What Next?

This is my favorite Ron Mason story:

I am talking with Michigan State assistant coach Tom Newton in the Players’ Lounge of Munn Arena. Ron Mason walks in and stops to talk. Before he leaves, however, he spots a bench-style seat cushion with a zipper facing away from the wall. He frowns, picks up the pillow, and reverses it so that the zipper is facing the wall.

Another story:

“I remember we were watching the Zamboni circling the ice at practice one day,” as Newton tells it, “and Ron says, ‘Will you look at that!’ I didn’t know what he was talking about. Then he says, ‘Look at the white walls. They’re filthy!'”

Ron Mason, soon-to-be Michigan State’s athletic director after 23 consistently successful seasons as the Spartans’ hockey coach (and 36 seasons overall), is nothing if not tidy. He is a detail freak. Yes, most successful coaches are detail freaks. But Mason takes it to a new level.

That level, as of July 1, will be as the person in charge of the entire MSU athletic program, all 25 men’s and women’s programs.

That in itself is a good story, but USCHO is about the hockey part of athletic programs. So, know this about the second coaching transition at Michigan State in the past half century: It will be neat and tidy. There won’t be much dust. If you don’t think Ron Mason has a plan for Spartan hockey, you don’t know the man.

We just don’t know that plan, of course, and Mason isn’t about to share it –- at least not until April, when the college hockey season is over.

We can speculate of course, and what a season this has become for speculation.

Jeff Sauer, the Dean of the WCHA, has already announced his intention to step down at the end of this, his 20th season at Wisconsin, meaning that two of college hockey’s most desirable programs will begin new eras.

And because it is Michigan State and Wisconsin that share this uncommon situation and opportunity, it is only logical that the first name on everyone’s lips is George Gwozdecky.

It is good to be George Gwozdecky these days.

Good because his Denver Pioneers are ranked No. 1 in the USCHO poll with the most victories, 23, and the fewest losses, 3, reawakening memories of the five national championships during the Murray Armstrong era.

This is a tidy man who hates dust, disorder and never leaves any behind him. My guess is that Ron Mason already knows who he wants to lead the next coaching era at Michigan State. There’s even a chance that his choice already knows, too.

Good because he is a University of Wisconsin almunus, having played for the legendary Bob Johnson from 1973 to 1977.

And good because he is a former Michigan State University assistant coach, having worked for the equally legendary Ron Mason from 1984 to 1989.

It is good to be a hot property, even if Gwozdecky asks, “Why did this have to happen now?”

Now, when the most important game (as his coaching mentor Mason would say) is the next game.

Now, because we cannot always choose the timing of our destiny.

Can anyone in college hockey claim better bloodlines than George Gwozdecky?

“He’s not just another hockey coach. But right now, he’s got a job,” Mason told Neil Koepke of the Lansing State Journal.

Would Gwozdecky make a change, considering that the Pioneers have the potential to be as successful next season as they have been so far this season?

And could Gwozdecky make a move, considering that he is under contract to 2007?

“Like most long-term contracts that have out clauses for situations at other schools,” Gwozdecky told me, “I have the freedom to review and evaluate.”

But like Mason, Gwozdecky doesn’t want to speculate, nor does he want anything he says to be taken for speculation on his behalf. He has a team to coach, championships his Denver team can win this season and beyond. His team, like Mason’s team, is entitled to focus on that.

Then there is Jeff Jackson, who coaches the Guelph Storm of the Ontario Hockey League and is supposedly on a pro, rather than college, career track.

Jackson won NCAA championships at Lake Superior State in 1992 and 1994 and compiled a gaudy record in six season, winning 76 percent of his games. If you check the numbers, when a college hockey coach consistently wins 75 percent of his games, his team will be in the Frozen Four.

Also: Michigan State is Jeff Jackson’s alma mater.

“It’s always been my dream to coach at my alma mater, and it’s a special place,” Jackson told Koepke.

Just as the Badgers have legacy alumni choices — current assistant coach Mark Johnson, Badger Bob’s son and a 1980 gold medal Olympian, and Mike Eaves, who succeeded Jackson as the U.S. National Team Development coach — so do the Spartans.

