Red Berenson sat in his chair and leaned forward. After another practice skating around and offering instructions, Berenson untied his skates and placed his stick on the floor next to him. Even at the age of 77 with 33 years at the helm of the Michigan hockey team, Berenson still skates on the ice nearly every day.
Monday, Berenson pondered his future in Ann Arbor, something he said he thinks about constantly.
He intended to retire last year, which he planned at the beginning of that season. But with a new athletic director in Warde Manuel, Berenson opted to stay to aid Manuel’s transition.
“He didn’t wanna go through hiring a coach — he hadn’t even moved into his house yet,” Berenson said. “And our team played well and I thought they were responding well, so the reasons to stay were those things.
“We’ll revisit all this at the end of the year, but I’m trying not to worry about it right now. It’s just a matter of when — whether it’s this year or next year.
Physically, the 77-year-old is content.
Mentally, though, things are a bit more complicated.
Berenson constantly thinks about the consequences of his decision and its implication for the Wolverines of the present and the future. As Michigan begins recruiting with athletes as young as sophomores in high school, the uncertainty of a program’s head coach could impact a recruit’s decision.
“There’s always the question of ‘Who’s gonna be the coach when I get there,’ ” Berenson said. “I tell all these kids I probably am not gonna be your coach — and I probably won’t. Kids get down between two different schools and there’s always the question of who’s gonna be the coach at Michigan. … But we’ll re-visit all of that.”
Still, it’s a question that looms ever larger now, especially with the Wolverines facing a tumultuous end of the season. Michigan’s final home series is slated against a difficult 11th-ranked Nittany Lion team that outscored the Wolverines 11-2 in State College. After the Penn State series, Michigan begins play in the Big Ten Tournament, where it would need to win out in order to reach the NCAA Tournament.
It is a stark contrast from last season. At this point, the Wolverines dominated conference play and led the nation in scoring. Now, the Wolverines will try to play the role of spoiler, something that motivates Berenson in a season when a postseason bid is unlikely.
“It’s gotta be a must win series for Michigan, just to get our game where we think it can be,” Berenson said. “We’ve seen bits and pieces of it, but we haven’t seen enough of it. I don’t think our fans have seen us sweep a team maybe once all year, and obviously the Friday game is the game. That’s the game that gets you going or puts your back up against the wall.
“We’re trying to get to Joe Louis Arena with some momentum. … So we gotta get a little more confidence, a little more momentum, and a little more of everything.”
Thinking in the big-picture — should this season be his last — Berenson emphasized his desires for his players to succeed in every area of their lives, should a career in hockey not pan out. During his professional career, Berenson took classes in the summer at Michigan and eventually earned his Master’s Degree in Business Administration in 1966.
It is a testament to the emphasis Berenson places on education for all his players and the reason he admires all of those who leave Ann Arbor — even the players who end up in other non-hockey pursuits.
“They all got the same message, and they all know I cared about them,” Berenson said. “I cared about the fact that they went to school and they would have something to fall back on. I’m proud of the guys who went to the NHL, but I’m just as proud of the guys that aren’t.
“We get neurosurgeons and lawyers and doctors, you name it. … All kinds of guys who were good players and became really good citizens too.”
Nearly 33 years ago, Michigan athletic director Don Canham introduced Berenson, hoping to return the Wolverines to their successful run of the 1950’s. Three decades later, Berenson remains in Ann Arbor with two NCAA championships, which shocks him to this day.
“I had no idea I’d be here 33 years,” Berenson said. “You get caught up in the kids and the recruiting more kids, and pretty soon it’s like a big family and you feel responsible. So I’ve never really looked for a job since I got to Michigan. I’ve had opportunities but I’ve never wanted to leave. So it’s been good, and I hope it’s been good for Michigan.”
And while it may be tempting to consider when Berenson will come to an ultimate decision about his future, it’s not his primary concern. This weekend, Berenson will focus on honoring his seniors in their last games at Yost. And next week, the Wolverines will travel to the Joe Louis Arena in hopes of earning a long-shot bid to the NCAA tournament.
“We’ll see about the outcome or when this is over,” Berenson said. “Right now, our team doesn’t have a lot to play for except pride and trying to get some momentum for the Big Ten Tournament. That’s our focus right now.”