Derek Schooley’s to-do list stretched a mile long after Robert Morris University started its men’s hockey program 10 years ago.
Schooley’s first order of business as coach: Explain to recruits that Robert Morris is a private school located in Pittsburgh, not his actual name.
“Sometimes you’d call people and they would end the call and say, ‘Well Mr. Morris, it was good talking to you,’ ” Schooley said.
Occasionally, people thought he was calling on behalf of Philip Morris.
“The cigarette company,” Schooley noted.
A decade later, Schooley’s introduction no longer requires clarification in the college hockey world. His program’s steady climb hit a significant benchmark when the Colonials secured a spot in their first NCAA tournament.
Robert Morris drew the top-seeded Gophers in the first round of the West Regional on Saturday. The Colonials enter as decided underdogs, but considering they had only two victories at Christmas, they aren’t inclined to concede anything.
“Our guys have a lot of confidence right now,” Schooley said.
Enjoy a good March Cinderella story? Here they are. The Colonials began the season 2-12-2 and were dead last in the Atlantic Hockey Conference. They lost a bunch of close games and then lost their confidence.
Their season a mess, the Colonials took steps to expunge 2013 from their memories. Schooley cut out the 2013 portion from schedule posters. He erased the standings board in the locker room.
At one team meeting, he instructed his players to write down their regrets and failures. Then they fired up the propane tank on a grill and one by one, each player went outside and barbecued his list, an act that Schooley referred to as a “cleansing.”
“Whether it meant anything to them or not, it was a symbolic way to say, ‘Hey, let’s start over,’ ” Schooley said.
Something clicked. The Colonials won 17 games in the new calendar year, the most victories by any Division I team since Jan. 1.
His players can laugh about that motivational tactic now, the fact that they went outside in the snow in their shorts and T-shirts to burn paper.
“It was really cold,” forward Cody Wydo said.
Schooley knows all about starting over. He accepted the challenge of building a program after serving as an assistant coach at Air Force under Frank Serratore, father of Gophers senior forward Tom Serratore.
Schooley didn’t even have an assistant coach those first few months. He handled every task in creating a foundation. He designed jerseys, ordered equipment, put together a schedule, recruited players, sold his vision to anyone who’d listen.
It takes effort to rebuild a struggling program. It takes effort and a leap of faith to build one from scratch.
“You put your stamp on it,” Schooley said. “You had to get your name out there and really get them to believe in starting something new. We sold that hey, you’re part of the first team, first goal, first win, a bunch of firsts.”
Those firsts included some milestone upsets along the way. The Colonials swept No. 1 Miami (Ohio) a few years ago and stunned No. 2 Notre Dame in 2007. Now, they are in the NCAA championships after coming agonizingly close a few times.
“It validates everything we’ve been doing for the last 10 years,” Schooley said.
The program still remains in its infancy. Per their own conference rules, the Colonials award only 12 scholarships, which they divide and share among their roster. (That number will increase to 13 next season and 14 the following.)
By contrast, the Gophers and other Division I teams receive 18 scholarships.
“Our guys play like we’ve got 18,” Schooley said.
The Colonials take another meaningful step as a program Saturday, which will be a special moment for those who were there from the beginning. Schooley recalled that his team won its first game as a program.
“That’s the one time we’ve been over .500 in our program,” he said. “We were 1-0.”
The Colonials defeated Canisius that night. In a touch of perfect symmetry, the Colonials ousted Canisius in their conference championship to earn their first berth to the national tournament.
“I guess in 10 years it comes full circle,” Schooley said.