Many players say that they would like to get into coaching some day. Many will perform the job at a youth level, and others will coach a prep or high school team. A relative few will get the chance to make it a full-time job and coach at the college level.
To paraphrase Notorious B.I.G., more money, more problems.
Since the start of the 2008-09 season, 13 Division-I coaches have been replaced. That doesn’t include the coaches at Wayne State and Niagara at the time those programs were eliminated; no replacement was needed because the job no longer existed. Of those 13 openings, only one was created by the previous coach moving to another D-I job.
The job is a little like being president. You can stay in the post for only so long, and while you’re there, people with less knowledge will question every decision you make.
“I don’t think there’s any question that as coaches and really as student athletes, we’re all under the microscope in this chosen profession we have,” Boston University coach Brian Durocher said. “Sports sometimes are a bigger entity than maybe they should be in the big picture, the big picture being the world. Every newspaper has three or four sections, and one of them is sports. Every day, you turn on the TV and there’s however many channels dedicated to sports.”
Sometimes that coverage drifts into tabloid journalism. Even the mainstream media will cover a program or sport that it has previously ignored as soon as a hint of scandal surfaces. And that next scandal is just a photo, video, or tweet away.
“When you throw in all the different ways that things can be captured now, whether it’s on film or in media or on the social networks, nothing is really hidden,” Durocher said. “I think a lot of things were heard about but maybe never seen. Now, everything that happens seems to be captured by somebody.”
That means there are few times when a coach can truly relax.
“Our job is not just from seven to nine at night, twice a week,” Durocher said. “It’s really a 24/7 job, where we go home every day and we go to bed every night making sure that those 23 or 24 or 25 athletes make good decisions and we as coaches make good decisions. They’re not always on the ice, but how are people doing academically, how are they doing socially, how are they handling all of these media outposts. We’re kind of the conductor of the group.”
As such, if any athlete falls short of expectations, the coach can be held responsible by fans and the administration, even though they are no longer the dictators they once were.
“You go back a generation or maybe two generations, the absolute leaders were the coaches,” Durocher said.
Admittedly, that wasn’t necessarily a good thing, as we were treated to bizarre behavior by a number of coaches, either because they felt they were entitled to do or say anything or were incapable of controlling their actions. But when it came to policing their teams, they were granted far greater authority.
“It doesn’t mean there weren’t rebels 25, 35, or 50 years ago,” Durocher said. “Probably now, there’s definitely more freedoms. I think maybe we trust people or we expect people to be a little more mature sometimes.”
By and large, student athletes are mature in a sport like women’s hockey, but no team or player will be perfect.
“You have to have good ground rules; you have to have discipline, but you also got to make sure that you have some good bounces and some good decisions with kids who are 18 to 22 years old,” Durocher said. “It’s something that wears on us and we think about all the time.”
Increasingly in today’s college environment, athletic coaches are expected to be akin to professors and other instructors on campus.
“It’s a completely different entity,” St. Cloud State coach Jeff Giesen said. “We’re considered faculty and we’re teachers of the game, but the professors on campus don’t spend as much time with the kids as [coaches] do. At our school, the professors have a genuine concern and the professors are teaching the class, there’s not a lot of T.A.s, and I think they care about their students. But I don’t think they’re as worried about Friday night and Saturday night away from the rink and that kind of a thing.”
Because a coach spends so much time with the team, closer bonds develop.
“I tell them all the time — I have two of my own, and I have 24 other daughters between 18 and 23, so that’s how I kind of treat them,” Giesen said.
An obvious difference is that children are born into a family, but a hockey team grows from people that first come together as strangers.
“I believe the factors that help build a positive relationship are trust, respect, and understanding,” Boston College coach Katie King Crowley said. “The list can go on and on, but our hockey team becomes a family to myself and our players. We treat each other like family members, we have fun, we work hard, and we work together for the same common goal … winning a championship.”
Even in a family, members don’t get along perfectly.
“I do think team chemistry is a big part of not only the women’s game, but also the men’s game,” Crowley said. “The women’s teams that I have been on and coached have been more successful if players know their roles and don’t let outside factors affect the team.”
