Crimson Tide

You don’t have Mark Mazzoleni to kick around anymore.

Mazzoleni, like Richard Nixon’s “goodbye” from politics after losing the 1962 California gubernatorial race, vowed to be done with Division I coaching after leaving Harvard for hometown Green Bay of the USHL last week. Of course, in six years, he too may return stronger than ever. In the mean time, after five years at Harvard, Mazzoleni leaves having become a lightning rod for criticism, for a variety of reasons, ranging from his coaching style, to his own personality, to his detachment from Harvard, to the bottom line results.

The media did not invent the tensions that were going on at Harvard. Many players and administrators gave genuinely classy statements upon Mazzoleni’s departure, but there was also unquestionable friction going on with parents, many players, and, perhaps most importantly, scores of hockey alumni. In many ways, a lot of this stuff probably goes on in a lot of places, which is why it shouldn’t be overblown. But it seems to have been on a larger scale, and handled differently, at Harvard than elsewhere.

None of which should imply it was all Mazzoleni’s fault. Sometimes, things just aren’t a good fit, and this one, despite some on-ice success, was not a good fit from the beginning — the reasons which can be debated forever.

Harvard can be, and often is, an example of the best of what college athletics is all about.

It would also be a mistake if any of his detractors, especially the handful of disgruntled parents, are feeling any sense of satisfaction at his departure. Parents should never dictate to athletic departments what to do. It’s possible sometimes that parents are correct in their assessments, but far more often than not, many parents of young athletes react over-emotionally to perceived slights.

In my experience, kids and student athletes of all ages handle the ups and downs of the team dynamic far better than their parents. Having covered high school sports for five years, I can’t tell you how many times a small but vocal minority of parents wielded undue influence on school athletic departments — along with calling the newspaper every other day to complain that little Johnny didn’t get enough publicity, or whatever. I have little sympathy for parents like this, and I don’t really have it for the few Harvard parents that decided to up the ante on their displeasure with Mazzoleni.

So good for Harvard, and good for Mazzoleni, for never caving into that kind of nonsense. The administration always stood by their guy. (Despite a report in a Green Bay paper, there were never any “Internet reports” that I’m aware of that suggested there was tension between Mazzoleni and the Harvard administration.)

At the same time, he’s not dumb. Mazzoleni insists he left solely for family reasons, but he had to also realize how much more difficult his job was being made by these tensions. And recruiting was bound to be affected in coming years.

He is someone you actually want to like — I always appreciated his honesty, and the fact that he could talk Xs and Os with you forever — but dealing with the forces that be around the Harvard program is not always easy, and he let it get to him in often self-defeating ways, letting paranoia creep in, taking tense moments and making them worse.

As a result, he never really got the support of a lot of the peripheral characters in this drama, including a large portion of his team, that would have made it all easier to deal with. The hockey alumni, too, never warmed to Mazzoleni. Rightly or wrongly, they believed Mazzoleni stayed detached from Harvard, never choosing to immerse himself in the culture. As a result, they believe he found it difficult to relate to Harvard’s players — past and present — and they to him.

In many ways, this soap opera is irrelevant. Mazzoleni’s teams were never in trouble in the classroom or with the law, or with the NCAA. All of this “tension” was just personality conflicts. What is relevant is whether any of these issues were indicative of similar issues that manifested themselves on the ice.

Harvard is undoubtedly in better shape right now than when Mazzoleni took over from Ronn Tomassoni in 1999-2000. But there was a sense in the last few years that something just wasn’t quite right. Harvard could have been better, and this is what was so frustrating.

It’s been my contention that, overall, Harvard underachieved the last three years. I believe this knowing full well that saying so can look ridiculous given Harvard’s three straight NCAA appearances and two ECAC tournament titles. In some circles, this has gotten me labeled a Mazzoleni basher or Harvard hater, which really couldn’t be further from the truth.

What is true, however, is that I’ve always had a sense that it was the “bad fit” that caused the underachieving (although, it should be said, none of this “tension” was ever reported in print until last week).

The ECAC of 1997 and 1998 was in the last vestiges of still being a pretty darn strong conference. Being a top two or three team right now is certainly not easy, but it was a heckuva lot easier from 2002-04 than it used to be. That’s why comparing Harvard’s records to 1997 is not a good measurement, which a lot of people do when trying to tell you how much better the program has performed the last few years. Not only that, but the 2002 and 2004 Harvard teams were only .500 in the regular season — not even top two or three — just like the 1996 Crimson, a team that similarly made the ECAC final and could just as easily have won it.

Winning the ECAC tournament is certainly still a big deal, but it’s much easier than it used to be. And based on the final results — mediocre regular seasons, two tournament championships, and no NCAA wins — I don’t think Harvard is any farther along nationally than, say, Niagara. I don’t see this as bashing. I see this as cold, hard reality.

The 2002-03 Harvard team, of course, won 22 games and came in second place. But again, it did so during what was a monumentally weak year for the ECAC out of conference, and, most telling, Harvard itself finished 0-7-1 (0-3 last season) in games against NCAA teams. After a while, it’s not a coincidence to lose that many close games to good teams. Something wasn’t quite right.

The reason for this criticism and debate is not mindless Harvard bashing. It’s because so many of us know how good Harvard can be, and so many people in the ECAC want Harvard to be the kind of program that can win NCAA games. And they know that they have been so close, yet so far.

Harvard can be, and often is, an example of the best of what college athletics is all about. It has a rich hockey tradition dating back to the 19th century, it’s one of just two Ivy League schools to win a national championship, and it’s the only Ivy League school with a Hobey Baker Award winner (three of them). And it does all of this within the confines of strict academic requirements and no scholarships.

The 1989 NCAA championship team was during the year of my first exposure to college hockey, and I’ll never forget what a treat it was to watch that team. My first Frozen Four was 1989 in St. Paul, when Harvard defeated Minnesota in overtime for the national championship. In later years, I had a chance to meet Lane MacDonald a couple of times, and if he’s not the nicest person I ever met, I don’t know who is. Similar things can be said for any number of Harvard players I’ve gotten to know (or at least interview) — Dom and Steve Moore, Kevin Sneddon, Craig MacDonald, Sean McCann, Mark and Scott Fusco, and so on. Not to mention “older” (sorry guys) alums like Joe Bertagna and Tim Taylor, two of my favorite people in hockey.

I was in Lynah Rink, standing next to the legendary Bill Cleary after he coached his last game, a 1990 ECAC playoff loss to Cornell. It is not possible to find someone who embodies college hockey more than this guy, someone who continues to believe in its ideals, and those of the Ivy League in particular, so deeply and so emotionally. And there he was, giving a teary-eyed goodbye to coaching.

Harvard’s teams continued to be fun to watch — Donato, Vukonich, Drury, and so on. For eight years, I don’t think I saw Harvard lose a regular-season game.

Harvard can be great. ECAC fans want it to be great. It cannot be in the Frozen Four every year, but like Cornell, it has the potential to make it now and then, and to always be sniffing around the Top 15.

It is because of this potential — to be scholars and winners — that so many people care about Harvard.

Surely, Mazzoleni wanted to make it work, but even he had to know it didn’t feel right. As a result, seeing an opportunity to move into a perfect family situation, the strong family man made a perfectly sensible move and there is no one who can blame him.

So now Harvard has a new chance. The eyes of the hockey world, and especially the ECAC, are on Harvard now. Everyone wants them to get it right.