Mel Pearson: At home with history
When Mel Pearson was hired as head coach of the Michigan hockey team, it almost seemed preordained.
Of course, nothing in life is that simple. But Pearson’s accomplishments with the Wolverines — 22 years as an assistant coach under the legendary Red Berenson, 11 Frozen Four appearances and two national championships included — are impossible to ignore.
The history of Michigan hockey is a long and storied one. It’s a history that Pearson takes great pride in. So while it may not have been destined, Pearson and Michigan are clearly a perfect match.
And now, after six years as the head coach at Michigan Tech, Pearson is back in Ann Arbor once again, tasked with reviving the program he helped build.
“I owe a lot to Michigan,” Pearson said. “And it’s my job to make sure we keep this program up and running and in the national spotlight.”
Pearson credits his father, also named Mel, for instilling him with his passion for hockey. The elder Pearson played professionally for 16 seasons with 12 different teams.
“I was at the rink with him a lot growing up,” Pearson said. “And I really fell in love and had a fascination for the game.”
The Pearson family called Flin Flon, Manitoba — a mining town of about 10,000 where Pearson’s father had also grown up — home. But being the son of a professional athlete also meant moving around to many different cities, an experience that was formative for Pearson’s childhood.
“I remember I grew up a big Baltimore Orioles fan, they had some great teams back then,” Pearson said. “I lived in L.A. and still remember going to Dodger games and whatnot. You meet a lot of neat people, and to this day I still have friends I met in L.A., Baltimore and Portland.”
In 1973, Pearson’s father’s playing days came to an end with the Minnesota Fighting Saints of the World Hockey Association. It was there that Pearson played high school hockey, at Edina High School, and also there that Pearson’s connection to Michigan can be traced back to. His high school coach, Willard Ikola, won national championships in 1951 and 1952 as an All-American goaltender for the Wolverines, and encouraged Pearson to consider attending Michigan.
Instead, Pearson decided to play at Michigan Tech, because he felt more comfortable with the school and program. Under legendary coach John MacInnes, who coincidentally was also a Michigan alum, the Huskies had recently made three straight Frozen Four appearances, winning a national championship in 1975.
“I grew up in a small town, and I knew a couple people on the team already,” Pearson said. “Michigan Tech at that time, the program was doing better than Michigan was. I felt it was a great hockey school and a place where I could get a great education.”
Pearson, who played in 97 games in four years at Michigan Tech and scored 56 points, states that he “wasn’t what you would call a great player” in college. Instead, he described his playing style as a “good, honest player” and a “worker”. But Pearson’s college career had no shortage of memorable moments — the Huskies appeared in the Frozen Four in 1981 and won four straight Great Lakes Invitational championships. In fact, Pearson’s biggest goal came in the 1979 Invitational against Michigan, a tournament-winning goal in triple overtime which he described simply as “pretty cool”.
In the second half of his senior year, Pearson began to think about coaching for the first time. Up until that point, he had envisioned himself as having the potential to be a minor-league journeyman for a few years. But with MacInnes’s retirement looming, assistants Jim Nahrgang and Herb Boxer approached Pearson about the possibility of coaching, and when Nahrgang took over for MacInnes in 1982, Pearson was part of his initial staff.
“That piqued my interest because I love the game,” Pearson said. “You don’t have a job, it’s like a hobby. If you can find something that you love and enjoy doing, and you can do it for pretty much your whole life, then you’ve been pretty lucky and fortunate.”
Two years after Pearson took his first college coaching job, Red Berenson became the head coach of the Michigan hockey team.
Four years later, Pearson also found himself in Ann Arbor, interviewing for a position on Berenson’s staff.
Pearson and Berenson were familiar with each other. Pearson’s father had played with Berenson on a number of All-Star teams, and Pearson and Berenson had interacted with each other while recruiting. But that didn’t make the experience any less daunting for Pearson.
“I felt pretty comfortable around him,” Pearson said. “But I remember my interview down here, that was probably the scariest thing. I remember Red taking me up to Bo Schembechler’s office, because Bo Schembechler was the athletic director at the time. Red can be pretty intimidating, and then to go up and there you are and you have Red on one side and Bo on the other side looking at you, that can be pretty nervewracking.”
Of course, this was well before Berenson had built a dynasty. The Wolverines were on the upswing after having gone 22-19 in 1988, but that had been preceded by three straight seasons of 14 wins or less. So from the outset, Pearson’s focus was on strengthening the program through recruiting.
