Brandon Naurato has his eyes locked on the future.
As he hunched over a computer last Tuesday fielding preseason questions from a Zoom panel of reporters, the Michigan interim hockey coach listed his changes to the program — some already made, others a work in progress.
Many of those plans excited him. His voice picked up pace when he described his new CPR — creativity, predictability, responsibility — offensive system. He gushed about the skill of his players, freshmen and upperclassmen alike. He even addressed the elephant in the room, the team’s culture, when asked about how players are changing its landscape.
But when pressed about this summer’s WilmerHale report — which detailed toxic culture within the team and led to the firing of former coach Mel Pearson — Naurato’s patience grew thinner. After clarifying a question about applying takeaways from the report’s findings, his answer took an unexpected path.
“Everything’s been great here,” Naurato said. “I’m focusing on the future.”
That might seem like an inappropriate answer considering the details of that report. I’ll admit, even I was taken aback by its bluntness; but, upon reflection, it’s entirely fair. Naurato can only control his own tenure as head coach — interim or not — and those close to the program suggest it’s a drastic difference from the past. Under his watch, it’s a welcome fresh start.
Brandon Naurato isn’t Mel Pearson. And I believe his tenure shouldn’t be defined by his predecessor’s sins.
Through 68 pages of the WilmerHale report, Naurato’s name never comes up. He wasn’t grilled by investigators, and none of the allegations bear his name. Naurato joined Michigan as an assistant coach under Pearson in August 2021, after most of the investigated misconduct had already occurred.
While it’s unknown what happened inside the program last season, Naurato’s reputation is clean right now, and there’s no reason to besmirch it because of the egregious conduct of his former boss.
Yet Naurato does have to solve those pressing issues within the program. And thus far, he has made a concerted effort to do so. He isn’t oblivious to the challenges facing the Wolverines this season; he has faced them head on the past two months.
After all, he was the one who put together the program’s pieces in an abridged offseason, installing his systems and hiring his coaching staff — notably adding staffers whose past work included hockey culture. All that is to say, the requisite nuts and bolts to compete on the ice are in working order.
But the real battle goes beyond that. It comes in repairing the culture of Michigan hockey, building a safe space for players and staff to do their jobs well. As the leader of the program, it’s on Naurato to instill that change.
“Everyone’s coming to you every day, from all areas of people involved in the program, for you to make a decision,” Naurato said. “We have so many great people here in Michigan and so many great resources. I’m trying to empower these people to be able to do what they love to do and do their job and support them.”
So far, Naurato has accomplished that task. Under his catchphrase “Good Dudes Only,” Naurato is encouraging his players to not only act right themselves, but to hold each other accountable for their behavior. Nowhere did the report list problems caused by players in the locker room, yet the scope of Naurato’s culture reset includes them. That scope matters considering how much the culture needed to change; from the top down, Naurato wants to ensure his program is in good shape.
As it embarks on a new era, that accountability matters more than ever, and Pearson’s issues shouldn’t hover over Naurato in the meantime. That blame hangs on the administrators and athletic department officials who let it slide for too long.
But while Naurato might not have caused the Wolverines’ problems, he still needs to fix them. He must not only repair the social mechanisms behind the scenes, but also the outward image of the program. Already, he’s saying the right things to do both.
“There’s always good teaching points, but zero negatives,” Naurato said after Saturday’s exhibition win over Windsor. “We’re trying to build a safe environment where these guys can fail forward.”
So while it might be easy to view Naurato’s program with hesitancy, to question every move he makes with Michigan’s Pearson-damaged image in mind — don’t. Nothing Naurato has done deserves that level of scrutiny yet, and he can only be judged by his own actions.
Under a first-year coach with a dozen first-year players, Michigan will witness plenty of failure. There will be missed defensive reads and blowout losses, locker room arguments and coaching disagreements. There will be times when the growing pains of a program anew flare up.
But everything so far indicates that they won’t be the kinds of mistakes that harm people, and that’s the difference. This season isn’t a rebuilding year per se, but it’s certainly about more than just winning games. It’s about nursing the culture and relationships of Michigan hockey back to health.
And with Naurato running the show, I believe that recovery can finally take place.