Second in command: Mel Pearson remains right at home as Michigan hockey''s No. 2 man

BY RYAN C. MOLONEY
Daily Sports Writer
Published April 1, 2001

"Hey, there you go, Swisser!" Uh-oh, Coach Mel is on the war-path. The Michigan hockey team"s other red-headed coaching guru has just gotten done putting the Wolverines through a series of punishing, end-to-end sprints.

While the players, none older than 24 years, look geriatric as they exit the ice, Mel Pearson bounds down the tunnel like a kid looking for some mischief.

In this instance, sophomore winger J.J. Swistak turns from talking to a reporter in mild annoyance too late, Coach Mel is already on to his next victim.

"Whack!"

Pearson delivers a playful two-hander to the back of Bill Trainor"s shin-pad. The senior, also in mid-conversation with a writer, doesn"t even blink.

He must be used to it by now.

It"s a mercurial relationship with his players, combined with a keen intelligence of hockey, that has defined associate head coach Mel Pearson. Coach Red Berenson"s right-hand man for the last 13 seasons, Pearson is one of the architects behind Michigan"s foundation for a try at a third national championship in the past six years, to be decided this weekend in Albany, NY.

The 42-year-old is a nice guy on a team full of nice guys a family man who is never at a loss for a "Hello, how are you?" for the most infrequent of visitors to the rink.

Pearson is also a motivator and, along with assistant coach Billy Powers, "the best recruiter of talent in college hockey," according to once-heavily-recruited sophomore forward Mike Cammalleri.

Well into his second decade at Michigan, Pearson remains the guy behind the guy the rumored-unofficial sucessor of Michigan"s greatest hockey legend, if and when he decides to hang up the whistle for good.

"Somedays it feels like I"ve been here longer" than 13 years, Pearson said as he relaxed on a couch in the Michigan coaching lounge a couple of weeks ago. "We"ve had a lot of good people here and that"s what"s been so rewarding.

"Without a doubt, the reason why I"ve been here for so long is because of coach Berenson and the Michigan family."

A blast from the past

If for some reason you found yourself at the 1979 Great Lakes Invitational, you probably wouldn"t have predicted such a long-lasting love affair between Pearson and Michigan hockey. As a junior forward at Michigan Tech, Pearson scored the triple-overtime goal to beat the Wolverines for the GLI title.

"I think I only scored three goals for the entire season," Pearson said with a chuckle. "The lie gets bigger every year, I went around all five guys and scored a beautiful goal."

Pearson started his college hockey coaching career in 1982 as an assistant at Michigan Tech, ironically at the same time that Michigan, plagued by scandal and bad recruiting, began to sink into the depths of college hockey purgatory.

Michigan hired Berenson a couple of seasons later, 23 years removed from college hockey and unable to tell future NCAA all-time winningest head coach Ron Mason of Michigan State "from a hole in the wall."

It took four full seasons before Berenson brought the program back from the dead, finishing the 1987-88 season with a 22-19-0 record.

Berenson had all the attributes of a coaching great a big name, a lifetime spent in the game and an uncanny business sense. What he lacked was an exuberant young coach who could recruit players like the Dickens, then stay on the same coaching page.

Berenson found the answer in the next-door-neighbor-friendly Pearson, who joined Michigan before the 1988 season.

"Mel paid his dues up in Michigan Tech," Berenson said. "When I ran into him at rinks he was always very friendly and had a smile on his face. I knew he was a good family person.

"When I interviewed him, I asked him a couple of tough questions about breaking rules to recruit a kid he said he couldn"t do that and it convinced me that he was everything he appeared to be. I thought it was one of the best things to happen to our program since I"ve been here."

Seven Frozen Four appearances later, it"s hard to argue with that logic. As Berenson points out, "we haven"t had anything close to a losing season since Mel Pearson got here."

Perhaps that"s the reason why college hockey programs with head coaching vacancies fall all over themselves, like Pavel Bure when a stick touches his legs, in their pursuit of Pearson.

