MINNEAPOLIS — Remove the interim tag from Brandon Naurato.
Do it yesterday, if you can.
This has nothing to do with the interim coach winning the Big Ten Championship — though that helps. This has nothing to do with achieving a 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament — though that helps. And it has nothing to do with how the No. 4 Michigan hockey team has not skipped a singular beat in its success with him at the helm — though that, too, helps.
At Michigan, winning hockey is an expectation, not a bonus. But to be the right person to lead the Wolverines, it has to do with something much more.
It has everything to do with who Naurato is as a coach. It has everything to do with who he is as a personal and professional leader. It’s easy to point at the winning record and call it a day. Instead, it’s what Naurato does off the ice that makes him fit to lead the Wolverines.
Saturday night was the culmination of nearly a season’s worth of work and dedication. So now’s the time for Michigan Athletics and athletic director Warde Manuel to make the change.
He’s put in the work from the very beginning, and it’s clearly just getting started to pay off.
“He’s a player’s coach,” junior defenseman Ethan Edwards said Feb. 6. “… He’s used to being in (the players’) shoes, so he’s very easy to relate with. He’s very honest and he definitely has goals in mind that he wants to obtain and also has high standards for our team.”
A player’s coach is certainly what the Wolverines need. However, what’s made Naurato’s tenure with Michigan so impactful has been his resilience as a leader.
With a season that began with the sad passing of long-time Michigan equipment manager Ian Hume just three weeks into the new campaign, Naurato was thrust into a leadership role that needed answers you can’t find in the Xs and Os of a playbook.
This wasn’t a singular moment, either. It was the beginning of a rollercoaster season for Naurato and the Wolverines.
Only one month later, on the back of a five-game road trip against three straight ranked programs, Michigan ran into perhaps the scariest scene in its recent program history. Adenovirus, which spread throughout the entire program, threatened the lives of multiple players, sidelining much of the team and almost taking the life of junior defenseman Steven Holtz.
The youngest team in college hockey didn’t just need a coach. It needed a mentor, a friend and a shoulder to lean on.
It got one in Naurato.
“We didn’t talk about hockey too much this week,” Naurato said after the Wolverines lost to visiting Minnesota Nov. 17, starting a barely-eligible lineup in the face of the virus. “It’s been nothing but worrying and thinking about our teammates and their mental health and their physical health. We got a great group of kids and guys are still fighting the fight.”
And that’s the key to it all. Amid a tumultuous season instigated by events out of his control, Naurato continuously guided a group of a dozen freshman, tasked with the job of Atlas, carrying the weight of the Michigan hockey world on their shoulders. Through good and bad, up and down, win and loss, Naurato was there for it all.
Saturday night, those ups and downs became all worth it, because although Naurato could have never entirely predicted himself lifting a Big Ten Championship over his head back in August, he certainly put in the effort, guidance and dedication to do so.
And as freshman forward Rutger McGroarty — who scored two goals for the Wolverines on Saturday — sat, laden in sweat during the postgame press conference, he didn’t point to his own immense talent, hard work, or skill set. Instead, he emphasized the necessity of “a lot of video with coach Naur” as the impetus for his performance.
Because Naurato’s personal leadership is straightforward. It’s effective. It’s seemingly beloved by his players. He keeps it simple — just the way he likes it.
“I know how other people treated me, good and bad, and how I treat other people,” Naurato said March 6. “I think if you treat people with respect and communicate and you’re honest, life’s easy.”
Now, after winning another Big Ten Championship, Naurato and Michigan can breathe easy — if only for a moment.
But what will define Naurato’s time with the Wolverines won’t simply be the singular moments. It will be the long-lasting, institutionalized change that he has gifted the program. Changes that clearly came off the ice, but have impacts on it, too.
Naurato’s chance at the helm was never about winning a Big Ten Championship, though his career most certainly hinges on winning those. It was about everything he could do off the ice and more.
Not to worry though, outside of his own personal hockey expertise and player development prowess, Naurato has single-handedly constructed a formerly “non-existent” analytics program, which has driven an influential level of the Wolverines’ success.
But to purely ascribe Michigan’s success to young talent, or analytics, or even Naurato himself would be disingenuous. It’s a team, it’s a program, and its fate relies on more than one man. Yet what has made Naurato’s short tenure so special is his evidently outward investment in the people that make these units function.
“That’s why people are so important,” Naurato said Feb. 6. “Strength coach, medical guy, equipment, social media, coaches — everybody. If you’ve got the right people in every area, you just ask for their expertise.”
Because this isn’t an endorsement of Naurato’s supposed perfection. He himself will even tell you he doesn’t have all the answers.
Rather, this is an assessment. Cliché lines say that ‘life is a test,’ but for Naurato this season has been just that — one big test. He’s passed, and with flying colors.
Michigan Athletics needs to remove the interim tag from Brandon Naurato. It’s a little late to do it yesterday.
So do it now.