Michigan State Hire Makes Waves

The seismic event that was the official announcement that the Big Ten hopes to add men’s ice hockey to it’s roster of sports Monday was followed up by another smaller, but incredibly significant development Wednesday.

Michigan State University shocked the hockey world when it announced that Tom Anastos was going to be it’s new men’s ice hockey coach, replacing the retiring Rick Comley. Anastos resigned his post as the commissioner of the CCHA prior to the announcement, leaving Fred Pletsch to take the reins as interim commissioner.

To the average hockey fan, what’s the big deal, right? Anastos is a MSU alum, played for and briefly coached with Ron Mason, fully connected in hockey as a conference commissioner and is, by most accounts, a tremendous leader.

However, when the news of the hire broke, it set off an immediate frenzy on blogs, news outlets and, of course, Twitter. The overwhelming reaction was… WHAT? They hired the commissioner? Wait… WHAT!?

The reaction was widespread. To say that this hire is out of the box doesn’t do it justice. There clearly was no box. There was not a person in hockey that saw this coming or would have ever dreamed of predicting it.

What adds fuel to a number of fires is that this hire could impact the college game in a variety of ways. This news not only effects the future of Michigan State athletics, it could make a huge difference in the future of the CCHA as a conference.

The Big Ten’s huge announcement Monday quickly set off a fair amount of panic throughout college hockey, particularly among CCHA fans from non-Big Ten schools. What would happen to the CCHA? How is this going to effect college hockey? What are we all going to do?

My post on Tuesday regarding the Big Ten’s announcement tried to, first of all express my belief that the new conference should be a good thing for the college game. It was secondly to calm any of the doomsayers regarding the future of the smaller schools in the CCHA and WCHA. Lastly, it was to have a little fun with talk of expansion.

The entire post was written with the thought that Tom Anastos and WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod were smart enough guys to make this whole thing work out, one way or another. I have a lot of respect for both of these guys and I knew that they were going to do everything in their power to ensure the security of their conferences and member teams. Well… this news throws a bit of a wrench in that theory. More on that in a bit.

First, let’s just quickly examine the hire.

Usually when a new head coach is hired it provides an answer, however this one seems to create a lot more questions. I had plenty myself.

The immediate question was, “Has this guy ever coached?”

Anastos has been a highly successful and influential commissioner. Smart in business and widely respected by his peers. Last time Anastos coached at the college level? He was an assistant for Ron Mason at Michigan State from 1990-92. For those wondering, that was a long time ago.

This is not to say that Anastos is not qualified to be a head coach at the college level, necessarily. I can’t judge that, yet. It is only that this makes the decision all the more interesting and, in my opinion, awfully risky. It’s a risky move for both parties, really.

Michigan State, over the last few seasons, has been dogged by the fact that they’ve struggled to recruit and develop elite talent at a rate you’d expect from a big-time hockey school. Hiring a coach with no prior track record of recruiting and developing elite talent is a gamble. The elite players want to know they’re going to get prepared for pro hockey. I’m not saying Anastos can’t do it. I’m just saying that he hasn’t yet, while other candidates rumored to be in the mix for the job have.

My next question was, “Who approached who?”

Inside College Hockey reported that it was the Spartans going to Anastos. INCH added that the time it took Michigan State to contact, interview and hire Anastos was a mere 36 hours:

Anastos was contacted by Michigan State Athletic Director Mark Hollis late Sunday morning, and was under the impression that his advice was being solicited in his role as commissioner of the CCHA and an alum of the Michigan State program. His advice had been sought before in similar searches, including earlier in the process of hiring for the Michigan State vacancy. Once he returned Hollis’ phone call, Anastos said, “I thought he was going to bounce ideas or ask for feedback and then he said, ‘I want to talk about you.’”

Anastos met with Hollis and Michigan State officials Monday afternoon in East Lansing, and Hollis called Anastos with a formal offer Monday evening. He requested a quick response, as his plan was to have a coach in place and announce the hire Wednesday afternoon at Munn Ice Arena.

Doesn’t that seem a little quick to you? I mean, uncomfortably quick? But let’s back this up. Michigan State intended to have its coach in place by Wednesday, after interviewing and offering the job a mere two days prior? It’s kind of a big decision to say, “We need you to make a life and career altering decision in about 24 hours, OK? Thanks.”

I mean, sometimes things just click, but this is a major decision for a major college program that is in a bit of turmoil and is a few short years away from transitioning into a highly competitive conference that comes with unprecedented exposure. It’s also a big decision for a man who was being looked to, to guide the conference he led for 13 years in its time of most dire need. This all just seems a bit rushed to me.

Adam Wodon of College Hockey News also had an intriguing Q&A with Michigan State’s new bench boss.

Let’s get back to how this effects the CCHA.

There is a reason Tom Anastos annually finds himself among The Hockey News 100 People of Power and Influence in Hockey (No. 46 this year). I honestly don’t think I could heap enough praise on Anastos for the job he’s done as the CCHA commissioner and what a great spokesperson he has been for college hockey over the years.

Which is why I was so surprised that he was transitioning to coaching after a very successful run as a commissioner for more than 13 years. The speculation immediately went to him jumping from a sinking ship, now that the big bad Big Ten is coming to the table, which I don’t buy (not completely at least).

I will never fault someone for doing what they want to do with their own career. As a former player, I’m sure it is a dream situation for Anastos to be at the helm of his alma mater’s hockey team. I can’t say I blame Anastos for taking the gig.

Still, the question remains. What will happen next? In the CCHA’s statement regarding the resignation of its commissioner, Greg Christopher, Chair of the CCHA Council and Bowling Green’s AD had this to say:

“We move forward with a strong foundation in place. The Executive Committee and full Council are committed to the future of the CCHA. Our ongoing conversations about the future shape of the CCHA will continue. The CCHA staff is a strong and cohesive group, with the ability to keep things moving forward. Fred Pletsch has been involved with the league for 10 years and understands our vision. Fred is best positioned to lead the CCHA during this transition and will assume the role of Interim Commissioner. In the coming weeks, we will finalize search plans for our next Commissioner, then communicate and move forward accordingly.”

Replacing Anastos will not be easy, whether it’s Pletsch or someone else. Now that there will be a high level of uncertainty and some serious growing pains when the CCHA loses three big-name teams in 2013-14, it’s a tough gig to take on.

Unfortunately, when the CCHA needs him most, it is without it’s seasoned captain to steer the ship through the storm. The CCHA Council needs to be judicious in its selection of a new commissioner. It could be one of the most important hires in the history of college hockey. Whoever the CCHA tabs as it’s next commissioner is essentially there to keep it all from falling apart.

The new leader of the CCHA will need to be someone who strongly believes in the long-term viability of the conference. It will need to be someone who is willing to fight and not take no for an answer when it comes to getting what he/she wants for the good of the conference. Most of all, the CCHA needs someone with a clear vision for the future of the conference, while having an understanding of the present.

While the Big Ten could be good for college hockey, no one wants to see it succeed at the cost of other college programs. While the road ahead was tough already, there appear to be a few more potholes along the way now.

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About Chris Peters

Editor of The United States of Hockey. Contributor to CBSSports.com, USA Hockey Magazine and more. Former USA Hockey PR guy. Current Iowan.
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One Response to Michigan State Hire Makes Waves

  1. Russ Bitely says:

    Just wanted to comment and compliment on your articles. I found you off Twitter as someone commented on your EJ Mcguire write-up.

    Never enough good hockey news and articles out there!

    Thanks for the writings…

    Russ

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