POTSDAM, N.Y. — Mark Morris, Clarkson’s coach of 15 years, was fired Friday by the university following a 10-day investigation into a post-practice confrontation between Morris and forward Zach Schwan.
The word came in a statement released by university president Denny Brown late Friday afternoon.
According to Brown, “Clarkson initiated a thorough investigation, utilizing the services of an independent interviewer, in order to determine an appropriate response to the incident. Morris refused to participate in the investigation, despite repeated attempts by Clarkson to secure his cooperation.”
Brown’s statement said Morris used “physical force and threatening conduct” towards the player, whom he did not name.
“The facts collected from other witnesses to the incident indicated clear evidence of conduct by Morris that was inappropriate for a Clarkson faculty or staff member,” said Brown, who is in his last year as university president. “This, coupled with Morris’ unwillingness to participate in the process, left the University with no choice but to terminate his employment.”
Following the morning skate in preparation for a game on Nov. 2, Schwan was participating in a typical 3-on-3 pickup game for scratched players and coaches. While what happened next isn’t completely clear, according to various sources, Morris took exception to what he felt were overly-aggressive hits. With Schwan’s father in the stands for the practice, some sort of confrontation then took place between Morris and Schwan.
Morris was initially put on administrative leave, and assistant coach Fred Parker handled the team on the Nov. 8-9 weekend in the Capital District. Schwan sat out Friday, but an injury forced him into the lineup, according to sources.
The university has not released details of the investigation. First-year athletic director Sean Frazier and Schwan have all declined comment on the situation.
Morris finally commented on the situation in a press conference late on Friday evening.
“Today I was informed by the Clarkson Administration that my position as Men’s Hockey Coach at Clarkson has been terminated. Out of respect and commitment to all the players past, present and future who’ve had the privilege of wearing the Golden Knights hockey jersey, I’ve not made any public statements about this incident. I’m holding this press conference to set the record straight for my family, friends, and all the people that have supported me over 15 years, and especially over the last two weeks.
“This was a done deal before the investigation even started, or so it appeared. Clarkson had contacted their attorney about my termination before the investigation was started. After obtaining legal advice, I chose not to participate in the investigation because it was not independent. It was conducted by Clarkson’s own law firm which had already been consulted about my termination.
“Here’s exactly what happened. As is customary, we play shinny after our pre game skate. I had been struck once prior by one of my players into the boards. I skated over to the player, put my arm around his shoulder and made a comment to him. The second time he hit me was during our shinny game, we play four on four. I felt as though I was being threatened, and I attempted to defend myself. I told the player to take his things out of the locker. And in 15 seasons I’ve played shinny with a lot of guys and I’ve never been body checked into the boards before. We’ve had some games that have gotten pretty heated over time but never have been body checked into the boards by a player.
“It was apparent to me he was dissatisfied that he would not be playing in the St. Lawrence game, due to some decisions that were made. On Monday I was informed by my athletic director he was going to handle it between me and the player, and that the incident would not cost me my job. Meanwhile the administration had already been in touch with their law firm about my termination.”
Morris went on to acknowledge the support that he and his family have received during this time.
Although Morris himself had lamented the team’s discipline problems in the recent past — just the prior Wednesday, Morris suspended six players for missing a team workout session — there had not been a history of similar incidents in his background, and no other incidents were cited as reasons for Morris’ dismissal. Nevertheless, according to sources, Morris’ support in the university administration had waned over the past few years, especially after the departure of ex-athletic director and former Clarkson skater Geoff Brown.
When reached Thursday, former Clarkson head coach and athletic director Bill O’Flaherty, who was responsible for hiring Morris to replace Cap Raeder in 1987, also refused to comment on the situation. He also denied a report that the Los Angeles Kings, for which O’Flaherty is currently the director of player personnel and former Golden Knight Dave Taylor is general manager, had offered a position to Morris. O’Flaherty, who still lives near Potsdam, has a nephew, Kevin, on the current Clarkson roster.
Clarkson is the only head coaching job Morris has ever had. A native of New York’s North Country, Morris was an assistant for St. Lawrence coach Joe Marsh before taking over the Golden Knights program in 1988. He was hired by then-athletic director Bill O’Flaherty, who was also Clarkson coach at one point and is now player personnel director for the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings.
Parker has officially been named the interim head coach. Jason Lammers will assist and another assistant will be added soon. Clarkson will begin a nationwide search for a new head coach at a later date.
Among the early candidates to permanently replace Morris are one-time Clarkson assistants Ron Rolston, Jim Roque and George Roll. Rolston is an assistant at Boston College, Roque at Lake Superior State, and Roll is the head coach at Division III Oswego State. Clarkson alumnus Glenn Thomaris — now coaching at nearby Division III Potsdam College — could also be a candidate.
Clarkson went 16-13-3 in Morris’ first year, then reeled off 10 straight 20-win seasons, including 29-9-2 in 1990-91, when the Golden Knights went to the Frozen Four. In those 10 seasons, Clarkson made nine NCAA tournament appearances, but never made it back to the Frozen Four after 1991, and hasn’t been in the tournament since 1999.
Morris has a 306-153-42 career record entering the season, with five regular-season and two ECAC-tournament championships. He has been named ECAC Coach of the Year twice.
The list of NHL players Morris has coached include Craig Conroy, Todd White, Chris Clark, Todd Marchant and Erik Cole.