Mike Cavanaugh is the newest head coach on a campus with room for another athletic program to go big-time. That's where UConn hockey is eventually headed, to the big-time world of Hockey East in 2014-15.
Cavanaugh was introduced Thursday at a press conference in the state-of-the-art Burton Family Football Complex, right across the street from ongoing construction of a state-of-the-art basketball practice facility. Just a couple hundred yards down the street is little, old Freitas Ice Forum, where Cavanaugh will start building his program.
"The passion that UConn has for its sports has always intrigued me and amazed me," Cavanaugh said. "It’s what brought me here to UConn."
The hope is that some of passion for and the success of, for example, the basketball programs is experienced by the hockey program. Cavanaugh said clearly Thursday that he has arrived to win national championships. He envisions UConn becoming a hockey power, now that it has committed the necessary resources, is awarding scholarships, and selected a coach to lead the way for the foreseeable future.
Cavanaugh has signed a five-year contract that pays $200,000 a year, with basic cost-of-living raises along the way, and it won't be long before his new team is facing off against his old team in downtown Hartford. UConn and Boston College are scheduled to play each other in a Hockey East game at the XL Center in Oct., 2014.
Maybe by then a shovel will be in the ground for hockey's own state-of-the-art facility. Maybe the first small steps will have been made toward UConn becoming a national player like Yale and Quinnipiac, which met in this year's NCAA title game at the Frozen Four. Maybe plans will have been announced by then for UConn and those two schools and another to participate in a Beanpot-like annual event.
Having coached under the legendary Jerry York at Boston College and having developed relationships with scores of coaches in the hockey world who can be resources and sounding boards, Cavanaugh now has a new neighborhood, new friends, to knock ideas around with. He said his first duties as head coach are simply to get to know as many people at UConn as possible. Cavanaugh officially is on the job starting May 20.
"I think that’s moving horizontally throughout the campus," said Cavanaugh, 44. "I had a chance to meet coach [Jim] Calhoun this morning. He was terrific. He said, ‘When you get here, seek me out.’ I’m looking forward to picking his brain. During the interview process I said, ‘I can’t wait to meet Geno Auriemma.’ Eight national titles, 90 straight wins, whatever that record was, is just incredible. I look forward to going and watching one of his practices, to see how he operates. I think it’s always important to keep learning in life. The minute you think you have everything figured out, that’s when it usually goes south. I’m going to continually try to learn and evolve from everyone on this campus, daily."
Soccer coach Ray Reid, whose Huskies won a national title in 2000, attended the press conference and introduced himself to Cavanaugh afterward.
"My mission here – I’m going to simplify it for you – is going to be to graduate players and win championships," Cavanaugh said.
There was a lot of talk about recruiting Thursday. Cavanaugh's lead role in recruiting players out of Connecticut and New England, players who helped the Eagles to four national titles in while Cavanaugh was on the bench, was key in winning the job.
Can he start to land elite recruits immediately?
"I don’t see why not," Cavanaugh said. "When I went to Boston College, they said we couldn’t recruit Canadians. If you just listen to people who say you can’t do something, I don’t think you’re going to be successful. … I’ve been recruiting this talent for a long time. I have a lot of connections here, trusted friendships. I don’t think it’s going to be a problem. Do I think it’s going to be easy? No. I don’t think anything is easy in life. But I look forward to the challenge of recruiting those kids. … It might be challenging at first, but when we build this program I think kids are going to be clamoring to come here."
That effort starts now. So does the effort to get to know his current players. There are many parts of the job Cavanaugh will approach without Hockey East on his mind. He'll spend one season with the team in Atlantic Hockey, then hop back into Hockey East as a head coach at UConn instead of an assistant at BC.
"I obviously know the league pretty well," Cavanaugh said. "This year will be a little more challenging for me because I don’t know the Atlantic Hockey opponents as well. And I want to make this clear: Hockey East is two years away. There are going to be seniors on this team that are committed to winning an Atlantic Hockey title, because that’s all they can play for. They’re not going to get a chance to play in Hockey East. It’s imperative that I set the tone for this program. That is our goal this year. Hockey East will wait. … If you win the Atlantic Hockey league title, that gets you a berth in the NCAA Tournament. That’s the big goal we’re all going to play for. I’m not afraid to say it – I’m coming here to win national championships. If you’re afraid to put those goals out there, you’re never going to achieve them."
Cavanaugh addressed the team Thursday at noon. It's been an interesting time for the Huskies. Players learned Bruce Marshall, UConn's coach for 25 years, was taking medical leave in November. Assistant coach David Berard ran the program in Marshall's absence, and continued to after being named interim coach when Marshall resigned in January. The Huskies went on to one of the best seasons in their history under Berard, finishing with a winning mark for the first time since 1999-00. UConn was 19-14-4, 19-10-3 under Berard, who became the players’ choice for the full-time job. Berard ultimately finished as runner-up to Cavanaugh. Former Denver coach George Gwozdecky was the other finalist from a group of 40-plus applicants.
During the press conference, Cavanaugh was asked to share what he could about his conversation with players. They had gathered in the Freitas locker room.
"I told them we’re going to move forward," Cavanaugh said. "This is not going to be Boston College moving to Storrs. This is going to be UConn Hockey. That’s what I’m focused on. Make no mistake. Jerry York gave me my start in college hockey when he hired me at Bowling Green [in 1992]. He is a valued friend and has been a terrific mentor and I’ll cherish his relationship for the rest of my life. But it’s important that we establish what UConn hockey stands for. That’s what I expressed to the players. I expressed that this is a partnership. I have found that the best organizations – whether it be a college hockey team or a Fortune 500 business – everyone has to have the same ideals and striving for the same goals."
