While few of us will build careers as successful as Don Lucia’s, we all should aspire to denouements such as his.
Lucia announced his retirement as the Gophers men’s hockey coach Tuesday afternoon. He sat next to his boss, Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle, who smiled throughout the news conference.
Lucia thanked his family, breaking up as he mentioned his parents. He praised those who helped him along the way, and vowed to help improve the program as he finishes his contract.
Because Lucia’s last team failed to qualify for the NCAA tournament, Coyle could have decided to fire him even if Lucia had wanted to stay on the job. That would have been a justifiable decision, because Coyle knew Lucia had considered retirement anyway, but it would not have been ideal for anyone involved.
Coyle would have had to explain how he came to fire the only coach in his employ who had won a national championship, after hiring a football coach who finished 5-7 in his first season and retaining a basketball coach who has won 34 percent of his Big Ten games while his program has embarrassed the university with scandals.
Lucia would have been compelled to defend his record, and some of his players might have regretted their decisions to attend Minnesota.
Instead, The Don chose to write his own ending, to depart with grace, to create a smooth transition to his successor. This was a wise move by someone who always seemed more like a family man who enjoyed coaching hockey than a hockey coach who made time for family.
This way, as special assistant to the AD through June 2019, Lucia will continue to try to improve the program and its facilities, will maintain contact with the players he recruited and will be on hand to advise his successor.
“I’ve always tried to do it the right way,’’ Lucia said.
Should Lucia have won more national titles, given the advantages of coaching at Minnesota?
But it’s instructive to remember that only two coaches have won titles with the Gophers: Herb Brooks and Lucia, and Brooks won his titles in an era when there weren’t many heavyweight contenders.
As Coyle chooses Lucia’s successor, he should ignore the influential alumni who want to see a “U of M man’’ take over. That’s a small-time mentality.
Lucia didn’t play at Minnesota. He won two national titles, one coming on a goal from the first non-Minnesotan to earn a scholarship at Minnesota — Grant Potulny.
Coyle shouldn’t limit himself to Gophers alums, and Lucia’s program became stale enough at the end that he shouldn’t look to stay in-house, but Coyle might want to begin his search inside Minnesota’s borders.
To me, there are two ideal candidates: Minnesota Duluth’s Scott Sandelin and St. Cloud State’s Bob Motzko.
Both know how to recruit Minnesota players. Both intimately know the strengths and flaws of the Gophers program and Lucia’s tenure. Both have won big. Both have probably salivated, however privately, over the idea of marshaling the Gophers’ assets — Mariucci Arena, Big Ten money, influential and wealthy Gophers alums, a program that is its own recruiting service.
“Selfishly, we feel we have the best college hockey program in the country,’’ Coyle said. “This program is the heartbeat of the state.’’
Well, no, it isn’t. When I arrived in Minnesota in 1990, Gophers hockey ranked as one of the best sports experiences in the state. Now, unless you’re a college hockey diehard, it’s an afterthought. The presence of the Wild and the move to the Big Ten have reduced the program’s prominence.
In a crowded marketplace, Gophers hockey will have to contend for national titles to regain its former place. The next coach should accept that challenge.
Luckily for the next coach, Lucia stepped aside gracefully, writing his own career ending. We should all be so accomplished, and so wise.