There is no more famous or recurring name in Spartan hockey than the Miller family. Before Hobey Baker winners Ryan Miller and Kip Miller, All-American Kelly Miller contributed to establishing Mason’s Spartan program as a perennial winner with his ability, class and integrity.

And when picking a winner in the Mason/MSU derby, integrity and class will be the determining factor.

Kelly Miller is an assistant coach with the NHL New York Islanders, having been an assistant with Anaheim for part of last season. Miller was a solid pro for 15 years for the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals. Of his 1,057 career games, he played 940 consecutively. That takes guts and character that often transcends ability.

Just as classy, and possessing even deeper coaching experience, former Spartan Newell Brown was an assistant at MSU with Gwozdecky from 1987-90. He then coached for two seasons at Michigan Tech before following a pro track as head coach of AHL Adirondack, and as an assistant coach with Chicago, Anaheim and now Columbus.

Another Michigan State grad (’82) who doesn’t get mentioned (but should), Bob Daniels has worked quietly and efficiently for 10 years at Ferris State, doing what Mason did at Lake Superior State early in his career: creating success despite severely limited resources. He has Mason’s admiration.

Rick Comley, Mason’s protégé as a player at Lake State, now the long-time coach at Northern Michigan, is probably not at a point in his career when he can create the new era Mason likely has in mind at Michigan State. But Mason respects and has great pride in Comley’s accomplishments, which include an NCAA championship in 1991.

How about candidates with Eastern or Minnesota roots? That’s about as likely as the number of players from those regions who have played for Mason in 36 years.

Twelve-year assistant Tom Newton, who played for Mason at Bowling Green, and 10-year assistant David McAuliffe, who played for Mason at MSU, should not be ignored, either, for a couple distinctly Spartan reasons. Basketball coach Tom Izzo was Jud Heathcote’s assistant before taking over that highly-successful program. Michigan State likes to keep it in the family, whether it’s an athletic director or coach.

Mason has said both assistants will be considered. Both are interested, and both totally trust Mason, no matter what he decides.

“If there is a guy who’s more qualified to pick a head coach for a Division I hockey program than Ron Mason, please tell me who,” Newton told Koepke. “He knows the people, their work habits, their character and backgrounds. He’ll make a great choice.”

In fact, that’s one reason Mason said he stepped down as coach.

“Had I retired, the decision probably would have been someone else’s,” Mason said at his press conference on Monday. “On most issues, I’ll have a free hand to do what I want to do.”

Obviously, the next Michigan State hockey coach is at the top of the list of those issues.

So, who will be the next hockey coach at Michigan State? Having been sports editor of the Lansing State Journal for 10 years (1985-1995) and a former Badger myself (’70) during Bob Johnson’s first four years at Wisconsin, I have a great respect and, in some cases, professional affection for all of the candidates mentioned above. Each one has contributed something important to my enjoyment during my 36-year love affair with college hockey.

I’ve also learned this about Ron Mason: He likes to win every discussion. If one candidate becomes the media and/or public favorite, Mason is likely to build a case in his own mind that supports someone else. It’s his competive nature; he can’t help himself.

But remember those seat cushions and Zamboni whitewalls? This is a tidy man who hates dust, disorder and never leaves any behind him. My guess is that Ron Mason already knows who he wants to lead the next coaching era at Michigan State. There’s even a chance that his choice already knows, too.

So when will we know? When Ron Mason wants us to know. Anything else just wouldn’t be tidy.

Steve Klein is a veteran sports editor and columnist in both publishing and the Internet who consults with media, sports teams and online sites on the topics of interactive sports and media integration. He is former online sports editor of USA TODAY; has covered college hockey at Wisconsin, Notre Dame and Michigan State; currently is an online journalism instructor at George Mason University and American University, where he teaches sports journalism; co-founder of SportsEditor.com; and a contributor to Poynter.org’s E-Media Tidbits weblog. He can be reached at [email protected]