Thursday, March 10, 2011

Head Coach Candidate: Don Lucia

Eighth 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: Icers coach Scott Balboni, Denver coach George Gwozdecky, Pittsburgh Penguins assistant Tony Granato, Robert Morris coach Derek Schooley, Wisconsin women's coach Mark Johnson, Nebraska-Omaha hockey czar and former coach Mike Kemp, Ottawa Senators assistant Greg Carvel.

In accordance with what I said two weeks ago, I was ready to move on from current NCAA head coaches for the most part and hit up assistants and the junior ranks. Then, out of nowhere, this dropped into my lap.
By the way, if Don Lucia isn't retained by the Gophers, upstart Penn State, which is expected to become part of a Big Ten hockey conference, would seem a likely suitor.
Have I ever needed more than that? Of course not. And let's start with a video, because it's quite good.

Great message. And if you were listening carefully, he touched on his background, how he runs a practice and he even flashed some humor. Maybe not Schooley-level stuff, but I did crack up at the "unless the milkman's been over" line.

As mentioned, he's a native of Grand Rapids - MN, not MI. I guess that was assumed knowledge to his audience there. A defenseman, he helped the local high school win two state championships and finish third in his other two years, which is obviously nothing to sneeze at in that particular state. He moved on to Notre Dame, playing 124 games over four seasons and graduating in 1981. Although he was drafted by the Flyers in 1978, the fact that it was in the 10th round probably helped encourage him to jump into coaching right out of college, as an assistant at Alaska-Fairbanks (now just "Alaska," which I'll use throughout for simplicity), then a Division II program, from 1981-1985.

I wouldn't normally play up a beginning-of-the-career assistant gig too much, but the Nanooks made a pretty impressive leap forward during his stay there under Ric Schafer, from a program that never really had direction and one that was 5-42-0 from 1980-1982, to one that had its first two 20-win seasons ever in Lucia's last two years there before jumping to archrival Alaska-Anchorage as an assistant, a sort of curious, seemingly lateral move.

I say "lateral" because Alaska jumped to Division I for the 1985-1986 season, joining relatively new DI member UAA and now-defunct programs Northern Arizona and US International in something called the Great West Hockey Conference. After two years of 31-29-3 and a conference championship (asterisk alert: it was a three-team conference at that point), Lucia bounced back to Fairbanks into the now-vacant head job, as Schafer had left for Notre Dame.

Because we're talking about Alaska, it's vital that I work this video in, even though it has absolutely nothing to do with Lucia. Best intro video ever.

So he blows up Earth, then flies through a black hole to get to...Alaska? Maybe that asteroid the rink is sitting on is a fragment of the exploded planet. But then, why fly through a black hole to get there? And should we hire this bear to create lightning-powered sticks from his paws and save money?

Back to the point. At Alaska, Lucia won a conference championship and a conference coach of the year in his first season (again, three-team conference, don't be too impressed). Then team no. 3 dropped hockey, forcing the GWHC to disband and remaining members Alaska and Alaska-Anchorage to go indy. I wish they had attempted a two-team conference just for comedy's sake. As Alabama-Huntsville can tell you, that's a pretty tough road to travel, so with Lucia at the helm, Alaska gained admission into the CCHA in 1992, although they didn't start playing in it as an affiliate member until 1994. The Nanooks were up and down during Lucia's six seasons - fittingly, they went 7-27-1 and 23-12-2 in his last two seasons there, before his departure for Colorado College.

Much like George Gwozdecky's stint at Miami might be my favorite part of his career (for our purposes), with Lucia, I think you have to place a lot of emphasis on his time at CC. If you're not familiar with that situation, when Lucia arrived in Colorado Springs in 1993, the program's very survival was far from certain. The Tigers, a dominant program in the early years of their program and of the NCAA hockey championship, had fallen on over three decades of hard times. Since joining the WCHA in 1959 and until Lucia's tenure, they had four winning seasons. They had never won a WCHA title. Legends like Bob Johnson (27-49-4 from 1963-1966) and Jeff Sauer (166-226-11 from 1971-1982) couldn't do anything about either of those facts.

So naturally, it surprised nobody when Lucia strolled into town and ripped off a 23-11-5 record (best since 1956-1957) and CC's first-ever MacNaughton Cup, which is awarded to the WCHA regular-season champion. Or when they improved on that record each of the two seasons after that, winning two more MacNaughton Cups and advancing to the 1996 national championship final. Or when that best-since-1957 record actually turned out to be Lucia's second-poorest in six seasons there.

Oh, and I didn't even mention what might be the worst part. In 1994 - right in the middle of the Tigers' run of WCHA titles - their home rink, the Broadmoor World Arena, was torn down. Once again, the future of the program was in doubt, until the neighboring Air Force Academy graciously offered use of their facility for the next four seasons, until a replacement facility was completed. Through it all? Not even a blip on the radar in terms of the on-ice product. In fact, CC was a Frozen Four team twice while playing home games at Cadet Ice Arena. And the foundation was lasting - they've continued as a perennial power to this day, now under coach Scott Owens.

Whatever you think of Penn State's chances for success in NCAA hockey, there's no way we're going to face that much adversity.

Do something like that, and people are rightly impressed. Even hockey royalty like Minnesota, which lured Lucia away from CC in 1999. So he goes to Minnesota, runs off eight NCAA appearances in a row, three Frozen Fours, the 2002 and 2003 national championships, and five WCHA regular season or tournament titles - all in his first nine seasons.  Among the notable Gophers during this time: Keith Ballard, Alex Goligoski, Erik Johnson, Phil Kessel, Jordan Leopold, Paul Martin, Kyle Okposo, Thomas Vanek and Blake Wheeler. You may have heard of a couple of these guys.

Just for my guy Matt Walfrand. John Pohl is the guy on the left ruining Jordan Leopold's picture with the 2002 NCAA trophy.

I know what you're thinking: all of this is well and good, but how in the hell do you expect to get this guy away from Minnesota for less than seven figures? Well, if you glossed over my lead-in, we might not need to lure him away, he might be unemployed. Canned. Fired.

Yep, it's true. Because really, after a banner 2006-2007 season, the winning big stuff basically stopped on a dime - 70-61-24 record since, and the distinct possibility of missing the NCAA tournament for the third season in a row. Acceptable at some places, but not Minnesota, especially not after the levels they achieved in the early part of his tenure. It should be noted that the Gophers have gotten hot at the right time this year with a 5-0-2 record since February 12th, and that they can still make the NCAA tournament or even win the Broadmoor Trophy (WCHA playoff championship). Any of these outcomes probably delays Lucia's firing, meaning I just wasted a lot of my (and your) time.

Like most of the people I've looked at, there are parts I like and parts I don't. Obviously the biggest plus, by a lot, is the job he did at CC, with bonus points for seeing Alaska through an unstable period. As much as we all want to believe everything will be perfect, there will be bumps in the road, and getting a guy who's been through worse bumps is not a horrible idea.

The problem is, the biggest minus comes after that. I mean, look, I'm the last guy to heap undue deference on a pile of banners, blue blood and some "we're in a hockey state, you're not" rhetoric, but Minnesota? Really? The last time they missed three NCAAs in a row, they got rid of Doug Woog to bring in Lucia. Time before that? The 1960s. It doesn't happen very often, and I'm not particularly keen on leftovers. I wouldn't be upset with the hire per se (I don't do these on guys I think suck, if you didn't notice), but I'll place him somewhere in the middle of the pack so far.

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