After firing Mike Eaves, what’s next for Wisconsin hockey?
It was hard not to see this one coming.
Mike Eaves may have compiled a record of 267-225-66 over his 14 years behind the bench at Wisconsin, his alma mater, but 45 of those losses have come in the last two years. In the last two seasons, his Badgers won just 12 out of 70 games.
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This season was long seen as something of a “prove-it” year after a four-win campaign threatened his job. He doubled that number this season, but going 8-18-8 isn't going to cut it in Madison. Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez told Andy Baggot of UWBadgers.com:
“After last season, because of the success we've had in the past, we felt that Mike had earned a chance to get the ship righted. But now, after back-to-back seasons like the last two we've had, I feel we need a change. Our fans and everyone expect more. With our facilities and what we have to sell, we feel we should be at a championship level.”
The decision came down a little more than 12 hours after Wisconsin was rather meekly eliminated from the Big Ten tournament by Penn State, losing 5-2. It wrapped the third losing season in the last five years for the Badgers, who also went 17-18-2 in 2011-12.
But what makes this confounding for many in the industry is that the losing campaign, and the two most recent ones, came wrapped around 22- and 24-win years in which the team won its league's postseason title (first in the WCHA and then in the new Big Ten) and qualified for the NCAA tournament. He also made the NCAA tournament seven times in 14 years — not the greatest record of success for that program — but that included an NCAA title in 2006, and a trip to the national title game in 2010. He also won just the two aforementioned league titles in that time, with no regular-season championships to go with them.
Some have pointed out that Eaves' recruiting abilities have waned in recent years, with only 18-year-old Luke Kunin — a probable first-round pick in this year's draft — to really show for it. The team has suffered considerable attrition in the form of de-commits, losses to the CHL and early departures that have largely gutted the program of the high-end talent in which it used to positively roll. Likewise, it's fair to say that the two teams which had 20-plus wins in 2012-13 and 2013-14 were the product of Eaves going very, very old.
That 2012-13 roster had 13 juniors and seniors, as well as a few talented underclassmen. The next year, it was 16. As those guys aged out of the program, they weren't replaced with equally talented players, and here we are. Not much more to say about it: Eaves managed his team into a corner from which he could not emerge again.
In a lot of ways, Alvarez's hand was forced, and it's certainly not an issue where this was an easy financial decision. Brad Schlossman of the Grand Forks Herald reported that Eaves didn't have a buyout clause in his current deal, which runs through 2019.
He's getting all that money, reportedly $236,500 per year.
But now it's time to figure out what happens next. Complicating the process for Wisconsin, to some extent, is that this is the second coach firing this month, as Eaves joins four-year UMass coach John Micheletto. More could be on the way. These are two programs with some money to throw around and pretensions toward national competitiveness, if not dominance, and it's probably a long road in that regard.
Certainly, Wisconsin is the more attractive job than UMass, for a lot of reasons, but people around the college game expect that the Badgers have already targeted their guy: Don Granato.
He's currently the head coach of the U.S. National Team Development Program, and also has head coaching experience at both the ECHL and AHL levels, including the coach of the year award in the latter back in 2000-01. More important to all this, though, is that he played for Wisconsin in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
There's also Mark Osiecki, a former Badger and teammate of Granato's, who currently serves as associate coach for the Rockford IceHogs in the AHL. He was also an assistant coach under Eaves from 2004-2010, and head coach at Big Ten rivals Ohio State from 2010-2013 (but got fired after three pretty lackluster, sub-.500 seasons).
Another name that's come up a lot for college coaching in recent years is George Gwozdecky, a Badger for two seasons in the mid-70s who is most famously a two-time national title winner as head coach of Denver from 1994 to 2013. He was an assistant in Tampa Bay for two years after that, and should warrant consideration because he's a very good coach who has spawned about 1,000 former assistants who became head coaches elsewhere.
The only concern expressed by many is that he's closing in on 63, so Wisconsin might prefer to go with someone younger to steer them out of the skid.
Mark Johnson, a former Badger and head of the Wisconsin women's team that's about to play a game in the women's Frozen Four, might merit consideration as well, but some experts seem to be dismissive of the idea.
Hiring alums is something that a lot of athletic programs are valuing more and more these days, but there should be some other candidates for the job outside the ranks of former Badgers.
For instance, if Alvarez is smart, he's also getting on the phone with Nate Leaman, currently the head coach at Providence College and winner of the most recent national title.
He also built pretty much the entire roster for 2014 national champions Union before jumping to the Friars. And as an alum of SUNY Cortland, it's possible that Wisconsin could pay him enough to make him move again. However, Leaman has a very young family that he might not want to uproot (who could blame him?), especially with Providence continuing to dominate Hockey East and the school making a huge financial commitment to the program in recent years. Still, his is a name that comes up in just about every coaching search, and if you're Alvarez that's at least a phone call you have to make.
It'll be an interesting offseason in Madison this year, that's for sure. But this was a move that had to be made. And probably should have been made sooner.
Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist and also covers the NCAA for College Hockey News. His email is here and his Twitter is here.