“I told my wife we’d try it for five years, and if nothing came of it I’d get a real job.”
Twenty-five years later, Boston College coach Jerry York has yet to hold a “real job,” but has earned numerous coaching awards, led a team to a national championship, and won 500 games. He joined the elite 500 Club on Saturday, Nov. 30, when his Eagles came from behind to post a 6-4 win over St. Lawrence. He now ranks fourth among active Division I coaches, behind only Michigan State’s Ron Mason, Wisconsin’s Jeff Sauer, and Boston University’s Jack Parker.
“I have a lot of respect for him,” said Providence coach Paul Pooley. Pooley rubbed shoulders with York in the CCHA before both migrated to Hockey East some two years ago. “He’s a gentleman and deserves everything he’s getting. Hey, look at his record. He’s been successful wherever he’s gone.”
York’s first success came as a player at BC, where he arrived as a walk-on and left as the team captain and a first-team All-American. After a year on the USA national team that almost placed him on the 1968 Olympic squad, York returned to BC as a graduate assistant. There he ran the intramural program and helped with the freshman team while working on his master’s degree. When Len Ceglarski, then head coach at Clarkson, called and offered an assistant coaching position, York put on hold his plans to become a guidance counselor and accepted.
“When I said to my fiancee that we had a chance to go to Potsdam, New York, she had to get a map out,” York recalled with a chuckle. “I said to her, ‘I don’t want to go to Potsdam by myself. Let’s get married.'”
As an assistant, York’s primary responsibility was recruiting, which required a big adjustment from his BC days.
“I’d always been BC born-and-bred and at that time BC recruiting was very local. At Clarkson they were recruiting Canadian players, of all things,” York said, laughing. “I was going into small towns in Ontario recruiting for a completely different kind of school.”
“I wasn’t used to an assistant,” said Ceglarski, who had run the Golden Knights by himself for 12 years. “In hindsight I should have let him do more. Jerry was always a really good worker and showed great imagination.”
Two years later, John “Snooks” Kelly retired at Boston College. At 26, full of youthful innocence and confidence, York applied for the job. After his interview, BC athletic director Bill Flynn told York that although he had many strong qualifications, he lacked the experience necessary for a program of that stature. It was a moment York would joke about 22 years later at the press conference where he was named the new BC coach, saying, “I guess I finally have enough experience to come back to Boston College.”
Instead of becoming the new Eagles coach, he ascended to the head job at Clarkson. Ironically, Ceglarski took the BC head coaching job that York had sought. Expecting to move on to BC as Ceglarski’s assistant, York instead was offered the top Clarkson position, prompting his “five years or a real job” discussion with his wife, Bobbie.
York promptly displayed the ability to attract top recruits to his program, a cornerstone of his coaching success.
“Coaching is 80 percent recruiting,” said York. “The X’s and O’s get a lot better on the board when you have players who score a lot of goals or are [great defenders]. All coaches understand how important our coaching is, but we’ll never undersell the importance of recruiting.”
York’s first recruit as a head coach was Dave Taylor. Taylor would eventually score 108 points as a senior before going on to a 17-year NHL career in which he scored 1069 points, 35th among all-time NHL scorers and sixth among right wings. Even after Taylor’s arrival, however, York still encountered tough times.
“Actually,” said Taylor, “my freshman year was the first year in about 25 that Clarkson didn’t qualify for the playoffs. So it was a low, low point for the program.”
Some upperclassmen also left the team after that year, miffed that Taylor and the rest of the strong freshmen class received the extra shifts and power-play opportunities that they considered their due.
“Frankly, when [those players] played,” said Taylor, “they weren’t as good as some of the freshmen. With Jerry, whether you’re a freshman or a senior, if you play well for him you’re going to be rewarded with extra ice time. The guys that he feels are his top players, he plays a lot. He’s not the type of coach that necessarily just rolls four lines.”
York still holds that philosophy. “We certainly encourage competition among all our players,” he said. “The bar is raised each year as far as who’s playing and how much. It’s an easy black-and-white issue for me. Your input to the team is based not on what you did last year or last month but on what I see every day in practice. I think players like that. They don’t want to be slotted into [roles or amounts of ice time] because of reputation.
“If [someone] is playing less, that’s because someone else is playing better than he is. Now do we hold that other player back and say, ‘Hey, you can’t play even though you’re practicing better and playing better?’ I think all the good coaches reward good play by that player playing more, whether that player is on the first line or the fourth line.”
