The search that ended with John Micheletto being named Massachusetts’ new head coach on Monday was not an easy one for the school.
Micheletto, a former assistant coach at Vermont, Union and Notre Dame, wasn’t the school’s first choice. That fact, though, was hardly a deterrent for the man they call “Coach Mick.”
“You don’t always get a chance to marry your first girlfriend,” Micheletto said. “I don’t know what happened [in the interview process]. But at this point, like it’s going to be for our players moving forward, it’s about the opportunity. I was given it and what I do with the opportunity that the university has given me is what I’ll be judged on.”
With that opportunity, however, comes expectations. In 12 seasons under former head coach Don “Toot” Cahoon, UMass rose from the cellar in the always competitive Hockey East to a marquee program in recent years.
— John Micheletto
A trip to the Hockey East finals, the school’s first NCAA tournament appearance and the development of some top-notch NHL athletes has placed expectations high for this program.
Not high, however, is the priority that men’s hockey takes on the athletic landscape on the Amherst campus. The school has always placed higher emphasis on the men’s basketball program, which went to the Final Four in 1996 under head coach John Calipari. And last season, UMass moved its football program from the Football Championship Subdivision to the bowl-eligible Mid-American Conference.
According to multiple sources, the combination of the school’s desire to be competitive in men’s hockey and the sport’s smaller stature on campus has been a sticking point in the past and may have been a factor in the decisions by Rand Pecknold, Paul Pearl and Mark Carlson to turn down the chance to be the third Minutemen head coach since the program was resurrected in 1993.
But that can’t be Micheletto’s sticking point. If anything, it has to be his mission, his challenge. UMass has enough resources athletically to compete in multiple sports and hockey has the benefit of playing in a top-level facility like the Mullins Center.
“I think that the general premise that because you have big-time football that you have to downgrade other programs is false,” Micheletto said. “The one thing I learned in my previous experience, certainly Notre Dame being one of them, is that if you have a program that is the showpiece and the revenue earner, you have to feed that program and then feed off the resource that provides [all other sports].
“I hope football is given everything they desire. I hope men’s and women’s basketball is given everything they want, because that will only make the hockey program stronger.”
All of that said, nothing is simple in Hockey East. Two seasons ago Merrimack was the prince of the ball, making the school’s first NCAA tournament appearance since joining the league. Even early last year, the school earned its first No. 1 national ranking but then lost out on home ice in the Hockey East playoffs, failed to make another appearance at the TD Garden and missed the NCAA tournament.
To survive in Hockey East shouldn’t be difficult. But to consistently succeed is extremely challenging. Micheletto knows.
Micheletto was a major part of the architecture that brought Vermont to its second Frozen Four appearance in school history in 2008. A year later, Vermont returned to the tournament despite finishing eighth in Hockey East. It was easily a story of a small program winning big. That’s what Micheletto hopes he can bring to UMass.
“I think UMass has a lot of good pieces in place,” Micheletto said. “What Toot did for 12 years has put [the program] where it is today. Now trying to sustain that at a national level, that’s really the goal here.”
To achieve that, Micheletto will call on the teaching of his past, having worked under well-known head coaches including Stan Moore, Dave Poulin and Kevin Sneddon.
Taking a little bit from each will be his goal as he finally has a program’s reins in his grasp.
“You take a piece of each guy who you learn from to really kind of piece together what’s right and isn’t right and make my own strategy,” Micheletto said. “You can never stop learning as a coach. It’s about achieving and having that inner desire to get better yourself and make the people around you better.”
When Micheletto met the media on Monday, he called the UMass program a “sleeping giant.” Now it’s his time, his turn to do everything he can to awaken this team.