A Part Of The Game

Reprinted by permission of the Duluth News-Tribune.

DULUTH, Minn. — The Bulldogs aren’t winning, and there’s one person to blame.

Mike Sertich.

“That’s fine. It’s part of the deal, and I accept that,” the Minnesota-Duluth hockey coach says.

It has to be tempting to spread the blame around a little, but Sertich has learned over 17 seasons that it all falls back in his lap, no matter what.

“I’m a slow learner,” he said with a smile. “Most of my life, I’ve been a slow learner. It took me a long time to learn self confidence, and confidence comes from how I feel about me.”

Friday’s loss to Colgate left the Bulldogs winless at home this season. Sertich was trying to relax, his tie loosened and already unknotted. The new breed of coaches look sartorially sharp until they sail out of the locker room. Sertich doesn’t sail. He rows. He has been through an emotional windstorm and he looks like it. Maybe talking about the game helps, maybe it will make the quiet ride home better, maybe he’ll get some sleep. Maybe.

There are people out there who want him out, and he knows it. He’ll discuss the matter with them if they are civil. Early in the third period Friday someone wanted to discuss it from a few rows up, and not in a civil manner. Sertich responded to the taunts.

“I can handle it when people yell things, but I can’t handle it when it gets personal,” Sertich said. “I don’t like it. There’s no reason for it.”

Mike Sertich isn’t a mystery. He says what he thinks and when his stomach starts to churn you can see it in his face. He’s volunteered his life as one of imperfection, of a constant growing process, and for people to make fun of that, well, he’s going to draw the line.

This job has been hard on him. Early in his coaching career, he could temporarily drink away his troubles, and live on coffee and cigarettes. He doesn’t do that anymore — well, there are a few pregame meals of just coffee — and everyone knows that. They didn’t have to know. He told them. And that was the start of a slow road to finding some of the tranquility life promises, but doesn’t always deliver.

So, he was going to coach the Bulldogs for one season, taking over on an interim basis in 1982 at age 35 after seven years as an assistant. That’s more than old enough to see how this racket tears people up.

You have to take the blame. Who wants that?

The Bulldogs had never really done much. They had only three winning seasons in 17 years as a Western Collegiate Hockey Association team, and everybody in Duluth had pretty much resigned themselves to mediocrity.

Well, we know what happened. The first year showed great promise and an NCAA playoff berth, then came two seasons of unparalleled success, years where only heartbreaking multiple overtime losses cost UMD a national championship.

Sertich found his niche, but not tranquility. When tough years hit, he reacted with frustration. Sometimes he lashed out.

He had to take the blame.

The program had reached a respectable level. It had an identity. Sertie. He took the job for one year, but after this season he will have coached the team for half its 34 seasons in the WCHA. The Bulldogs have been fifth or higher in the league 10 times, and nine of his 16 seasons have resulted in winning records.

He’s 51. The record of 331-290-42 after Saturday’s loss, the awards, the longevity get pushed to the side because the negatives build up. Duluth is a town of hockey experts, and fans can do more than criticize recruiting. They can lament faulty break-out patterns and power plays. They can hear Sertich yell across the ice and hear him roar at the officials.

And they can blame him when the Bulldogs don’t win.

You use your heart and brain in equal parts to coach, and Sertich collapsed during a game a couple of years ago, ironically, because his heart and brain weren’t quite in synch. That was a small blip compared to two years of agonizing back pain that virtually emaciated him and, well, it was a lot of fun to have people say you look like hell. The back is still a problem.

He once said the highs — like an overtime win over Minnesota to claim a playoff series — don’t make up for the lows. Eight months later it’s a lousy start for a team that has struggled mightily to score goals for a coach whose strength is Xs and Os. UMD is last in the WCHA, and people wonder if this man’s job is in jeopardy.

There are coaches who could care less what people say and think and there are coaches, like Sertich, who may care too much.

And it showed when the luster of the early years wore off.

“You can’t personalize anything, and I did an immense amount of it,” said Sertich. “I beat myself up over it, took everything way too hard.”

In 1992-93, the Bulldogs had one of the country’s better teams, again, and won the WCHA title. That helped vindicate a coach who, probably, had been on shaky ground despite his kinship with then-UMD athletic director Bruce McLeod.

Bob Corran became athletic director in 1997 and Sertich felt pressure to prove himself to his new boss. We can be reasonably sure he did, for he got a three-year contract last summer.

Of course, that doesn’t mean he can’t be fired. A major-college coach is judged on wins and losses and, with attendance sagging at the DECC, Sertich has another strike against him.

So he finds his peace from the esoteric ideals that he is teaching college students, something coaches are ostensibly hired for but rarely judged on.

“It is a huge thing to put people in the stands, because they’re paying money to come to watch the game,” Sertich said. “And they want to see a team win.

“The point is, I don’t ask (the players) to win. I ask them to go out and give a good solid effort. If it’s a win we’ll deal with it, if it’s a loss we’ll deal with it.

“And I think that’s what this is all about. They’re not pro athletes where they’re getting paid these huge salaries to put these numbers up, and if that doesn’t happen, the coach gets fired or the player moves on to another team. This is college athletics.”

But, in Duluth, the Bulldogs are the big game in town. And the money-maker for the athletic department. When there’s unrest in the community, does a coach worry?

“The fans appreciate the effort,” said Sertich. “A lot of them can deal with the losing — they don’t like it, but they can deal with it. A lot of them can’t deal with it, but they can’t deal with the Vikings losing, the Twins losing, and that’s where we’re going to sometimes collide.”

The tough losses, the ones that used to eat him up, don’t seem to do that anymore. But there was still a little pain that worked its way up from his stomach to his face late Friday night.

He can be serene when he’s in a boat fishing, or hunting early in the morning. Even on his snowmobiles if winter would ever get here.

“I think I’ve learned a lot about myself,” he said. “I still don’t let everything bottle up inside, because it’s like a poison to me. I still get angry. But I’ve learned to deal with things.”

He takes the blame. He has to take the blame. He has no choice. How much fun is that? When the team is losing, when the crowds are small, when the murmur is just loud enough to make you lose your concentration on the bench?

“There’s still a large part of this that is satisfying,” Sertich said as he left the rink.

It’s been 17 years. When does the fun part happen?

And he gave his answer.

“Hey, I was only going to do it for one year.”

Chris Miller is sports editor of the Duluth News-Tribune.