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May 13, 2011

Maize N' View: Pearson had to leave Michigan

Mel Pearson wants to take over for Red Berenson someday at Michigan but he had to accept the Michigan Tech head-coaching job last week for two reasons: he may never be Berenson's successor and he never would be in the running had he not taken over the Huskies' program ...

Confused?

When Pearson initially rejected Michigan Tech's offer, just a few days after the Wolverines fell 3-2 to Minnesota-Duluth in the national finals April 9, he admitted he was just too emotional to think about leaving Ann Arbor and the U-M program.

It was more than that, though - Pearson had passed on opportunities before, believing his best chance at succeeding Berenson some day was staying put, remaining his right-hand man and receiving the legend's blessing. And with college hockey lacking the feeder system that college football and college basketball both employ, it was a solid strategy for Pearson and colleague Billy Powers.

What changed?

Athletic directors.

While Berenson has long said he will not handpick the man that steps into his office someday, he almost certainly would have done just that (if he wanted to) with Bill Martin running the Michigan athletic department. However, David Brandon is much more assertive and while he will absolutely seek out Berenson's counsel on this matter, the decision will be his.

"What I've learned about David Brandon in his first year on the job is he calls the shots," a source close to the hockey program said. "There is no doubt he wouldn't make this decision without Red's input and his blessing but he's also going to want to conduct a national search and get the guy he believes is the next Red Berenson."

Could that have been Pearson (might it still be?)? Maybe. But there are those keeping a watchful eye on this program that truly believe the list of interested parties when Berenson takes off his skates for the last time will blow people away.

In that regard, Pearson would face stiff competition and his resume would sorely lack one necessary requirement: head-coaching experience. In that vein, Berenson recommended he take the job.

"Here is an opportunity, if you want to get head-coaching experience, if you want that on your resume whether you're looking at my job or any job down the road, here's your chance," Berenson said. "I don't know what David Brandon's criteria will be someday but I suspect head-coaching experience is important."

And it is important. How important? Two different sources have said Pearson (or Powers) will face a mountain of an uphill climb if they don't have head-coaching experience on their resume. One of the sources even saying, "No way Brandon hires a guy that has never been responsible for an entire program. Especially with the way he wants to market the hockey team going forward."

So it seems that Pearson had to take over Tech if he ultimately wants to take over Michigan. But obviously there was an inherent risk there because it's not like he's stepping into a program that just needs a little help.

Michigan Tech is dreadful. The Huskies went 4-30-4 in 2010-11 following a five-win campaign in 2009-10 and a six-win season in 2008-09. They've won more than 10 games just three times since 2000 - 2006-07 the only winning season of that bunch (18-17-5). They haven't had back-to-back winning seasons since 1981-82 (23-14-3) and 1982-83 (22-17-1) and they compete in a conference (the WCHA) that is rock solid from top to bottom.

Even though he is an alumnus, and was given guarantees about the resources the athletic department will invest in the program, Pearson couldn't look at those daunting numbers without trepidation. While he knew he had to become a head coach somewhere before he could be a potential head coach at Michigan, failing would do him no good.

We saw that with Mike DeBord at Central Michigan. He left U-M in 1999 to become CMU's boss, the intent to gain the experience needed to take over the reins for Lloyd Carr, but in four seasons in Mt. Pleasant, DeBord posted records of 2-9, 3-8, 4-8 and 3-9, and his lack of success took him out of the running to be Carr's successor.

Of course, Brady Hoke was hired to succeed Rich Rodriguez this past January and he boasts an overall career record below .500. However, Hoke had three winning seasons in resurrecting two dormant programs and he improved his win total at both Ball State and San Diego State every year but one (BSU went 4-8 in 2003 and 2-9 in 2004).

"Mike DeBord is the cautionary tale, the reason you hesitate, but on the other hand, I think Brady Hoke proved that you don't have to perform miracles, only show that you know how to win," one of our sources said. "If Mel can go to Michigan Tech and make that program respectable within a few years and really start to turn it around, even if his record overall is under .500, I think he proves a lot."

But will he have enough time to do that? What if Berenson retires after the 2012-13 campaign when his contract is up? In two years could Pearson impress the Michigan brass enough to return? Probably not, but then Berenson doesn't appear to be in any hurry to retire.

"I could see him coaching five more years, more than that even, as long he continues to feel he's contributing to the success of his players, which he does better than anyone I've ever known," Pearson said. "Red is healthy and he loves hockey and this program with a passion that I don't think we'll ever see die out."

It's a passion that Pearson and Powers carry with them also and they hope they will be tasked with carrying the torch at Michigan in the future. Will that happen? It will depend on timing and whether Pearson can resuscitate a Michigan Tech program on life support.


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