A low rumble swelled under the dimmed lights of Mariucci Arena in the final moments of the pregame formalities. The chorus of boos was directed at Don Lucia. Gophers hockey fans decided this mid-January night — one night after yet another setback, a tie this time against a two-win Wisconsin team — to let the longtime coach have it after his introduction for his role in a two-month nose dive from No. 1 to unranked.
In his 16th year leading a program with unparalleled expectations, Lucia, though, has long been numb to the jeers.
“I don’t react,” Lucia said. “There are a lot of people that appreciate what you do, but it’s impossible with what [I] do to make everybody happy all the time. … It’s the nature of what we do.”
Lucia, whose contract was quietly extended through April 2017, has the support of the university and his program. The outside dissatisfaction, however, escalates with each failed weekend. Will Lucia hear the boo birds again Friday night against Ohio State? If the comments fans are leaving online are a clue, he should plan on that.
Lucia never should have been given a new contract, one reader posted on a recent startribune.com story.
Fourth-best team in the state. That’s quite an accomplishment. Lucia needs to go.
Lucia’s coaching weaknesses are being exposed every weekend now.
“Whenever someone boos anyone associated with your team, it’s obviously something you don’t like to hear,” Gophers senior forward Travis Boyd said. “I don’t think it’s [Lucia’s] problem.
“Maybe we need to go through a couple hard losses like we’ve had, and a couple hard times is what we need to open our eyes and make us realize that it’s time to wake up and get going.”
Lucia has grown tired of trying to explain his team’s surprising struggles. One year ago this weekend, the Gophers were 19-2-5, ranked No. 1 and driving toward their national title game appearance. That team lost to Union in the final, but nearly 90 percent of their goal-scoring, the nation’s best goaltender, three All-America players and an NHL first-round draft pick all returned.
This year, the Gophers, on a lackluster 4-9-3 slide since mid-November, will need a big rally just to make the NCAA tournament as an at-large team or will have to win the Big Ten tournament for an automatic spot. But what his 28 years of coaching Division I hockey have taught Lucia, he said, is that no team is the same.
“A new year begins and guys have different years and different roles,” Lucia said. “And, for whatever reason this year, we haven’t been as consistent. … Obviously this team has to live up to expectations, and we haven’t lived up to those expectations. It goes back to, for me, that every team is unique and every team is different.”
This is not Lucia’s first slump, and far from his toughest. From the 2007-08 season through 2011, Lucia’s Gophers finished near the bottom of WCHA standings while their head coach battled sarcoidosis, a sometimes debilitating disease that caused a mass on his brain.
“I have a lot of confidence in our program and what we do,” he said in 2010. “We’ve won a lot. And we’ll win again.”
He was right. The Gophers emerged from the four-year drought and have now won three consecutive conference titles, the first such streak in program history. They have played in two of the past three Frozen Fours, and Lucia was named the inaugural Big Ten Coach of the Year.
“All coaches at top programs are under pressure,” said local hockey icon Lou Nanne, a standout for the Gophers in the 1960s who has a grandson, Vinni Lettieri, on the team. “So when you’re not living up to it, there’s pressure.
“Some people get antsy. … I support whoever they hire and whoever is the coach. If there was a new coach, I would support them, too.”
Lucia isn’t alone as a veteran coach struggling to win. Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves, a national champion in 2006, has won only two games in his 13th year. Michigan coach Red Berenson just won his 800th game, but his Wolverines have missed the NCAA tournament the past two seasons.
“I don’t think he’s going to be the guy that’ll be backed out” of his job, said former Gophers coach Doug Woog. “You have to be a little bit of a hypocrite if you’re looking at firing him. … But if he were to go sour another year or two, then those would be the birds that would start chirping.”
A quiet extension
Other than frustrated fans, there is nothing signaling Lucia’s long and successful career at Minnesota will soon end. The two-time national champion coach’s contract runs through the 2016-17 season and will pay him $330,000 this season, with over $200,000 in possible bonuses if the Gophers hit Big Ten and NCAA tournament success. (The university is also contributing up to $1.1 million to Lucia’s retirement plan during the life of the five-year deal.) Lucia coached his way to $125,000 in bonuses last season and was one victory away from $75,000 more.
“Don has proved to be a successful coach. … We were in the national championship game last year,” said Tom McGinnis, Gophers senior associate athletic director over men’s and women’s hockey. “But every year doesn’t turn out the way you want it to.
“We have confidence we’ll continue to [be successful] over the course of at least the next couple years.”
Lucia, 56, was given a raise and extension without fanfare before the 2013-14 season; only an October 2013 post on the university’s athletic website titled “Gophers athletics announces new contract terms” about Lucia and two other coaches told the closest of observers of the news. By comparison, when football coach Jerry Kill was given an extension and raise in February 2014, the university put out a news release that included a statement from university President Eric Kaler and later held a news conference.
Associate athletic director of strategic communications Chris Werle said there was no ill intent behind the quiet post, only that the university wanted to announce all three coach extensions at once.
Athletic director Norwood Teague was not made available this week to discuss Lucia and the hockey program.
Assistant coach Grant Potulny said he hasn’t noticed any change in Lucia’s demeanor this winter. Lucia said last year was one of the most fun and rewarding seasons he’s had coaching in 28 years. He felt rejuvenated. He’s just 37 victories away from No. 700, and his goal remains to win a third championship for the maroon and gold, which would match legendary coach Herb Brooks.
Kyle Rau is convinced there’s still plenty of time to make this year another one to remember.
“He’s given us the tools to be successful, it’s on the players,” the senior captain said. “I guess in the media, I’m sure he’s taking a bashing or whatnot, but he doesn’t deserve it. Since I’ve been here we’ve been to two Frozen Fours, and not many people can say that around the country.
“It’s all about the ending.”