Despite the hard feelings sometimes produced, York’s approach proved successful at Clarkson, as it would at his other stops.
“We built up [the program] until, when I was a senior,” said Taylor, “we were ranked number one in the nation for a large part of that year. I think Jerry should be credited for all the work he did to bring that program along from a team that missed the playoffs to three years later being nationally ranked and one of the top teams in the nation.”
York hasn’t simply recruited players like Dave Taylor to his program and then just called out line changes. He’s also earned a track record of helping many players develop their games in preparation for the next level.
“When I left Levack, Ontario, to go play at Clarkson,” said Taylor, ” I had not been drafted by a [major] junior club and I don’t think anyone had given me much of [a chance] to go on and play in the NHL, let alone play for 17 years with the LA Kings. But those four years under Jerry York made it possible for me to go to the NHL. Certainly my skill development, my confidence, and the overall growing-up process that you go through in college, a lot of that I attribute to Jerry York. He’s certainly had a huge impact on my career.”
In 1976-77 York earned the Spencer Penrose Award as the nation’s Division I Coach of the Year. “I’ve called it the Dave Taylor Coach’s Award,” York said, “because he was such an outstanding student-athlete. Coaching became a lot easier with that type of player. But I was thrilled and excited about it. When you’re honored by your fellow coaches, that makes it special.”
Two years later Amo Bessone retired at Michigan State and York interviewed for the job. However, so did Bowling Green’s Ron Mason, already a college hockey legend. When the Spartans picked Mason, a disappointed York prepared for another season at Clarkson.
The next day, however, the Bowling Green athletic director called. He’d had an interesting conversation with his counterpart at Michigan State.
“Ron Mason finished first in your search. Who finished second?” asked the Bowling Green AD.
“What do you want me to do, save you all the work?”
“Okay. It came down to Ron and Jerry York.”
Bowling Green made York an offer which, after consideration, he accepted.
“I thought Bowling Green was a step up for me,” said York. “I was very excited about all the plusses that the BG program had, [especially playing in] the CCHA and the importance of hockey to the university.”
At Bowling Green, however, he not only had to replace a legend in Ron Mason — something he’d already done when he took over for Ceglarski at Clarkson — he also had to replace a senior class that included all-time leading goal-scorer Johnny Markell and two members of the 1980 Olympic team, Kenny Morrow and Mark Wells.
“People understood that there would be a bit of a rebuilding process, but at some point you have to start winning,” said York. “In time we were able to attract that Nelson Emerson and Rob Blake sort of player to Bowling Green that did for us what Dave Taylor did at Clarkson.
“There’s a real similarity between what happened at the two schools,” said York. “Dave Taylor would have won the Hobey Baker Award but there wasn’t one in the mid-seventies. George McPhee won the Hobey Baker while I was coaching at BG in 1982. Then Nelson Emerson was a three-time finalist and Rob Blake was a finalist. All the successful coaches have had some top All-American, Hobey Baker type of player. Certainly we got that at Bowling Green.”
After two losing seasons to begin his BG tenure, the recruiting successes began to pay off. Bowling Green won the CCHA three straight years, culminating in the 1983-84 National Championship, which the Falcons won in an all-time classic game — four overtimes against Minnesota-Duluth.
“I actually thought the previous year we had the best team in the country,” said York. “We finished first in the CCHA and then lost in overtime to Michigan State in the CCHA championship finals. For some inexplicable reason, and I still can’t figure it, we were bypassed in the selection process for the NCAA tournament.” Of the eight teams selected for the tourney, the NCAA took only Michigan State from the CCHA. “None of us could believe it. It certainly fueled our resolve for the next year when we did win it, but I think we could have won it back-to-back years. In retrospect, I think the 82-83 team was stronger than the 83-84 one.”
Bowling Green continued as a powerhouse, winning 25 or more games for eight out of nine years beginning in 1981. But the nineties proved to be tough times for the Falcons: three straight losing seasons and one barely above .500.
“Recruiting sometimes goes in cycles,” said York. “We lost some tough recruiting battles to Michigan, Michigan State, and Lake State. But I thought we really started to turn it around with the freshman class of Curtis Fry, Mike Johnson, and Kelly Perrault when I left. In my estimation those three could be All-Americans this year, so I felt good about [leaving BG] like that.”
