Thankfully, it appears we can finally put the whole sordid Mark Morris affair behind us. At least in a public sense. I’m sure Morris and Zach Schwan and the Clarkson athletic program will feel some lasting effects for years.
Morris, as you know, was fired last fall after an alleged physical confrontation with Schwan, a player. Morris, who served at Clarkson for 15 years and won over 300 games, including a Frozen Four appearance and three ECAC championships, said Schwan provoked him into defending himself after the player got over-zealous during a post-practice 3-on-3 game. Schwan said Morris’ reaction was much worse than was necessary given the circumstances.
After an investigation by the school, Morris was fired. He then sued the school for wrongful termination and damage to his reputation.
The firing of Morris by the school seemed fishy on some level — only because the school seemed to give him little benefit of the doubt. The school said they were left with no choice because Morris didn’t cooperate with the investigation.
This led to an open letter from Joe Bertagna, head of the American Hockey Coaches Association, to Clarkson president Denny Brown, on behalf of Morris, questioning the wisdom of Clarkson’s decision. In turn, Brown unloaded a response that further raked Morris through the mud.
However, when you start reading between the lines, it always seemed the administration was looking for a reason to fire Morris, and they had finally found one. Most neutral observers felt for a long time that Morris had few friends in the Clarkson administration, especially not outgoing president Brown.
And, in reality, perhaps Clarkson had perfectly good reasons for feeling that way. Frankly, they’d have been better off just saying so up front.
We will likely never know the truth behind the Schwan situation, or if Morris ever was overly physical with his players. In the mean time, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.
What is clear to me, however, is that Morris had “lost the room,” so to speak. It’s one thing for players not to like a coach — no good coach is universally loved by his teams, not even Jack Parker — but it’s another thing for players to disrespect a coach. And even if what Morris said about the incident is true, it’s obvious that Schwan disrespected Morris, and I’m certain he was not alone. Other incidents in Morris’ final years, including one just a week before the Schwan one, indicated the team had “issues.”
On that basis alone, Clarkson had justification for “moving on.”
His paranoia, with the media and fellow coaches, became legendary, and it’s not a stretch to see how similar reactions could manifest themselves in the locker room.
I’ve always believed that the beginning of the end for a coach is when he starts yanking goalies all over the place. Morris was notorious for doing that, more and more in his later years. In the 1998 ECAC Championship game, Morris pulled starter Dan Murphy and put him back in, twice. In fact, to this day, I think Morris still holds a personal grudge against Murphy for his less-than-stellar performances in the 1996 and 1997 NCAA tournaments. Knowing Murphy, I know he feels that way too. Of course, Murphy was an all-American who played almost every minute for Clarkson his first three seasons and helped get them to that point.
In 1998-99, Clarkson had 13 games where the goalie was pulled. Baseball teams have more complete games than Clarkson did that season.
Murphy did have bad NCAA tournament games, but the goaltending only got worse from there. And it was as though Morris took it personally.
That tendency — to take things personally — is what led to a lot of his problems. He wears his heart on his sleeve, and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, but it won’t win many friends.
In the bizarro ECAC, two teams became the most unlikely rivals: Princeton and Clarkson. They played almost every year in the playoffs between 1995-2000, and had incredibly heated battles. Princeton earned its first-ever ECAC finals appearance in 1995 against Clarkson, and won its first championship in 1998 in 2OT. In 1999, Princeton fought from down 4-0 in the ECAC semifinal, tied it 5-5 with under a minute remaining, and then — in the most painful loss I have ever witnessed in sports other than the 1986 Jets-Browns NFL playoff game — Willie Mitchell beat Princeton with a 90-foot slapshot with two seconds left.
Stung by an amazing loss, Princeton’s Don Cahoon went over the shake Morris’ hand, and, according to two witnesses, the first thing Morris said was “You’ve gotta control your players.”
I used to actually praise Clarkson for its tactic of taking a lot of penalties. Their special teams under Morris were always so good, why shouldn’t they do that? The Edmonton Oilers used to provoke 4-on-4 situations because they were so brilliant in that situation. So much so, they had to change a rule (it was changed back a few years ago).
But when you play like that, you can’t call other teams chippy. Hello pot, meet kettle.
In the last couple years, he had other famous run-ins, such as the no-handshake incident with RPI’s Dan Fridgen.
And Morris won no fans by his seemingly constant subtle and not-so-subtle bashing of his own goalies in the media, never apparently thinking that these were the players he recruited and coached that weren’t performing well. It was part of an annoying tendency to find blame everywhere else but on himself when the team’s fortunes turned sour.
I really think that Morris doesn’t mean to put his foot in his mouth sometimes, but he winds up rubbing many people the wrong way.
One ECAC coach once told me, “I don’t think Mark is a bad person, I just don’t think he thinks very much before he speaks. He doesn’t realize how what he’s saying is bad.”
According to more than one former player and other observers, Morris came unduly under the influence of assistant coach Jim Roque during the ’90s, and not in a good way. It’s been said that Roque was the one pushing the goalie’s buttons, that Roque was responsible for a shifting recruiting philosophy towards third and fourth line pluggers, that seemed to coincide with a precipitous drop in talent coming to Clarkson.
But even if that’s the case, Morris has to take the responsibility for being the leader of that ship.
Having said all that, Clarkson’s problem in the Schwan incident was that the administration used it as justification, and ran Morris through the mud. That was not deserved. Morris can be a lot of things. But whatever anyone thinks of Morris, he did not deserve this kind of indignity. He did not deserve to be hung to dry, or to be disrespected.
Morris was a good coach at Clarkson. We should never overlook that. For all the stuff always whispered about him, he won an awful lot of games and produced a lot of star players. Off the ice, anyone who knows Morris always found him to be affable, pleasant to be around, and a good family man.
This whole incident with Schwan was unfair to Morris.
Nevertheless, these other points are raised to point out that things had been festering for a long time and it was definitely for the best that the relationship between the two parties ended. It was sad it had to end so messy, but it’s best for everyone it’s over, and now the public squabbling can be over too.
In the way it was handled, there were no winners. Not Mark Morris, obviously, not the administration — not Zach Schwan — not the players. Let’s just be thankful it’s all behind us, and now George Roll can hopefully lead the Golden Knights back to glory.
My hope is, Morris finds the same kind of professional satisfaction that Brian McCutcheon found after he was fired at Cornell in 1995. The similarities between the two men were striking in the closing years. McCutcheon’s goaltending tactics and tirades were every bit as infamous in Ithaca as they became in Potsdam. McCutcheon had a similar reputation of having teams falter in the end, and his teams got progressively worse until bottoming out in 1995.
But McCutcheon is a truly likeable guy, and in the professional ranks, he seems to have majorly mellowed. He won an ECHL Coach of the Year Award, became a successful head coach in the AHL, and then got an assistant coaching job in the NHL.
I truly hope Morris can find a similar path to satisfaction. He is a good hockey man, and by all measures, a good man off the ice. I wish him well.
As for Clarkson, let’s hope for the sake of hockey that this storied program is on the road to recovery. And most of all, let’s be thankful we can finally just move on.