Don Lucia has no plans to give up his office at Mariucci Arena.
“I’ll be 58 this summer, I still love being with the kids,” the Gophers hockey coach said Tuesday. “Am I going to be coaching when I’m 70? No. But I still want to do it for a while longer. How long that is? I don’t know.”
Lucia’s assertion comes amid another turbulent stretch for him and his team. This latest “hot seat” moment — real or imagined — for Lucia also comes with time running short on his contract that expires following the 2016-17 season.
The veteran coach has experienced both championship celebrations and, in more recent seasons, fan fury over perceived underachieving. He’s taken plenty of heat in his 29 years behind the bench, but the most recent jabs hit home enough to cause Lucia to respond.
First, he defended his players after a City Pages article last week questioned the overall state of the Gophers men’s hockey program. The team had a losing record until its weekend sweep over Michigan State, last place in the Big Ten, gave it an 11-10 mark.
Then, Lucia addressed what continues to be a thorn in his 16 seasons at Minnesota, a stretch that includes a pair of national titles (2002, 2003), six regular-season conference championships and 12 NCAA tournament berths.
“There are some guys that — I’m not [a Minnesota alumnus] — and they weren’t happy I was hired and that I’m not an alum,” Lucia, a Notre Dame graduate from Grand Rapids, Minn., said last week. “Nothing has changed.
“We have a group [of alumni] that has been very, very supportive … but there’s also a group that five years ago tried to get me fired and told me ‘I’m not an alum,’ so they can’t support me.”
Lucia said Tuesday that he’s received ample support from alumni and fans since the article, which included several negative comments about program leadership, appeared on the cover of City Pages, which is owned by the Star Tribune but has a separate editorial staff.
“I got some nice e-mails even from fans that are so supportive, which is great to see,” Lucia said. “You want the support from the fans, you want the support from your alumni.”
Alumni and boosters funded a $5 million renovation of the Gophers’ locker rooms and facilities underneath Mariucci Arena, which will start in April.
Taking U job a ‘no-brainer’
Lucia left the Iron Range as a teenager in 1977 for South Bend, Ind. Ric Schafer, a Notre Dame assistant coach, offered Lucia a scholarship. Like most young players growing up in Minnesota, though, Lucia dreamed of wearing maroon and gold.
“I had a recruiting trip scheduled [at Minnesota] and then they canceled it because they got a commitment from somebody else, so I had to go elsewhere,” Lucia said. “So when I got the call, ‘Would I be interested in coaching [at Minnesota]?’ ” Sure, just like you would as a player being from our state, it was a no-brainer for me to say, ‘Yeah, I would love to be a part of the program.’
“I never had the opportunity to play here as a player, but when I got the opportunity to coach here, I wanted to be a part of it, too.”
Lucia, who played on two high school state championship teams, spent 21 years outside of Minnesota with stops in Indiana, Alaska and Colorado, eventually maturing into the one of the rising stars in college coaching. He finally returned home in 1999 when then-Gophers athletic director Mark Dienhart hired Lucia as the program’s 14th head coach. He was the first non-alumnus to lead the program since Glen Sonmor (1966-71).
Lucia understands the desire to have alumni such as former coaches Doug Woog, Brad Buetow and Herb Brooks lead the program, but he noted that there are few in coaching. Two, however, coach under him: Mike Guentzel and Grant Potulny. Guentzel is the most qualified alumnus to lead the program, Lucia said Tuesday, whenever his time is up.
The Gophers’ future athletic director will have to decide quickly on Lucia.
“It’s a tough time,” Lucia said. “We’re down some administrators in the athletic department, and I think Beth [Goetz] has done a great job trying to lead in the interim. And then there has to be some decisions made here this spring. Is Beth going to get the job, or are they going to go in a different direction and then get the AD in place and then move forward with the department?”
Whatever direction the university goes, Lucia expects to be a part of it.