Much of the Anchorage hockey community -- led by lobbyist Ashley Reed -- got what it wanted on Wednesday. UAA Chancellor Tom Case fired Athletic Director Steve Cobb.
Hockey boosters should think twice before doing a victory dance.
The turmoil at UAA -- some of it abetted by Cobb and most of it the result of eight losing seasons on the ice -- could have some long-lasting repercussions.
As track and cross-country coach Michael Friess said, the university's independence is in serious doubt when a lobbyist can lead a fierce campaign to sack an athletic director and get his way -- reversing a chancellor's stand of support and putting the success of one university sports program above all others. Why was Reed so determined to get Cobb? Why did Gov. Sean Parnell get involved with a public letter?
The frustration of UAA hockey boosters has been understandable. In a town that loves its hockey, the college team has a natural constituency that dates back to the Seawolves' first club team in 1979-80. Fans' faith was sorely tried during the eight-year coaching run of Dave Shyiak, who logged an 80-177-33 record before he was fired this spring.
Dismay wasn't limited to Shyiak's performance. Many hockey boosters disliked Cobb, felt he didn't care enough about the hockey team and cared even less for them. They thought he tolerated Shyiak's losing ways for too long; some felt that at the least he should have fired Shyiak when he learned that the coach struck a player across the legs with a hockey stick during a practice in 2011.
Cobb and the university didn't do much for their own cause. Cobb's investigation of the stick incident, in which he concluded there was no reason for reprimand or suspension, was long kept secret by UAA. That left the incident and its aftermath an open secret and a running sore of rumors -- one player said Shyiak urged the team to keep quiet about the incident; Shyiak later denied that.
Even after Shyiak was fired last spring, two Alaska hockey organizations voted no confidence in Cobb. The university's response? Snub that community by including no hockey person on the search committee for a new coach. The uproar over that led to a do-over, with qualifications tweaked and the search committee widened -- including the addition of Seawolves founding hockey coach Brush Christiansen.
Wise move, but too late. Reed kept up his campaign to sack Cobb, arguing that the AD had, with benign or not-so-benign neglect, gutted UAA's flagship sport and alienated much of its following. Further, he blamed Cobb at least in part for the diminished status of the Great Alaska Shootout basketball tournament.
Cobb may not have shared the local passion for hockey, and you can argue that Shyiak stayed too long. However, blaming Cobb for the Shootout's fall is absurd. The Thanksgiving tournament that once attracted the nation's basketball powers lost its edge when the NCAA expanded the pre-season tournament waiver. The Shootout was no longer exclusive, the visiting schools no longer hoops royalty. That wasn't Cobb's fault.
Still, Cobb and his colleagues mishandled the school's hockey fortunes, didn't like operating in the open and didn't care to listen to the community. But here's another question -- would Cobb have been such a target if the hockey team had just gone deep into the NCAA playoffs?
UAA athletics isn't all about hockey. Under Cobb the school's other sports flourished, counting All-Americans and academic All-Americans in the hundreds, 15 conference championships, nine regional championships and more than two-thirds of its athletes doing better than 3.0 academic work. Those are real achievements. Even as Reed enlisted the governor's aid, some university supporters began a movement to back Cobb. Again, too late.
Here's what we think would be good for UAA and the community:
• Hire an athletic director who wants a winning hockey program and wants to rekindle the old fire of the local following -- but at the same time makes it clear that he runs a university department that is not beholden to hockey organizations, boosters or lobbyists. Be straightforward and transparent, a part of the community -- but an independent part of the community.
He or she should understand that the renaissance of a Division I sport like hockey has the potential to benefit the entire athletic department and the university as a whole, both in revenue and reputation. At the same time, the new AD should make clear that Division I student-athletes are no more important than Division II student-athletes. And yes, he or she should be dedicated to that quaint notion of the student-athlete. Such young people are alive and well and setting records at UAA, and that's a Cobb legacy the next AD must carry on.
And finally, the new AD -- with the backing of the chancellor and the UA president -- should serve notice that any coach who strikes a student for any reason other than self-defense is gone. No arguments about the severity of the blow, culture of the sport or keeping it in the locker room. You hit, you're fired.
• Hire a hockey coach who can engage with the community and has the patience and resolve to rebuild a strong, clean program. You can learn from losing. But it shouldn't take eight years to absorb the lessons and apply them to winning.
And the coach must be a teacher, because then his students may learn more on the ice than anywhere else on campus.
BOTTOM LINE: UAA will need strong leaders to pull out of this mess.