The moment of truth

In 1999, Miami wooed Pearson for its vacant head coaching position. The pieces were all there in hockey-hungry Oxford to build a winner the RedHawks enjoyed success in the early "90s in the CCHA and needed the right coach to rocket the program back to contention. It was a legitimate offer to establish his own legacy of greatness and for the father of three, a potential life-changing decision if he had decided to uproot his family from Ann Arbor.

Moments like these define the lives of coaches in any sport. Contrary to his style, Pearson did not take the decision lightly.

"Number one was obviously coach Berenson," Pearson said. "We talked about it a lot and I really turned to him for advice in the situation. The biggest thing I wanted to know was am I still growing as a coach and is it all right if I stay? Sometimes you get to the point where it"s time for a person to leave."

Pearson sat down with Lloyd Carr, the football team"s long time defensive coordinator before taking over as head coach in 1994. True to the camaraderie that always seems to exist among Michigan coaches, Carr spoke honestly about the lure of leaving.

Carr asked Pearson why he would leave when the opportunity to coach Michigan would someday present itself.

"I found that sort of interesting," Pearson said.

Pearson thought of his wife"s contentment with the Ann Arbor area. He thought of his two daughters and the friends they had made in school. He thought of his son who, much like his childhood self, loved to rink-rat around the arena during games with the teammates of his youth hockey team.

The loyal assistant had found success in both his personal and professional life inside the tradition-laden confines of Yost Arena. A closet-full of Michigan gear only proved metaphorically what he knew in his gut.

Why throw away clothes that still fit?

"I"ve bounced around a lot in my life, there"s more to being a coach than a head coach," Pearson said. "That"s not the ultimate objective. If I never become the head coach, so be it. I"ve done a lot of things and touched a lot of people and I feel good about what I"ve accomplished here.

"There are more important things in life than being a head coach, and my family is one of the most important things."

Enrico Blasi ended up taking over the Miami job and earned CCHA coach of the year honors. Pearson was made associate head coach at Michigan.

The "go-between"

This is not to say that Pearson"s coaching schedule got any easier. On this day, Pearson"s racoon-eyes reflect months of nights spent number-crunching and driving back late from recruiting trips. Add to that the administrative responsibilities of the associate head coach"s position, and it"s hard to underestimate the demands of the job, though it is a subordinate position.

But that"s all part of Pearson"s continuing growth in the program. On the ice, Pearson"s persona bobs and weaves he is part Ned Flanders, part Bo Schembechler. Though shared smiles are not an oddity between Pearson and the Wolverines, he is not opposed to resorting to the spunk of a red head when the team does not perform.

During one practice powerplay drill earlier in the season, Pearson became so frustrated with the unit"s complacency, he chucked his stick into the empty bleachers of Yost, then kicked the puck into the corner. At the very least, it brought the team to quick attention.

"He"s a very intense person, and he carries that over in his coaching," defenseman Mike Komisarek said. "He cares about you, but when it comes down to the business, he is all business."

It"s a fine line. Pearson admits to the difficulty of relating on a personal level with players, while trying, as an authority figure, to coax the most out of their abilities. It"s another challenge of coaching, another privilege of staying put.

"One of the biggest jobs of an assistant is to act as a go-between with coach and the players," Pearson said. "They need to feel comfortable telling you about their problems.

"At the same time, you have to get on them and push them they don"t always like it, but sometimes they are asking for it. Just like your own children, they don"t necessarily like the discipline, but they ask for it."

And the players understand it. Though Pearson can fire light-hearted barbs at them during practice and interviews, the dual persona is a necessity, another dynamic of what amounts to one of the "90s most successful coaching staffs.

"This program is all about being good people," Cammalleri said. "And anytime you have a quality person (as a coach) you are going to feed off of that."

There is no more fitting of a tribute for Pearson, a family man who took the road virtually nobody traveled.

"Coming to Michigan is the best move I ever made," Pearson said. "I look forward to another 13 years."