The only ring UAA running coach Michael Friess wears is the wedding band on this left ring finger, but Tuesday morning, as he mourned the death of former Seawolves athletic director Dr. Steve Cobb, Friess slipped on another ring to honor his friend, mentor and former boss.
Cobb, who guided UAA sports for nearly 13 years before he was fired in May 2013, died Monday in Pensacola, Florida, UAA officials said. Cause of death was unknown, the school said. Cobb was 55.
When Friess got the news Tuesday at work, he pulled from his desk drawer a ring that commemorates the 2013 conference championship won by UAA's women's outdoor track and field team. One side of the ring reads, "COBB.'' Friess wore the ring on his right ring finger to remember a man he said helped his high-caliber cross-country running and track teams prosper, and encouraged Seawolves athletes to display class, pride and character.
"He genuinely pushed people around him to do the right thing,'' Friess said. "You don't see that anymore. People are focused on self-preservation.
"He was class.''
Friess and other long-time UAA athletic officials who worked at the school during Cobb's tenure remembered him as a tireless advocate for student-athletes who raised the athletic and academic profiles of Seawolves sports teams, and supported them all.
They recalled a boss who demanded excellence, and trusted and encouraged them; who favored short, on-point meetings and did not micro-manage; whose unique take on an "open-door policy'' meant he liked to walk into a coach's office to take the pulse of a program.
And they praised the native of Alabama and former football coach who coined the phrase he frequently uttered, "It's a great day to be a Seawolf,'' and sprinkled conversations with Southern colloquialisms.
"It's certainly been a difficult day,'' said longtime associate athletic director Tim McDiffett. "I know everyone -- and I am -- is in a little bit of shock today, and numb.
"It's a sad day for us. He did so much to advance our programs in so many ways.''
The mood at UAA's new offices in the 5,000-seat Alaska Airlines Center on campus was forlorn, in part, because the school is celebrating the grand opening of that building in the same week the man who championed it died. The new, $110-million digs replace the antiquated, tiny Wells Fargo Sports Complex, where an athletic program that features 11 sports teams, most of which compete in NCAA Division II, was shoe-horned for more than three decades.
The new arena sits as part of Cobb's legacy. He also established the Seawolf Hall of Fame, the Seawolf Legacy Fund, a permanent endowment to fully fund athletic scholarships, and a series of displays that celebrate noteworthy UAA athletic accomplishments.
UAA in a 2013 press release said the athletic department's bounty under Cobb's leadership included more than 200 All-America performances, more than 100 Academic All-America awards, 15 conference championships and nine Division II West Region titles.
Still, former colleagues said the culture Cobb fostered at UAA remains equally as important as victories and championships.
"He wanted student-athletes to get their degrees, to be respectable at the university, on campus, everywhere,'' said Jane Pallister, an associate athletic director who began as ticket manager under Cobb and became his assistant before she was elevated to her current job. "He liked to say, 'You're always representing this university.'
"Athletics were his life. We were his life. He gave a lot. His heart was in Seawolf athletics.''
Friess said he entertained other job offers during Cobb's tenure, but that Cobb always convinced him to stay at UAA by giving his programs the resources to succeed.
"I'm here now, period, because of Steve Cobb. Period,'' Friess said.
At the beginning of each school year, McDiffett said, Cobb addressed athletes at an event called "Seawolf Start,'' where he informed them of high expectations, particularly in their personal conduct.
"He was about a culture of achieving, doing your best, and also being the best person you could be,'' McDiffett said. "He could be blunt at those meetings. (Athletes) knew exactly what was expected of them, in how they represented themselves, and doing it with class, honor and dignity.''
Cobb held a doctorate in education and a master's degree in business administration, and was a voracious reader. He favored suspenders and a firm handshake, laughed easily, smoked – that raised some eyebrows in an athletic environment – and liked a salty joke.
Athletic department employees knew a discussion with Cobb had reached its end when he said, "… and pass the beer nuts.''
Cobb often mused on a colleague's misstep by saying, "I am suffering secondary embarrassment for you.''
Pallister recalled that Cobb had a go-to saying when he encountered someone he didn't find particularly sharp – he would say the person "fell out of a dumb-tree and hit every branch on the way down.''
Cobb became athletic director at UAA in 2000. Among his greatest challenges was the annual Great Alaska Shootout basketball tournament of Thanksgiving week. That once-premier event lost some of its luster when the number of other season-opening tournaments mushroomed and made it difficult for the Shootout to attract top Division I teams. Under Cobb's watch, the Division I hockey program, which in the early- and mid-1990s filled Sullivan Arena, continued to suffer losing seasons – it endured 20 straight from 1993 to 2013 – and declining attendance.
Hockey was at the center of Cobb's dismissal.
He fired coach Dave Shyiak after eight seasons following the 2012-13 campaign. Elements of the hockey community felt scorned when the search committee for Shyiak's replacement did not include anyone from that community. Shortly after Shyiak's firing, the Anchorage Daily News revealed Shyiak in 2011 struck a player with his stick during practice.
The fallout from those events led to a tumultuous spring 2013 at UAA. UAA Chancellor Tom Case halted the search for a new coach and named a supplemental search committee that included UAA hockey founder Brush Christiansen. Governor Sean Parnell weighed in, writing a letter to University of Alaska president Patrick Gamble encouraging Gamble to "take a stand,'' even though Gamble reports to the Board of Regents, not the governor.
One day after Parnell's letter was made public, and a month after Case publicly supported Cobb, Case reversed course and fired the athletic director, saying persistent criticism of Cobb had become too distracting.
Cobb in a scathing letter given to the Daily News the day of his firing said Gamble "may be mentally ill'' and accused the university of succumbing to lobbyist Ashley Reed, who championed Cobb's firing, "and a few local scoundrels.''
Cobb's supporters rallied behind him, contending he was the best athletic director in school history and had raised the school's athletic achievements to a high standard.
A 49-page report of the incident in which Shyiak struck player Nick Haddad said Cobb reviewed the case in good faith, but should have investigated it and referred "a possible assault'' to campus police in 2011.
Friess said Cobb felt ill-treated by high-level university administrators.
"It was terribly heart-breaking, it went to the core,'' Friess said. "He felt people he trusted didn't stand by him. He was exceptionally hurt.''
Friess said he remained in contact with Cobb throughout the 2013-14 school year and into this summer. He said he frequently told Cobb he would give him that ring commemorating the women's track team's conference title the next time the men met.
The date and location of any service for Cobb was unknown as of Tuesday, Friess said, but he plans to give the ring to Cobb's family when he attends the funeral on his own.
"I want to see him one more time,'' Friess said.
Reach reporter Doyle Woody at firstname.lastname@example.org and check out his blog at adn.com/hockey-blog