It was also under Berenson that Pearson’s coaching style began to emerge. In fact, Pearson heavily credits Berenson for actively facilitating that development.
“One thing about Coach Berenson that’s great is that he gives his assistants a lot of responsibility to get involved with all the aspects of coaching,” Pearson said. “From pregame scouting to postgame scouting to working on individual skills with players to working on the power play, so we had a lot of responsibility.”
Added Michigan assistant coach Bill Muckalt, who played for Berenson and Pearson from 1994 to 1998: “Obviously they both have great track records, they both have a tremendous amount of success in coaching. Red’s had a tremendous influence on Mel, they both coached together for a long time and when you do that you pick up a lot of the same traits.”
Berenson’s influence can also be seen in the aggressive, fast-paced offensive style that Pearson has attempted to bring to the Wolverines this season, mirroring the same goals Berenson and Pearson set for the team 30 years earlier.
“We always talked that we wanted to play up-tempo,” Pearson said. “We’re in the entertainment business — now coach Berenson didn’t talk about that per se, but we are in the entertainment business. You want people to come into the building and be entertained and enjoy their experience here, and so we wanted to put a quick, fast, high-energy, high-scoring team together.”
Those efforts were soon fulfilled. In 1991, Michigan qualified for the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 14 years, and stormed into the Frozen Four the next year. The dynasty was up and running, as the Wolverines made six Frozen Four appearances and won two national titles between 1992 and 1998, finishing among the top three teams in the country in goals scored each of those years. Three times, a Wolverine was the leading points-scorer in the NCAA — Denny Felsner in 1992 and Brendan Morrison in 1996 and 1998.
With this success came the possibility of a head coaching job for Pearson — most notably, Miami of Ohio offered him the position in 1999. But through all Pearson’s years at Michigan, being just an assistant coach never weighed on him, as Berenson gave him and other assistants so much responsibility that “you felt like a co-coach.”
“I remember talking to Red and I think Tom Goss was the Athletic Director at the time, and talked to Lloyd Carr, the former football coach,” Pearson said of declining Miami’s offer. “Because Lloyd stayed here for a long time and really didn’t have to go away to become a head coach, and he (asked), ‘Why make two moves if you don’t have to make any?’
“I always said back in the day I didn’t have to become a head coach to feel like I (had accomplished anything) as a coach, because we had touched so many players. But I love Michigan so much too, it (was) hard to consider leaving.”
Berenson had once told Pearson that he wouldn’t be coaching at 60. But Berenson turned 71 during the 2011 season, and it was obvious he wouldn’t coach forever — although Pearson says it sometimes seemed that way. According to Pearson, then-athletic director Dave Brandon was open about the situation.
“(He) said, ‘If Red leaves you’d be a good candidate, but there’s no guarantees’,” Pearson said. “And if you go out and get head coaching experience and do a good job, you’d probably be a better candidate.”
The opportunity to do so came in 2011, but it came a little too soon for Pearson. Just four days after Michigan had lost in the national championship game, a 3-2 overtime defeat to Minnesota-Duluth, Michigan Tech offered him its vacant head-coaching position.
“I get that they wanted to make sure they get somebody quick before the season was too far over,” Pearson said. “(But) after you lose like that it’s gut-wrenching. It was an emotional time. You just lost the national championship. That sticks with you; it still sticks with me now. So if you can imagine them saying, ‘We need an answer within 48 hours or so,’ I just wasn’t ready.”
With time, though, the heartbreak of that defeat began to subside, and Pearson was prepared to make the move. In May 2011, he became the Huskies’ head coach, and went to work rebuilding a team that had gone 4-30-1 the previous season.
“(It was) challenging at times, because you’re learning on the job too,” Pearson said. “You’re not sure if you’re doing the right things at the time. It’s easy to question yourself, but I had a great staff and we really believed that we knew that we could change things. Having come from a place like Michigan and how they run things, I think I was very well schooled by Coach Berenson and Michigan and even Coach MacInnes from Michigan Tech and Coach Ikola from high school — three Michigan men. Great coaching, great philosophies, great systems.
“There was nowhere to go but up — they’d only won 15 games in the previous three years. But there were some good pieces there, I think they just needed direction and leadership.”
Pearson hired two of his former star players at Michigan — Muckalt and Steve Shields — as assistant coaches. And just as he did with the Wolverines, Pearson emphasized tenacious recruiting to turn the Huskies around.
