Don Lucia is one of two Minnesota hockey coaches to win a national championship.
The other is Herb Brooks, Miracle on Ice legend.
Lucia’s place in Gopher hockey history is secure with those titles and six conference championships.
But what would happen if the Gophers missed the NCAA tournament in each of the next four years? What if the Gophers won just one of 35 games against North Dakota, Minnesota Duluth and Wisconsin?
What if Lucia was sanctioned by the NCAA and forced to vacate wins and a conference championship due to his own carelessness? What if his team finished last in the conference in the NCAA’s Academic Progress Report for eight straight seasons and dead last in the nation for the two?
There’s no doubt about it, Don Lucia would no longer be the head men’s hockey coach at Minnesota. His national titles, conference championships and legacy would not be enough to save his job.
These are not Don Lucia’s credentials, though. They are those of former Minnesota Duluth women’s hockey coach Shannon Miller, and they are precisely why it should not be a surprise that the school opted not to renew the longtime coach’s contract after it expired following the 2014-15 season.
While Miller is suing the University of Minnesota Board of Regents, saying her gender and sexual orientation played a role in her departures from the university, there’s no arguing that her performance has slipped in the last five years.
After reaching the NCAA tournament in 11 of the sport’s first 12 seasons, the Bulldogs have missed the tournament four years in a row. The last four seasons rank Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 4 on the list of the program’s lowest winning percentages.
After finishing in the top three in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association for 12 straight years, the Bulldogs have failed to do so in each of the last four years as they’ve been passed up by North Dakota. Even Ohio State has won more games than Minnesota Duluth in the last three years.
After reaching the WCHA conference tournament semifinals for 13 straight years, the Bulldogs have missed the Final Faceoff in two of the last three years, getting bounced by Bemidji State in the first round last season.
After being called one of the WCHA’s ‘Big Three’ for more than a decade, Minnesota Duluth has fallen out of that mix in stunning fashion. The Bulldogs have won just one of their last 35 games against Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota, fewer than both Bemidji State and struggling Minnesota State-Mankato (the Beavers won five games against those opponents last year alone).
The league’s coaches didn’t see the program going in a promising direction, either. This season, with all of Miller’s returning players and incoming recruits, fellow WCHA coaches picked the Bulldogs to finish below the Beavers and in the bottom half of the league for the first time ever.
Off the ice, Miller’s troubles with the NCAA have been well documented. The program was forced to forfeit a conference title and all regular-season wins for using a professional player and using a former player to recruit her.
Miller’s teams have under-performed in the classroom as well, finishing dead last in the WCHA in the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate for eight straight years. They were dead last in the country for four of those years, including the last two.
The athletic department likely took note that 13 players have transferred out of the program in the last three years, too.
Every direction you look, there are red flags.
Yes, Miller did terrific things for the Bulldog women’s hockey program and will go down as one of the sport’s most-highly accomplished coaches. But that doesn’t mean she’s entitled to a lifetime appointment as coach.
Many prominent men’s coaches of men’s sports have found this out.
Bobby Bowden, the second-winningest FBS football coach of all time, was forced out at Florida State when his performance dipped. Jeff Sauer, George Gwozdecky and Rick Comley — three of the top nine winningest coaches in D-I men’s hockey history — were all eventually forced out, too.
Coaching is a bottom-line business and the bottom line is that the Bulldogs weren’t paying Miller more than any women’s hockey coach in the country for those results.
Miller won’t take ownership for the program’s recent struggles.
She’ll say it’s the school’s fault for not providing her team a full-time person to book flights hotels and meals (as bizarre as that sounds). She’ll blame the budget, even though the Bulldogs spend as much as anyone in the country in women’s hockey. It’s just not her fault, never has been.
In 2003, The Ralph hosted the WCHA Final Faceoff. In the early morning hours before the championship game, an angry Miller, looking for game tape, accidentally knocked on the door of a University of Minnesota player while looking for the league’s commissioner. She was suspended one game for it.
After the suspension, she told the Duluth News Tribune: “I would like the focus to be on the events that actually occurred, not me accidentally knocking on the door. I’m a little in shock given the situation. We were the victims, not the accused.”
Last season, it became time for Minnesota Duluth to decide whether to issue a new contract to Miller or whether to look in another direction.
With wins decreasing, distance between rivals increasing, championships traveling out of sight, players consistently transferring out and an APR score stuck in the basement, the Bulldogs’ decision shouldn’t be a shock.