 consecutive sellouts at the Civic Auditorium, UNO's home ice for the first six years.
  • Five first or second-team All-American selections by three players (Greg Zanon, Jeff Hoggan, Scott Parse) in the first 12 years of the program.
After the NCAA appearance, however, things get a little sticky. The Mavericks didn't build on that success and went 50-52-20 over Kemp's final three seasons. He stepped aside following 2008-2009, handing the reins to extremely highly-regarded, national championship-winning coach Dean Blais. It took all of half of a season for Blais to get UNO playing great hockey again using his trademark up-tempo style, a pretty strong indictment of Kemp. Still, Kemp's work was respected enough for him to stay with the university in an associate athletic director (think Joe Battista/hockey czar) role, where he remains today.

Despite the plateau the program seemed to hit, there's a lot to like. Fans had a legitimate reason to be excited as early as year three, when the Mavericks were one game away from the NCAA tournament. That's impressive. So is UNO's position today in just the 14th year of the program. There's a different man behind the bench, but Kemp's foundation shouldn't be discounted. Look where they were less than a decade in (2006) - not just the fact that they beat Michigan, but the enthusiasm from a packed barn in Omaha, NE of all places:

Here's what's kind of interesting to me: Kemp isn't exactly young - he'll be pushing 60 when the PSU program plays its first game. So, stepping out of the box for a second, what if we were to tap into his program-building and recruiting abilities with both sides knowing that we'd replace him in a few years? Get Mike Kemp for where Mike Kemp is good, then shift gears as he hits retirement (and before things stagnate), possibly with someone we've had on staff and groomed for the role, but possibly not.

Long story short: I like the UNO model, and bringing the guy largely responsible for it in might not be a horrible idea. But I could do without the part where they won two games after January 9th in Kemp's final season behind the bench. There has to be a way to take advantage of the best of both worlds.

1 comment:

  1. Kemp is a class act for sure. I think he would be a great hire and it has to be tough for him not coaching. But one major roadblock to Kemp leaving UNO is the fact that they are in the midst of an agreement for a new arena which is Kemp's legacy. Good luck PSU as you start it all up...I personally just hope that you join the CCHA and don't start a B10 conference.