For first-year Michigan coach Pearson, rebuild was never a topic, instead Wolverines ‘going for it’

 (2018 Melissa Wade)
In his first season as Michigan’s head coach, Mel Pearson has the Wolverines headed to the Frozen Four (photo: Melissa Wade).

According to conventional wisdom, you don’t ever want to be the guy that replaces the legend.

Far better to be the guy that replaces the guy that replaces the legend.

In the case of “rookie” Michigan coach Mel Pearson, however, replacing the legend ain’t working out too bad.

Taking over for Red Berenson, who in his 33 years became synonymous with Michigan hockey, Pearson has guided the Wolverines to their 25th Frozen Four appearance, their first since 2011.

“As a senior, when the new coach was announced, the greatest fear was to hear the words ‘rebuilding year,'” Michigan forward Tony Calderone says. “That was something I didn’t want to hear. [But] right from day one, Coach Pearson has said that we’re going for it.”

Michigan had become a “we don’t rebuild, we reload” perennial powerhouse under Berenson, advancing to 11 Frozen Fours, and winning it all in 1996 and 1998. They qualified for an unprecedented 22 straight NCAA tournaments, and won 11 regular-season and nine tournament CCHA championships.

A legendary coach in every sense of the word.

But in recent years, Michigan had slipped from its lofty perch, typically finishing second or third in its conference instead of winning it, and falling short of a Frozen Four berth since 2011 when it lost 3-2 in overtime of the national championship game. Last year it even plummeted to a previously unthinkable 13-19-3 record, only the second time it had posted a losing record since 1986, Berenson’s third year at the helm. (In that other year, 2012-2013, the sub-.500 mark had been by the slimmest of margins, 18-19-3.)

So despite the “reload” mentality of the program, seniors like Calderone had reason to worry. A new coach might look at 13-19-3 and go with the young guys.

Instead, Pearson put the pedal to the metal with his outlook when first announced as coach.

“I talked about getting the keys to the prized family car,” Pearson says. “It was in pretty darn good shape and we just needed to make a couple adjustments, a couple repairs to that car and get her on the road. And that car was headed to [the Frozen Four in] St. Paul, Minnesota.

“There were going to be some detours in the road. There might be a flat tire. There was going to be some adversity. We’d just have to navigate around that.

“And we have.”

Indeed, there were some flat tires: an early stretch where the Wolverines went 1-4-2, and then another where they lost four of five. That low point of the season found the Wolverines with a losing record all the while staring at upcoming two-game series against then-ninth ranked Minnesota, 12th ranked Penn State, sixth-ranked Ohio State and 18th-ranked Wisconsin.

Doubters thought the prized car had become a broken-down jalopy.

But that prized family car got back on the road and proved the doubters wrong. Michigan has now won nine of 10 games, losing only in overtime in the Big Ten tournament to fellow Frozen Four representative, Ohio State.

Although this is Pearson’s first year as Michigan’s head coach, his roots in the program run deep. He served as assistant coach and then associate head coach under Berenson for 23 years, making this year’s run all the sweeter.

Pearson left Ann Arbor in 2011, when he took his first collegiate head coaching position at his alma mater, Michigan Tech. He quickly learned the difference between an assistant coach’s role and that of a head coach.

“You have to go from where you’re the go-between and you hang out with the guys a little bit more,” Pearson says. “As an assistant, you’re a little bit more of a friend than you are as the head coach. You have to get used to that separation and having to be the bad guy, a little bit.

“You also have to learn how to run your own program, the day-to-day operation from structuring practice, to how you handle your assistants, to what you do with your staff. You don’t realize how much work there is when you’re an assistant.”

In his six years at Michigan Tech, Pearson turned around a program that had gone 4-30-4 the year before he arrived, and had enjoyed only two winning seasons since 1984, into one that won a WCHA championship and earned NCAA tournament berths two of his last three years.

When the chance to return to Michigan arose, Pearson seized the opportunity even though he knew he’d have to fill enormous-sized shoes.

“Coach Berenson and I are different,” Pearson says. “We have the same philosophies in what we want to accomplish, but we sometimes go about it in different ways. It’s been a learning process for both the players and coaches.

“I was very fortunate and privileged to have the opportunity to come back to Michigan. To follow a legend like Coach Berenson is a daunting task at times, but it’s an honor.”

Pearson found that Berenson wasn’t a shadow hovering over everything he did, but rather a resource available when needed.

“You can’t put a price on how valuable it is to have a man like him around,” Pearson says. “Just to pick up the phone or to walk over to his office and just talk a little. He’s been great.

“Sometimes he used to worry about getting in the way, but we’ve put a locker for him in the coaches’ room just to be sure that he knows he’s always welcome at Michigan.”

And now the question becomes, can Pearson guide the Wolverines to their 10th national championship?

“It’s not about me or our staff; it’s about our colors, it really is,” Pearson says. “I’m just thankful that I hopefully have had a small part in helping this team.

“But it’s really the players. I don’t score any goals, I don’t block any shots, I don’t kill any penalties. It’s the guys you have in that locker room that have to go out and do it. It’s just getting them to buy in, to play together, to play as a team, and they’ve done a great job at that.”