Cavanaugh spoke about the meeting with players again after the press conference.
"I think everything is gradual," he said. "If you come in and try to demand something early on, that can be standoffish. I don’t want to drive a stake through anybody. I’m sympathetic to what they had to go deal with this season. But I wanted to let them know that I’m excited to lead them. I’m not looking forward to Hockey East this season. I think it’s very important for these seniors to experience a chance to win a championship. … This is not going to be Boston College. This is going to be UConn. ... They were so eager and enthusiastic. They share that same competitive spirit that I do. "
Athletic director Warde Manuel first addressed the team at 11 a.m., and was in the room when Cavanaugh spoke to the Huskies.
"I spent about 30 minutes with them, had a very good conversation," Manuel said. "David meant a lot to them. I’m not minimizing that in this choice of Mike as a leader, and I needed them to know that I had a great deal of respect for what David did. But ultimately my choice was Mike to lead the program forward. We had a great conversation. They’re a great group of young men. I was there in the locker room with Mike when he talked to the team. I think he had a great talk with them. I think they’re looking forward to getting this behind them and moving on and knowing that Mike is going to be their coach."
Manuel discussed what led him to choosing Cavanaugh, a head coach for the first time.
"Everybody that I talked to about him told me the type of person his is, first and foremost, the type of family man he is, the type of community person he is, what he exemplifies and what he carries with him every day, not only on the ice, but more importantly off the ice," Manuel said. "What struck me is his ability at BC to build an establish a consistently one of the strongest programs in the nation. I think his resume speaks for itself. ... Every head coach has been an assistant coach, for the most part. At some point, you have to have your first opportunity. While you look at those as important characteristics and measurables, in this case we thought Mike brought to the table a lot of things we were looking for in terms of experience, success in his career, knowledge of Connecticut and recruiting here. New England [and international recruiting] is really important. What he brings as a community member, as a person. All those things were important and I wasn’t just looking for a sitting head coach to pick from a record. You can’t be an assistant in a successful program and not have contributed in a significant way to the success of that program."
Cavanaugh wore a maroon tie (hey, he's probably got dozens from his 18 years in Boston) and a blue UConn pin on his lapel. He continually made clear that BC is the past -- and UConn is the present and future.
"The one thing I really want to make clear here: I’m coming from Boston College. It was a terrific place for me for the last 18 years," Cavanaugh said. "I developed a lot as a person there. I met my wife there. Both my kids were baptized on the Boston College campus. So it will always be a special place in my heart. But it will be no more special than Bowdoin was to me as an undergrad, or North Andover High School was. They’re all special to me. It’s important that you always remember your roots. But going forward, Boston College, my experience there, is not going to paralyze me as I become a Husky. I don’t intend on trying to emulate everything Boston College did. I’m excited to learn the traditions of the UConn hockey program. I’m also thrilled to be able to mold and develop new traditions as we compete for championships going forward."
Of getting to know UConn, Cavanaugh said, "I want to get to meet people on the campus. A big belief I have is that if you’re too worried about going vertical, you forget to go horizontal. It’s important that I get out to meet people on this campus. It’s important for me to meet people in the admissions office, the academic office. I had a chance to meet with some players today and I’m going to individually meet with every one of our players before we start in September. It’s important for me to meet with some professors and deans and get a sense for their views of this university. My goal this summer is to really understand the culture here at UConn, so that my players will understand it and we can navigate this campus effortlessly throughout the year."
Of a UConn-BC rivalry, Cavanaugh said, "It’s not really a concern of mine, what happens at BC right now. I’m a UConn Husky. That’s where I’m moving forward right now. I have a fond affection for Boston College and I always will, but that means when we play them – and I believe the first home Hockey East game will be against them at the XL Center -- I’m going to want to beat them bad and I don’t think Jerry York would expect anything less of me. And I know he’s going to want to beat UConn."
Cavanaugh, who will hire a staff in about a month, plans to reach out to six players who have made an oral commitment to UConn starting in 2014-15. He said he would hope those players remaining committed and that UConn would honor its side of that commitment.
"Yes. In any partnership, if a commitment has been made, the university made that commitment," he said. "Regardless of whether I made it or Coach Berard made it or Coach Marshall made it. That’s irrelevant. The commitment was made to the university and I stand by that, monetarily. Now, they’re going to have to make the team and play the style we want to play. If that's not a fit, we’ll address that at the time. But I’m going in with the clean slate."
UConn players, finishing up exams this week, are expected to reconvene in August. Official team workouts begin in September.
"I believe we have made the right decision for the long-term future of the program," Manuel said. "It’s nothing against David. I have a great deal of respect for what David, the staff and the team accomplished last year. This is not a decision against him but a decision to choose Mike and move the program forward."
UConn had set forth a scholarship plan to reach the Hockey East maximum of 18 scholarships by 2016-17. The Huskies awarded five to their eight-player incoming freshman class and were to award five more in 2014-15, four in 2015-16 and four in 2016-17. That plan might hold. It might change. Cavanaugh will more closely examine that in coming weeks.
"You have a plan, you tweak it," Manuel said. "Actually, we started with Bruce with the plan. David had tweaks to it. Now Mike will look at the plan and help us to tweak it with the vision he has. We’ll make adjustments where necessary."Copyright © 2015, CT Now