Those roles can be a lightning rod for controversy, because teams are often comprised of players who all were the star of their previous team. Coming to a college team and having to sit and watch others on game day can be a shock.
“The kids that don’t play very much, you have to spend a lot of time with them and you’ve got to make sure that you have a good relationship with them and they can accept their role and play their role,” Minnesota-Duluth coach Shannon Miller said. “If they’re really unhappy, then they’ll transfer at the end of the season, which I totally understand. On Mondays, we actually focus more on the kids that didn’t play than on the kids that do play. We make sure we do small-ice games, they get a lot of ice time, make sure the coaches give them a lot of feedback.”
Another difference from a family is that a coach at the college level selects the players for the team.
“It’s a puzzle for me,” Miller said. “I don’t just go and get the best players I can. I recruit for first line, second line, third line, fourth line. I’ll tell kids, ‘You’re going to be a fourth-line player; here’s what that means.’ And I’m honest with them about it. It doesn’t mean that they’ll never transfer. You want to get as much talent as you can, but our program, we don’t get the same talent Wisconsin, Minnesota has. We just don’t. So we don’t have the depth, and that’s just a fact, and you’ve got to deal with it.”
For those players that are asked to fill backup roles or spots farther down the depth chart, dealing with that adversity can be among their biggest challenges.
“We all learn that about ourselves in competition,” Miller said. “Unfortunately, the kids that don’t get to play that much, they get tested more than everybody else.”
Sometimes, the player understands why she isn’t playing. Even in those cases, it can be difficult for her when she is being told by family and friends that she deserves more.
“I think you have to be realistic and you can’t keep everybody happy,” Bemidji State coach Steve Sertich said. “You try and focus on what’s best for the team and you try to get that message across to players that decisions that are made are for the team. Some kids get it. I think some kids have had different backgrounds as far as parenting and coaches in the past; some get it and some struggle with it.”
Sertich has also coached both boys’ and girls’ teams at the high school level, and he believes that the two genders process some things differently.
“I think sometimes the guys, they care for each other, but they’re also more focused many times on their own careers,” he said. “They can take criticism or they can accept someone else having a tough time a little bit easier than the girls. The girls are more team-chemistry oriented. It’s more about the connections that they have with each other, more so than the guys.”
While a player at Colorado College, Sertich played for both John Matchefts and Jeff Sauer before playing for Bob Johnson on the United States national and Olympic teams.
“They all had tremendous assets that they gave to their players,” Sertich said. “They had their moments, too, but I tried to make an effort to glean some of the positives from each of those coaches.”
Players often find it easier to appreciate what a coach has done for them after the fact.
“A lot of your best relationships with players are when they’re juniors and seniors, because they’ve been around and see that you care for them,” Durocher said. “Sometimes the freshmen and sophomores are a little bit new to the situation.”
People often feel similarly about parents. When we’re young, we don’t appreciate everything that parents do.
“I try to treat players like I would want my own kids treated when they were with their teams and their coaches,” Sertich said. “It’s a tough love. Sometimes, things don’t go the way they want it to go, and you have to make sure that they know that there are boundaries and rules.”
That tough love can be tested, particularly during a game or a season that is not going well.
“For the most part, you have to be patient and try to stay calm,” Sertich said. “They’re looking to the coaches for leadership. It’s like a parent when a kid gets hurt. If the parent overreacts, then the kids overreact. So you have to stay calm as much as you can, under tense situations.”
If a coach performs all of these duties well enough — building a team, keeping players happy, safe, and eligible while teaching the game, and all the while following all of the rules of the NCAA, the institution, and society as a whole, plus winning — there just may be a next year. If the administration decides that the coach has fallen short in some area, someone else will be hired.
“Sometimes we’re wrongfully applauded for our good work and sometimes we’re wrongfully chastised for our less than positive results,” Durocher said. “It would be nice if there was a sort of different middle ground, but it’s what we signed up for. I know every coach that I’ve ever been associated with works really hard to care for their players and make the right decisions, but we are human and we’re not always perfect.”