Don Lucia determined it was time — time to move aside and let someone else take over.
On Tuesday, after 19 years, two national championships, 13 NCAA tournament appearances and a recent run of disappointing seasons, Lucia stepped down as Gophers men’s hockey coach.
“I’ve always felt this is a great job, but somebody else should have an opportunity, too,” Lucia said at an afternoon news conference with athletic director Mark Coyle by his side.
Lucia, who had one year remaining on his contract, will become a special assistant to Coyle through the end of next school year, when his hockey contract was set to expire. Lucia thanked Coyle for “allowing me to leave on my terms.”
Lucia now will focus on fundraising for upgrades to 3M Arena at Mariucci. Lucia made $612,500 this season, and the final year of the contract will be restructured for his new role and reviewed by the Board of Regents, possibly later this week, according to a school spokesman.
The move comes two days after the Gophers did not make the NCAA tournament for the second time in three years. Lucia said his decision was not related to that disappointment and had been on his mind for a while.
“I was never one to say I’m going to coach until I was 65 or 70. I looked at probably around 60 was not a bad time,” said Lucia, 59, the Gophers’ winningest hockey coach with a 457-248-73 record. “… I knew pretty much the last month or two — even when things were going well, and we thought we’d be in the NCAA [tournament].”
Lucia informed his players at an early afternoon meeting that Coyle also attended.
“We’re really going to miss Coach Lucia,” sophomore defenseman Tyler Nanne said. “We’re really appreciative of what he did for the program and the tradition he’s built. It was a really good meeting [Tuesday]. Almost a celebration of all he’s done. With a 19-year run and a couple national championships, he deserves it.”
Coyle was complimentary, too.
“I’ve been blessed to work with a lot of really good coaches,” he said, “and there’s not a finer gentleman than this guy right here.”
Lucia led Minnesota to 11 regular-season conference titles, four league playoff titles and five NCAA Frozen Fours. His signature moment came in 2002, when Minnesota defeated Maine 4-3 in overtime in the NCAA championship game at Xcel Energy Center, ending the program’s 23-year national championship drought. A year later, the Gophers repeated as champions.
Recently, however, the Gophers haven’t reached those heights, and they have missed the NCAA tournament in five of the past 10 years. And as the Gophers slumped, other Minnesota schools have improved. Over the past four seasons, the Gophers have gone a combined 8-19 against Minnesota Duluth (1-8), Minnesota State Mankato (2-4), St. Cloud State (2-6) and Bemidji State (3-1).
This season, Minnesota fell to 19-17-2 and finished fifth in the seven-team Big Ten. The Gophers lost in the first round of the Big Ten tournament, being swept in two games at Penn State, and finished the season with four consecutive losses against the Nittany Lions.
On Saturday night, the Gophers’ chances of an NCAA tournament berth ended when six conference championship game results knocked them out. Lucia became aware of that unlikely scenario upon leaving mass.
“I said, ‘If we lose all six of these games, the good Lord is telling me it’s time to do something else,’ ” Lucia said Tuesday.
Compounding things has been the program’s move from the WCHA, the popular, regionally based conference, to the Big Ten, a new league whose closest member to Minnesota is Wisconsin.
Fans have not taken to the new conference, and attendance at Mariucci has fallen. The decision was made by conference officials and approved by member schools, but Lucia had to live with its unpopularity.
“You have to have thick skin to coach at the University of Minnesota,” Lucia said, “and I think mine’s like alligator skin right now.”
Coyle will turn his attention to finding a new coach. He doesn’t have a specific timetable and wouldn’t comment on whether the new coach must have Gophers roots.
“We want to find the best fit for Minnesota, somebody who understands what this program means,” he said. “This program in a lot of ways is the heartbeat of the state, and we need somebody who’s going to embrace that and understand that.”
Lucia said he’d be happy to assist Coyle in the search if asked.
“There should be a lot of good candidates,” he said. “Just like it was my time 20 years ago, it’s somebody else’s time now.”