Comley's graceful departure

Well, I suppose I knew this was coming. I guess I’m just a little surprised that it’s happening now.
Michigan State is 10-12-4 this season. Last year, the Spartans finished second in the CCHA with an overall record of 19-13-6, but their season ended when they were swept in two games at home in the second round of league playoffs – they had a bye for the first round – at the hands of archrival Michigan. No CCHA championship tournament in Joe Louis Arena. No NCAA tournament.
And now, no future with Rick Comley.
When Comley was hired in 2002-03, I told anyone who would listen that the new coach would bring a national championship to East Lansing within five years. He did so four seasons later, but in such a high-profile position, a coach is only as good as his last season. Because of that, this is Comley’s last season.
In the press conference Tuesday announcing his decision to retire, Comley said that he knew what he was signing up for nine years ago when he left Northern Michigan – a program he built from scratch – for a Big Ten school, succeeding the legendary Ron Mason.
“Coming in after somebody I knew you could not replace and that [act of replacement] would not be positive…my belief the day I stepped in this campus was that it would not end positive, and that’s nobody’s fault,” said Comley.
As tough as that quote sounds, Comley wasn’t bitter Tuesday and he’s not bitter about having to leave, something he and the MSU athletic department “certainly talked” about, he said. I had to settle for watching a video of the press conference, and I will say that the tone of everything Comley said was just a little sad around the edges. He’s grateful for the run he’s had in East Lansing. He’s grateful for his whole career.
And there’s still hockey to be played.
“I was fully aware of what [following Mason] was going to be like,” said Comley. “Totally. But you don’t pass up that opportunity. It’s a special opportunity. I’m glad I did it, and I’m glad we won the national championship. Now we’ve just got to find a way to finish this year right.”
It’s hard to keep from eulogizing when writing about Comley’s departure. A colleague at the press conference said the atmosphere – among the press – was funereal. Reporters certainly sounded subdued when they asked Comley questions. When I heard the news, I felt like I’d been kicked in the gut.
The truth is that the press corps really likes Comley. He’s a good man, a decent man, a kind man, a funny man, and everyone who covers Spartan hockey enjoys being able to spend time with him. He’s very human, very down to earth – and that often gets lost on people who don’t interact with him personally.
And the reporters in that room Tuesday knew, as I know, that this affects more than just Comley. Now we’re all thinking of Tom Newton, who’s coached with Michigan State since the 1990-91 season, and Brian Renfrew, who’s been there since 2003-04. These are good men, too, but they differ from Comley in one key regard. Neither Newton nor Renfrew is close to retirement.
“There’s part of the staff that it doesn’t really impact because they’re lifers” said Comley, “and I think that the coaches are probably impacted the most with the uncertainty of what their future holds. That’s probably my biggest concern. I’m sixty-four years old and I’ve done it a long time and I think I still have things to offer if I deem that I still want to do some things, but I think that coaches that are here are both very capable and have done a good job, and you know you just want it to work out for everybody.”
I know collegiate sports are big business, no matter how much we who cover college hockey try to delude ourselves otherwise. College hockey is a very small world, so we get lulled by its counterfeit coziness. I’ve been around it long enough to know better, but I still see the human aspect of it more than the business end – and that’s why I’m a little sad myself tonight.
Sad. Not funereal, though.
That quote that I threw at you at the start of this, about Comley knowing what he was getting into when he arrived, was part of a longer quote in response to a question about his “legacy,” a term that he scoffed at immediately – because he’s Rick Comley. He did, however, list what he considers the things that gave him the most satisfaction as a coach, and here it is in whole:
“Being a head coach at twenty-five. Coaching kids who I played with when they were freshmen. Starting a program at Northern. Getting a rink finally built at Northern. Winning a national championship at Northern and then coming down here, replacing…coming in after somebody I knew you could not replace and that [act of replacement] would not be positive, and my belief the day I stepped in this campus was that it would not end positive, and that’s nobody’s fault. Ron is Ron and you know what he’s like and everything he’s done and what he’s accomplished – but coming down here and winning a national championship. That’s tough. That’s tough to do that.”
That is tough to do, as is announcing your departure in January, the week you play your biggest rival in Joe Louis Arena, when there are still 10 regular-season contests remaining, because you think the timing is good for the program and the other guys coaching with you.
“I wanted to do it now because I think time is an ally in a situation when there’s a coaching change,” said Comley, “and so I think it gives the school time to start an early process. I think it gives assistant coaches time and opportunity to either be candidates or to explore opportunities. I think it gives a team a chance to kind of digest it, and I think, you know, not everything’s positive out there right now and I think it’s hard on the team and I think this will let us settle a little bit.
“Our goals won’t change. My devotion to being successful and doing things the right way the rest of the year aren’t going to change. I still believe every goal is possible and I’d love nothing more to go out on a positive, winning note and that’s what we’ll try to do.”
The way Comley is going out strikes a definite winning note.
And that doesn’t surprise me at all.