Meanwhile, turmoil embroiled Boston College. Len Ceglarski’s successor, Steve Cedorchuk, had posted a 24-40-10 record in his two years. The recruiting powerhouse that had produced six first-place Eagle finishes in Hockey East’s first seven years had broken down. Even more seriously, Cedorchuk had humiliated BC with a scholarship scandal plastered across the front pages of the Boston newspapers. According to the reports, Cedorchuk had promised more than the 18 scholarships allowed by the NCAA. When a higher-than-expected proportion of recruits accepted the offers, there weren’t enough to meet the commitments. Sparks flew and Cedorchuk became known as the Coach Who Couldn’t Count To 18.
Mike Milbury replaced Cedorchuk, but then stomped off in a fury a few months after accepting the post. A humbled Boston College needed not just a coach who could return BC to its glory days, but a man of stability and unquestioned character. The school looked to York.
“Jerry York has very strict morals,” said Dave Taylor. “He’s very much a straight shooter. You can certainly trust Jerry York. Whatever he says, he stays true to his word.”
York seemed a perfect match for BC’s needs. A principled man, he had achieved success wherever he was and, unlike Milbury, York would “without question” make Boston College his final move.
“Going back to BC was something I’d always thought of,” said York. “I’d grown up in the area and it was a chance to go back to my alma mater. Despite the roots we’d developed at Bowling Green, the tug was way too much not to come back.”
BC’s problems did not concern York. “That was never a factor. I’d been associated with BC for so long that I knew the history of the program. I knew that we could attract the very top student-athletes to BC. So I thought we’d have more Emersons, more Blakes, and more Dave Taylors.
“There wasn’t any question that we’d be successful in recruiting. I knew it would be a few years before we got it started. The majority of the scholarships were given out to the players we already had in school. Until we could actively go out and recruit again, I knew it would be a couple of years. [But after that] I knew we’d be a national player.”
York has lived up to those expectations. After a totally handcuffed first year, he recruited Marty Reasoner and then followed that with one of the top freshman classes in the country: Jeff Farkas, Blake Bellefeuille, Mike Mottau and Kevin Caulfield. Next year promises more of the same — four more ultra-blue chippers have already signed letters of intent.
“I thought the reception our current players at that time gave the recruits on campus was outstanding. They really helped recruit the Jeff Farkases, Blake Bellefeuilles and Marty Reasoners,” said York. York had told those upperclassmen early on that even though he hadn’t recruited them, he was a Boston College guy and they were still Boston College players. Their cooperation with recruiting made an attractive school look even better.
“At Clarkson and Bowling Green we were often recruiting Canadian players who weren’t familiar with the school,” said York. “But at BC we’re dealing with kids who at nine or ten were playing with the Jr. Eagles, or they’ve been coming to our games or the football or basketball games.”
In short, kids who, like York himself, grew up wanting to play for the Eagles. As much as recruiting is different for him at BC, though, some things remain the same.
“One of the things that hasn’t changed at all over the 25 years that I’ve coached is that players want discipline,” said York, who suspended a key player last year for breaking team rules. “They want to be involved with a team that’s very well structured as far as what’s right and what’s wrong. The players want to have as much success as they possibly can and they’re smart enought to understand that without discipline they’re not going to reach that level.
“I want all the players to clearly understand that they’re going to be pushed very hard to become the best player they can be here at BC. They’re going to be in a program that’s very well-defined and very well-structured as far as the importance of the classroom and the importance of representing BC to a very high standard. That hasn’t changed at all.”
While other Eagle coaches have clashed with BC athletic director Chet Gladchuk, York has not. “I make it a point to have a good relationship with all of the people I work with,” said York. “Chet has been very supportive and I consider him a close friend.”
One of the significant questions facing York at the end of this year will be whether Marty Reasoner stays at BC or turns pro with the St. Louis Blues.
“We hope to have a lot of players with those options,” said York. “Marty will have some informative talks with us and with St. Louis, but he values his education highly and feels he can progress as a hockey player because of the strength of Hockey East. One of his goals is to bring BC to national prominence.”
National prominence may not be in the cards this year, but seems almost a foregone conclusion for the future.
“I’m certainly going to coach the next decade here,” said York. “We want to win national championships. No question, that’s our goal. You do that by making your team a player in the national scene. If you’re one of the top five programs each year, then you’re going to win national titles. I don’t think you go from being an obscure program to all of a sudden winning a national title. You’ve got to be knocking on the door. So I want our team to be always be in the thick of the race.
“Then I think we can win a championship.”