After leading the Michigan hockey team to the Frozen Four for the second time in five seasons, Michigan coach Mel Pearson wants to return as the program’s head coach.
The question is: Will Michigan allow him to?
Pearson’s current contract — a five-year deal signed when he took the helm in 2017 — expires on April 30, and at this point, negotiations between both parties are paused until after the Frozen Four. Looming large, however, is the ongoing investigation into Pearson’s program for toxic workplace culture, discrimination against women, retaliation against a student athlete and COVID-19 deception.
“I work under the direction of the athletic director (Warde Manuel) and the Board of Regents,” Pearson told the Daily. “So if they’re willing to have me back, that’s the plan.”
It’s not that simple.
With Michigan’s hockey program under investigation for multiple serious allegations, Michigan Athletics’ decision to postpone a renewal shows just how serious the allegations are.
Pearson certainly has a proven track record as a coach — making two Frozen Fours, winning a Big Ten tournament and posting a 97-64-16 overall record — so that can’t be a reason to table any contract discussions. Pearson was also named one of eight finalists for the Spencer Penrose Award, given to college hockey’s coach of the year.
Clearly, this isn’t about his skills behind the bench. It’s about the investigation.
And the lack of an extension shows that Michigan isn’t waiting to see how the results play out. It would be a financially unwise decision to risk signing a coach who might not see that extension through; the University won’t put itself into that position willingly.
It’s important to note what happens if Pearson is no longer Michigan’s coach: let’s run through that scenario.
If Pearson’s employment was terminated — by anything from a contract expiration, retirement, resignation to even a firing — any investigations into Pearson’s conduct as a coach could be suspended by the case’s coordinator as discussed under the “Other Dismissal and Closure” section of the University’s sexual and gender-based misconduct policy.
That decision could be appealed by the complainant, but the appeal would have to stand based on new evidence, procedural irregularities or conflicts of interest. Frankly, the University likely isn’t going to let that happen.
Essentially, if Pearson leaves, the investigation ends, and the window for his departure to seal its findings is narrowing by the second.
The investigation started on or before Oct. 28, and the University’s policy states that it “strives to complete” investigations into misconduct within 180 days including appeals. In this case, that would be April 26. But that’s not a guarantee. That date isn’t set in stone thanks to that soft deadline, and that leaves plenty of room for Michigan to hide the investigation’s findings.
So, Pearson’s contract expiration on April 30 could very well come before the University releases any final reports.
There’s no guarantee that the investigation will conclude that way, but it’s certainly telling that Michigan Athletics has let Pearson’s contract talks go cold for the time being. It’s clear that Pearson wants to return and is waiting for Michigan’s agreement.
Not signing one of the nation’s most successful coaches — someone with a deep legacy as a Michigan coach to boot — is a strange decision considering his success with the program. This isn’t typical; it only happens if there’s something else going on — in this case the investigation.
Still, Pearson maintains that the lack of contract talks stems from Michigan’s deep postseason run and not wanting to create a distraction for his team. He does not foresee any difficulties with signing a new contract.
“We decided to do it this way,” Pearson said. “With everything going on, we thought it was a good thing to do, just concentrate on our team and take care of it after the season.”
There’s reason to doubt those remarks: Pearson isn’t going to say that his career at Michigan might end due to the investigation. And while pausing negotiations to complete a postseason run isn’t unheard of, it certainly seems suspect considering major allegations against Pearson could turn out to be true.
Whether Pearson is done at Michigan isn’t known just yet, but the clock is ticking. Where its hands point is yet to be determined.