Coming Around Again

If Rick Comley was any more qualified to take over the Michigan State hockey program, he’d be — well, he’d be retired.

And therein lies the only rap I’ve heard about the second coaching change in the hockey program in more than half a century in East Lansing.

Rick Comley is too old.

Granted: Rick Comley is 55, just seven years younger than the man he succeeds, Ron Mason. But consider this: For the past seven years, Mason has been winning an average of 29 games a year and qualifying for the NCAA tournament every year.

Was Ron Mason too old?

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Hockey people call Michigan State one of those lifetime jobs. Mason did it for 23 years (he was 39 when he left Bowling Green); Amo Bessone did it for 28 years before him. Comley is not likely to coach the Spartans for a quarter century, but it is likely that he will accomplish what his predecessors did before they retired: win a national championship, as Mason did in 1986 and Bessone did in 1966.

And I bet Comley will do it before 2006, when he’s 59 and another 20 years have passed between national championships in East Lansing.

Winning just one NCAA championship is a lifetime achievement, an Oscar if you will. Comley already has his: 1991, at Northern Michigan in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (now officially the cradle of Spartan coaches since men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo hails from Iron Mountain and was an undergrad at NMU).

There is an argument to be made for naming a rooster, rather than a spring chicken, to succeed Mason, whose 924 career wins are the standard. Almost anyone else would have to win a national championship in his first year to emerge from the shadow of such a legend.

That’s just what Jeff Sauer did in 1981 after succeeding another legend, Bob Johnson, as coach at Wisconsin. That may not be what Comley will have to do because he’s already won his. But it sure would allow Mason, who becomes Michigan State’s athletic director on July 1, to concentrate on the women’s basketball program a lot sooner.

There is precedent for naming a coaching great to replace a coaching great. Len Ceglarski had already won 255 games when he took over for Snooks Kelley at Boston College. Jerry York had 467 victories when he took over for Ceglarski. And York, like Comley, had won a NCAA championship while at Bowling Green before taking over that lifetime job.

Comley starts at Michigan State with 597 career victories. Golly: they’re going to be celebrating yet another of those postgame coaching milestones at Munn Arena next October. Only six coaches in the history of the college game have more victories than Comley, and who’s to say now that he won’t be battling with York and Jack Parker for No. 2 before he’s all done?

Whether Comley will be like Sauer and York and follow suit with a national championship remains to be seen. But would anyone argue that he’s less than capable? Or too old?

I’ve never played handball with Rick Comley; I don’t even know if he plays handball. But I don’t think that it would be a walk in the park.

Like Mason, Comley is a fierce competitor.

Like Mason, Comley hates to lose.

And like Mason, he now has the resources that Mason had, and that Comley lacked at a smaller Upper Peninsula state school. And those resources, remember, include Ron Mason as his athletic director.

Hockey people know the Rick Comley story: Recruited by Mason to play for him at Lake Superior State in 1967 … served as Mason’s assistant coach after graduation in 1972 … followed Mason as coach there for three years when Mason departed for Bowling Green in 1973 … started the Northern Michigan program from scratch in 1976 … been there ever since.

It’s just the kind of stability they like in their hockey program at Michigan State.

Back in 1994, when Mason passed one those many coaching milestones (Ceglarski’s then-record 674 career victories), Comley talked with me about his early relationship with Mason as a player, then as a young coach:

“In 1967, there was no amateur draft in the NHL. The teams owned the town teams, and the Red Wings owned Stratford [Comley’s hometown in Ontario]. I was going to Lake Superior State to play for Ron on their first varsity team when Detroit called me to go to their camp. So I called Ron, said thanks but that I was going to go pro. I went down to their camp at the old Olympia. I was there a week, one week, and I was a mess.

“So who shows up? Ron, with this little fedora on, smiling at me, saying he wanted to get together after practice. The next day, I picked up my meal money and drove up to Lake Superior. What did Ron say to me? That I had a chance to go to school and get an education; that I’d end up in Johnstown if I stayed in Detroit. If that hadn’t happened, if he hadn’t showed up, I would have probably been in ‘Slapshot.’

“I remember when he left for Bowling Green and asked me to take over for him as coach. It was on the golf course. I was 25, but he was confident I was ready to carry on. I had an ulcer by November, but he left me his Maalox.

“If I’ve learned one thing from Ron, it’s his total commitment to the moment: what he was doing that day, at that spot. He was as happy in Sault Ste. Marie as he is in East Lansing as he was at Bowling Green. There’s not a greater lesson that he could have taught me. Be in the moment.”

Comley’s press conference Monday in East Lansing was not terribly revealing. It’s not like he’s a stranger. He’s not like former Mason assistant and protege Shawn Walsh, who was the heir apparent once upon a time. He’s not like George Gwozdecky, another former Mason assistant who had also played and coached for Badger Bob Johnson and is now trying to build on the legacy of another great coach at Denver, Murray Armstrong.

Comley is more like the distant relative who visits once in a while but who always made his home someplace else. Now that he has finally showed up to stay, the time and distance doesn’t seem to matter. Maybe he was always supposed to come full circle, to come home.

No one asked Comley directly how long he planned to coach, but if someone had, it’s not likely that he would have or could have provided a definitive answer. He has a four-year rollover contract, so it’s for four more years every year for as long as he and the boss want.

“He was the top choice all the way,” Mason said. “When you get the opportunity to get a star, you can’t pass it up. We’re best friends. I respect him as a coach. He has tremendous credentials. I feel very good about leaving the hockey program in his hands.”

Comley introduced his wife, Diane, and son, Rick; his daughter, Gillian, could not be there.

He had this to say:

On family: “That’s what hockey is all about,” Comley said about his own before talking about his new one.

On honesty: “This last month, there were conversations you almost always wanted to have knowing you couldn’t. It was not lies, but denials.” Given Comley’s nature, that had to be difficult for him.

On the new job: I’ve wondered for a long time if I’d ever coach at Michigan State. Ron and I have talked about it for a couple years. I knew I’d have to have a good reason to leave [Marquette]. This is a good reason.”

On his relationship with his mentor: “My life has intermingled with Ron’s, from being a player at Lake State and not going to the Detroit Red Wings, to coaching at Lake State when Ron was leaving for Bowling Green. It’s a proud moment to follow Ron. It couldn’t be a better situation. What more could you ever want? To have him here, to call on him as a friend, that’s a tremendous benefit to me. Our relationship is so good that we will have many conversations. I appreciate the opportunity. It’s a dream come true. We’re as excited as we could be.”

On the pressure: “The stakes are high, the goals are high. The expectation here is greater, and it should be. People are disappointed here and they won 27 hockey games. I like the returning talent. There are question marks on a few of them being back. We will continue to compete for the best kids in North America.”

Thirty years ago, Mason left Comley a young program and a bottle of Maalox. Today, Comley takes over a mature program and a lifetime job.

Who says life doesn’t begin at 55? And this time, Mason can hold the Maalox.

Steve Klein is a veteran sports editor and columnist in both print 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, [nl]Notre Dame and Michigan State; currently is an online journalism instructor at George Mason University and American University, where he teaches sports journalism; is co-founder of SportsEditor.com; and is a contributor to Poynter.org’s E-Media Tidbits weblog. He can be reached at [email protected]