Jeff Sauer, whose 20 years at Wisconsin and 31 years as a collegiate head coach have made him something of a college hockey institution, has decided to resign at the end of this season, two newspapers have reported.
The school has called a news conference for 2 p.m. Wednesday, at which Sauer, 58, is expected to announce his retirement from coaching.
The Wisconsin State Journal reported in Tuesday’s edition that sources say the Badgers coach has been considering retirement for several months. In Tuesday afternoon’s edition of The Capital Times, Wisconsin athletics director Pat Richter confirmed that Sauer will resign at the end of the season.
Richter, through Wisconsin assistant athletic director for communications Steve Malchow, declined comment to USCHO. Malchow said Richter will attend the news conference.
Wisconsin hockey secretary Nancy Olson said Sauer would not comment until the news conference.
“I think it’s a sad day for Wisconsin hockey,” said Mark Osiecki, who was part of Sauer’s national championship team in 1990. “It’s someone that’s poured his heart and soul into the sport for 20 years. He’s done some wonderful things and it’s sad to see it end.”
Another former Wisconsin player was surprised by the timing of the news.
Erik Raygor, who played for Sauer at Wisconsin from 1994 to 1998, said he was shocked that it came out while the Badgers are in the race for a home-ice spot in the WCHA playoffs.
Still, one of the things he said he’ll remember about Sauer’s tenure is his willingness to get to know people.
“He’s a very kind man, willing to do anything for the guys, a player’s coach,” said Raygor, the 1998 Humanitarian Award winner. “He gets to know you on a personal basis. He’s very well respected in the hockey community. … You talk to anyone in the hockey community, and they always talk about the generosity of Jeff Sauer.”
Sauer is expected to enter an administrative position with the school to finish his contract, which expires June 30, 2004.
Sauer informed his staff of the news late Monday night. Assistant coach Mark Johnson said he was called about 10:45 p.m. Many players didn’t know about the events until they read about it in the Madison newspapers or heard about it at practice.
“Everybody in the hockey department is a little stunned this morning,” Johnson said after practice on Tuesday. “I don’t know if it’s upset or stunned, or together. I think we’re in shock. A lot of people the last couple of years have thought about this possibility happening. I think it just might have happened in a different way.”
Johnson, who suggested Sauer not attend Tuesday’s practice, tried to sum up the feelings of the team, and spoke about Sauer’s emotions.
“It’s tough. It’s tough on the players,” said Johnson, whose name has surfaced in talk about a replacement. “I’ve certainly been in situations where coaches have been let go. We all say we try to move forward from here, but it’s easier said than done.
“Jeff’s been a good ambassador. He’s been a good coach. He’s had a great track record and he’s done a lot for this game, not only at the college level but at the international level. You’re going to miss somebody like that. The game’s going to miss him. Everything has to come to an end, but when it does, it’s just hard to swallow. And I think with Jeff, emotionally, it’s very difficult.
“When you love to do something as he loves to do [coaching], he’s in it for the kids. He’s in it for that enjoyment, and making steps in peoples’ lives at this level. It’s not the wins and losses that pushes him forward. It’s the relationship with the players, the impact you can have as an individual on those kids’ lives, and that’s what hurts.
“He’s going to stay in hockey in some capacity, I’m sure, but the daily routine and the interactions on a daily basis is what the enjoyment of this job is. It’s fun Friday nights and Saturday nights, especially when you win. But the enjoyment comes when you practice and the time you spend on the road. I’m sure he’s going to miss that.”
Sauer spoke to his coaching staff and players at a meeting Tuesday morning.
“He was upset the way it happened, but unfortunately that’s the way things went down,” forward Matt Doman said.
Sauer ranks fourth in career NCAA wins with 647. He trails only Michigan State’s Ron Mason (912) among active coaches.
He has a 674-523-55 record midway through his 31st season, 481-297-44 at Wisconsin. Since the start of the 1995-96 season, though, he is 134-108-17 with the Badgers.
While his team made three NCAA appearances in that time, including a trip to the quarterfinals last season, it also endured rough stretches.
The Badgers finished sixth in the WCHA in the 1995-96 season and seventh the year after. They rebounded, however, to finish second in 1997-98 and win the WCHA playoff title.
It was after a 15-19-4 season in 1998-99, however, that the Wisconsin athletic board decided not to extend Sauer’s contract, indicating there was displeasure with the direction the program was turning.
Sauer’s contract was not extended again after last season, despite a 22-15-4 record in standout Dany Heatley’s last year with the Badgers.
Heatley is one of 27 of Sauer’s former players who went on to careers in the NHL. Included in that list are such stars as Chris Chelios, Tony Granato, Curtis Joseph and Mike Richter.
Sauer played for four years at Colorado College (1961-65) before becoming an assistant to Tigers coach Bob Johnson. He followed Johnson to Wisconsin in 1968, becoming a full-time assistant.
He moved back to Colorado Springs in 1971 to become CC’s head coach. In his first season, he was named the WCHA’s coach of the year. In his 11 years at Colorado College, he earned that award twice despite having an overall record of 166-226-11.
When Johnson left Wisconsin in the summer of 1982, Sauer returned to the Badgers as head coach. He won a national championship in his first season and again in 1990.
His third trip to the Frozen Four, however, resulted in an ugly situation that cast a shadow on the program for years to come. After losing to Lake Superior State 5-3 in the 1992 championship game in Albany, N.Y., several Wisconsin players verbally abused the officials.
Wisconsin had its appearance in the 1992 tournament vacated and Sauer was suspended by the NCAA for his team’s next national tournament game.
A bevy of former Wisconsin players and assistants, as well as some well-known Division I head coaches, are expected to apply for the Wisconsin job.
Some potential candidates include: Johnson; Denver coach George Gwozdecky, a former UW player; Nebraska-Omaha coach Mike Kemp, a former assistant to Sauer at Wisconsin; Colorado College coach Scott Owens, a former assistant to Sauer at Wisconsin who played under Sauer at CC; Don Granato, coach of the AHL’s Worcester IceCats and a Wisconsin player under Sauer; and Pat Ford, a Wisconsin assistant coach.
It is expected that Sauer will have some role in the search for his replacement.
Sauer’s departure has had no immediate impact on the Badgers’ recruiting. One player who has committed to the team for next season said the news did not change his decision.
“I’m 100 percent sure I’m going there,” said Adam Burish, a forward for the Green Bay Gamblers of the United States Hockey League. “It’s a disappointment Sauer’s not going to be there. In the recruiting process, he’s been a great guy. He’s one of the nicest guys I’ve known, recruiting-wise. I’m disappointed, yeah, but I’m 100 percent sure I’m still going there.”