“We got young men up to Michigan Tech that had our vision and fit our style of play that we knew that we could win with. That was the biggest thing,” Pearson said. “Slowly but surely, as you start winning you attract better recruits. I remember the first few days, you’d say you’re from Michigan Tech and they’d hang up right away.”
However, the recruits that Pearson did sign often found success. Muckalt attested to Pearson’s ability to connect with players and help them reach their fullest potential.
“One of Mel’s greatest strengths is the ability to get the most out of everyone,” Muckalt said. “He’s not a yeller or a screamer, but finds a way to get them to respond to help the team.”
And as Pearson’s recruiting classes took shape, Michigan Tech took off. In 2014, the Huskies earned their first-ever No. 1 national ranking, winning 29 games that season, and qualified for the NCAA Tournament twice in three seasons.
Despite this success — or maybe as a result of it — speculation continued to run rampant about Pearson being a candidate at Michigan after Berenson’s retirement. Pearson doesn’t downplay the impact that it had, especially when it came to recruiting, even though he remained fully committed to Michigan Tech.
“It was a distraction at times because when you’re recruiting, first question that came up with recruits (was): ‘How long are you going to be here? Are you interested in the Michigan job?’” Pearson said. “There were no guarantees. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever come back to Michigan. I thought Michigan Tech was going to be my last job.
“It was hard right from the get go. Day one. Your name was associated with that just because of the number of years I’ve spent at Michigan and the amount of success that we all had here together.”
When Berenson retired in April, it set off what Pearson calls a “crazy” two weeks.
“Crazy in the sense that everybody just associated myself with the job,” Pearson said. “I hadn’t talked to anybody. Anybody at Michigan. Even Coach Berenson. After a while it gets to be a little bit of a nuisance.”
There’s a clear reason for that “craziness”, however. There’s no doubt that people view Pearson as a ‘Michigan Man’, having helped build one of the most prestigious programs in college hockey. And when Pearson was officially hired, it surprised no one.
“Mel’s a great choice,” Muckalt said. “He’s earned it and been here a long time and had a lot of success and proven himself as a head coach. Obviously it’s a great progression for Michigan.”
It wasn't all about hockey, though — sentimental reasons also drew Pearson back to Ann Arbor.
“I had 23 great years here,” Pearson said. “Lot of fond memories here — not just hockey memories. Whether it’s football and being in the stadium, watching Charles Woodson run the punt back against Ohio State or all the great sporting events, or being here when Michigan won its first softball national championship, basketball winning the national championship when I was an assistant coach here. Just the people of Ann Arbor, the town itself, the university. The University of Michigan. All my children went to Michigan.”
After Pearson officially became Michigan’s head coach, it became even more hectic. Due to the nature of college athletics, the constant recruiting cycle and the pressures of having to find a place to live, Pearson wasn’t afforded any initial acclimation period or time to relax — “My golf game suffered”, he jokes — but he says that it was a time he “sort of enjoyed”.
“You have to get straight into it,” Pearson said. “It’s right from contacting all the players that were currently here, contacting the recruits just to make sure they were still on board and there was a place for them here and they felt comfortable with me. Then you jump right into the recruiting. It’s 24/7, 365 now. Not many days where you have a down day.”
Of course, Pearson is no stranger to this. It’s his drive and work ethic that helped turn Michigan and Michigan Tech into powerhouses. It’s those same qualities that he hopes to apply to a young, raw but talented Wolverine roster this year.
So far, Michigan appears to be receptive to both Pearson and his new staff’s demeanor and coaching style.
“(Pearson and Muckalt are) super excited to be here,” sophomore forward Jake Slaker said. “They’re Michigan men and they always wanted to be here. Now that they got the jobs they couldn’t be more excited to be here. Their energy levels are high every day, they love to come to work, which makes it easier on us because we love to come to work as well.”
Added sophomore goalkeeper Hayden Lavigne: “It’s definitely different, in a good way. Coach Mel is very enthusiastic and very upbeat and I think the guys are responding well to that.”
But in Pearson’s own words, he’s not here to create any legacy of his own. For him, it’s about the past — upholding the tradition that spans back from Berenson, to Al Renfrew, Vic Heyliger and countless other Michigan greats.
“I’m just the gatekeeper here,” Pearson says. “I just make sure we keep things in order and keep Michigan hockey in the national spotlight where it should be.”
Pearson knows the task of replacing a legend presents a challenge unlike any he has ever faced. He knows he isn’t the next Red Berenson, and he’s not trying to be.
What matters to Pearson, though, is that he’s at home.