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Lucia's extension could be cut short if Gophers' struggles continue

  • Blog Post by: Roman Augustoviz
  • April 21, 2011 - 1:46 AM

Next season will be Don Lucia's 25th as a head coach. He has been at Minnesota since the 1999-2000 season, so. next season will be his 13th at Minnesota, his 18th in the WCHA.

Still no word yet on his contract extension, which athletic director Joel Maturi promised to give him shortly after this season ended.

"I have been fortunate enough to be part of a lot of successes," Lucia said on WCCO radio last month. "Obviously, you are going to have some disappointments along the way. This [losing to Alaska Anchorage in the first round of the playoffs] was a disappointment. It is almost like you get your heart ripped out.

"But you always have to self-reflect and look at yourself in the mirror first and analyze, first of all, what can I do to be better and second what can we do as a staff. And that's in the weight room and everything else we do in our program, recruiting, to get better."

Lucia said he still has great passion for coaching. "The previous couple years when I was sick, obviously it was a very difficult time for me to have the energy," he said. "But this year showed me more than ever that I enjoyed the practice. I enjoyed watching this team grow. I enjoyed watching them overcome. 

"I felt good about where we were from the start of the year to the end of the year  playing a lot of young guys. We made great improvement and that's what you want to see as a coach. ... Unfortunately, we didn't have success that first round of the playoffs and that ultimately cost us."

Comments: Lucia had great success in his third and fourth seasons at the U, winning NCAA titles in 2002 and '03. The Gophers were still a force in college hockey through the 2006-07. That season ended with them beating North Dakota to win the Final Five, but losing to the Sioux in a region final a week later.

Since then the Gophers have finished seventh, fifth, seventh and fifth in the WCHA.

In 2008, the Gophers edged Minnesota State -- on the road -- in a series with three overtime games. Then they reached the Final Five title before losing. More than enough for an NCAA at-large bid. Their NCAA tournament run was short: the Gophers lost to eventual NCAA champion Boston College in their first game, in Worchester, Mass.

In 2009, the Gophers beat St. Cloud State in the first round of the WCHA playoffs at Mariucci but lost to UMD in the Final Five quarterfinal game. The Bulldogs went on to win the Broadmoor Trophy. No NCAA bid.

In 2010, the Gophers lost to North Dakota in Grand Forks in the first round of the playoffs. No Final FIve, no NCAA bid.

In 2011, the Gophers lost to Alaska Anchorage at home in the first round of the playoffs. No Final Five, no NCAA bid for the third year in a row.

See the trend? Worst finishes the past three years. Not much shame in losing to BC. Then Gophers lose to Final Five champions. Then on road at Ralph. And finally at home to UAA, which finished in a tie for eighth place in the WCHA.

Finishes getting harder to understand every year.

ON RECRUITING

Lucia, on same 'CCO program, said the days of recruiting players, knowing you are going to have them for three, four years is over. "The NHL, they want their players, and as quickly as they possibly can," Lucia said. "We have do a better job of looking at -- trying to blend our recruiting class.

"You still need your top-end guys," he said. "We are all better coaches with great players at any level. But we also have to have some soldiers that can play that role on your team, that are older and may be grizzly veterans that have played 100 games of junior hockey. They are going to do whatever it takes to win.

"And then we also have to blend in maybe some smaller players. Maybe they will never be any NHL players, but they can be real good college players."

Comment: Seems like Lucia has figured out a team loaded with high NHL prospects doesn't necessarily translate into college success. The Gophers had 19 NHL draftees on their team, but had trouble with teams like Bemidji State, Minnesota State and Alaska Anchorage, which had only a few or none.  

ON HIS EXTENSION

"Fortunately, I have been in the WCHA 18 years and I have a body of work," Lucia said. "And I think [Maturi] has confidence in me and I have confidence in myself that we can turn this ship back and get it in the direction where we want it to be.

"The disappointment again is we had it going the right way this year. We made great improvement from last year's team and great improvement from the start of the year to the end of the year." Until Alaska Anchorage came to visit.

Comment: The Gophers had a nice 5-0-2 run at the end of the regular season. But one has to wonder how impressive that streak was? The first win came against a strong Denver team (7-3). Wow.

Then the Gophers tied and beat Wisconsin on the road (5-2, 3-3). The Badgers were stumbling and bumbling at the end of the season.

Next the Gophers sweep Michigan Tech at Mariucci (5-2, 5-2). Who didn't? 

And finally the Gophers tie and win in OT at Bemidji State (2-2, 3-2). Two squeakers against a good defensive team which didn't score much and finished ninth in the WCHA.

Were the Gophers playing that well or was it the soft opponents? 

Lucia kept talking about the importance of getting home ice. Was team satisfied to achieve that goal? Did the players expect the Seawolves to roll over to the home team at Mariucci?

MATURI'S

Maturi was on ESPN1500 five days after the Gophers season ended, trying to explain himself.

He said he witnessed the disappointment on the ice at Mariucci and the lack of fans and the magic atmosphere in the stands this season.

"The easy thing to do is to quickly think that it is going to change if you immediately change coaches," he said. "What that does is it buys you some hope and some time. But obviously as athletic director I have made the decision that I do think that Don Lucia is the right person for this job.

"He has proven it over a long period of time and, yes, we are not where we should be and he knows in the end that he has to win. But I believe for many reasons he deserves that opportunity and I am going to provide it for him."

Maturi said he plans on offering Lucia a contract similar to football coach Tim Brewster's last contract., "The extension with Brewster did not cost the university any significant additional dollars," Maturi said, when the decision was made to fire him after the 2010 season.

Lucia has one year left on his contract, which expires June 30, 2012. 

"It is important that recruits know that I have confidence in [Lucia]," Maturi said, "and that I believe he is going to be our hockey coach and that the proud tradition can return."

Maturi said he tries to make decisions on more than wins and losses.

"In the case of Don Lucia,  we have a very ethical person who has great values, who cares about the kids for the right reasons," Maturi said. "Academics are important to him. The compliance aspect is important to him. He has been a great team player to all of us here at the institution and done what we have asked. In the end, he has to win more games." 

Comment: Maturi turned the heat up on himself by acting so quickly on Lucia. He met with him on Monday, two days after the season ended. And on Tuesday he was already telling the media he would extend Lucia's contract.

Have heard most often that the extension would be for three years. So a recruit coming in next fall could expect to have Lucia as his coach his entire career. (Remember Lucia already is under contract for 2011-12.)

Did Maturi do a thorough evaluation of the season and Lucia? Did he talk to players, those staying and those leaving? Lucia's assistant coaches? Alumni? 

With Gophers fans still in mourning, Maturi said, he would bring Lucia back. Sure seemed like Maturi didn't ask anyone for any input on the decision. He just made the call.

That had at least one former Gophers players quite upset. Several that I know of wrote e-mails to Maturi questioning the extension. 

Was there a big alumni revolt, like several members of the media have suggested? Not sure.

What I am sure of is, Lucia will be in the hot seat next season. The West Regional is at the Xcel in 2012 and if the Gophers aren't there, Lucia's 13th season at the U could be his last.

Fans are getting restless. They are asking, "What have you done lately?"

 

  

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