Mel Pearson and Billy Powers are in the business of selling Michigan hockey. The Wolverines’ associate head coach and assistant coach have made names for themselves with the caliber of players who have led Michigan to a pair of national titles on their watch.
When Red Berenson — currently in his 21st season — retires, Pearson will have to begin selling himself to Michigan. His job isn’t in jeopardy. But at some point in the relatively near future, the Wolverines will need a man to take over the reins.
Berenson, who turns 66 next month, has yet to tip his hand with regard to retirement. But both of his assistants have made clear their intention to stay with the program, passing on numerous opportunities at other schools.
There was an era in Michigan hockey when making a run in the NCAA Tournament wasn’t expected and conference championships were a thing of the history books. This was the era — from 1965 to 1983 — of a struggling Wolverine hockey program devoid of an NCAA tournament appearance. It was in 1984 that Berenson was charged with restoring prominence to a school whose most recent national championship banner was raised 21 years before his arrival.
Berenson decision to enter the college ranks following success on the NHL level as a player (for Montreal, St. Louis, Detroit and New York) and coach put him in a rare class. He gave the athletic department the hope that he could lure players to the program while building up the team’s tradition once again.
“There’s no doubt that Red’s pro background when he first got into college was a big issue,” Powers said. “Because there weren’t as many, if any, (former pros) coaching college.”
Even today, players recognize Berenson as one of the positive draws to Michigan. Senior alternate captain Brandon Rogers — who grew up following the Wolverines from New Hampshire — agrees that Berenson’s name still attracts players, but says that the tradition and success now eclipse simple name recognition.
On the recruiting trail, Pearson and Powers receive inquiries about Red, but the questions have become more sporadic as the program continues to stand in the national spotlight.
“Obviously Red’s been here for so long and been so successful and his integrity speaks for itself — I think you build that in as well,” Pearson said. “But Michigan is a pretty attractive place right now, and you just want to make sure you continue to keep it up there with the top programs.
“They’ve heard a lot of the kids we have on our team — the number of draft choices, for example. They’ve heard of Yost Ice Arena and how rockin’-and-rollin’ it is in this building and what a unique place it is to play,” he added.
When Berenson steps down, it will be one less selling point in a long list of reasons to play at Michigan. If Pearson is named head coach, the reputation he has built up under Berenson should help offset any impact that the retirement might have on the recruiting process.
“It’s going to be a little tougher,” Powers said. “But I don’t think its going to be that big of a deal as long as people can appreciate what (the program) was here, what it’s become and what it took to get here.”
All in the family
When practice comes to an end, the focused look begins to fade from Pearson’s face. Pearson hops over the boards onto the ice like he’s still in the prime of his career. The coach, who exudes fire both in the color of his hair and in his attitude, is crashing the net. He begins to bang on the ice, soliciting a pass from senior Brandon Rogers. As the puck bounces around at Pearson’s feet, the smiles from an exhausted team begin to show. Finally, Pearson deposits the puck in the net and gives a fist pump to acknowledge his feat — a feat he accomplished 21 times during his four-year career as a forward at Michigan Tech.
Early in his coaching career as an assistant at Michigan Tech, that player mentality was not reserved for a few choice minutes. It was almost too prevalent, he said.
“I think I’m removed from that now, but there are times when I’d like to be out there still,” Pearson said. “I kid the guys once in a while that if I could play, I know I could guarantee a victory tonight. But I can’t play.”
His players and fellow coaches describe Pearson as passionate, thorough, intense, funny and professional. When his name is brought up, players begin beaming.
“It’s a Jekyll-and-Hyde,” Berenson said. “When you meet him, most of the time he’s happy-go-lucky and easy going. But when the game starts, you’d think he’s playing in the game.”
He has had plenty of time to develop his own style of coaching in his 21 years behind a bench. He has a much better grip on his emotions now, but the player in him does occasionally make an appearance on game nights.
“He’s about the only coach that you have to tell to shut up sometimes so we don’t get a penalty,” senior captain Eric Nystrom said. “He goes nuts there behind the bench.”
Pearson has an impressive lineage of coaches that have helped set the tone for his own distinctive way of going about business.
Pearson played in college under the legendary John MacInnis. MacInnis led Michigan Tech to three national championships and an impressive record of 555-295-39 in his 26 years at the helm. But when Pearson looks back on his college coach, he thinks fondly of a humble guy who gave respect to his players on and off the ice and never let a curse word slip through his lips.
“That thing really stuck with me,” Pearson said. “He had a way about him, he’d get after you when he needed to get after you, but he was just a real honest, straight-forward, caring person.”
Following his work at Michigan Tech, Pearson joined Berenson at a recovering Michigan program. Berenson, whose lineage includes two legendary pro coaches in Scotty Bowman (who coached St. Louis, Buffalo, Montreal, Pittsburgh and Detroit) and Toe Blake (who coached Montreal), has a progressive attitude that has helped prepare Pearson for a head coaching job. Berenson has created a system that allows his assistants to make a real impact in the direction of his program. As a result, Pearson and Powers have been afforded practical experience for their eventual rise into a head coaching job.
Pearson and Powers have garnered a lot of credit from the Wolverine’s recent successes thanks to good recruiting. In fact, Berenson often doesn’t even see recruits play before they commit. While most praise comes for their recruiting, Berenson has created a system where both have significant input in the teams everyday administration.
“I’m grooming both of them to be head coaches,” Berenson said. “When I say grooming, I’m giving them the authority and responsibility to help me run this program. It will be easy for them to take the next step, wherever they go, whether it’s here or not.”
With that sort of control over the direction of such a prominent program, it’s no surprise that both Pearson and Powers have been offered head coaching jobs — including the Michigan Tech job for Pearson. But for every offer, both have decided to pass in favor of staying at Michigan.
“I’ve had some other opportunities, but I really believed in what we were doing here at Michigan and I really love this place, and the people and the community,” Pearson said. “Those were really the reasons I stayed, not so much that I wasn’t ready to be a head coach or that I needed to learn more, but I was just really committed to Michigan.” When the replacement search begins, Pearson will likely top the list of candidates to replace him. All three believe that the athletic department should follow the successful formula of promoting from within, as it did in naming former defensive coordinator Lloyd Carr to head coach of the football team.
If Pearson becomes the next head coach, it is expected that Powers will be standing behind the Michigan bench right next to him. Powers said that being named the assistant to Berenson’s successor wouldn’t change his feelings about where he wants the program to go. Having worked together as coaches for the last 13 years, Pearson and Powers have developed a level of trust in each other that may be irreplaceable for the program.
“Being here so long — the longer we’re here together — I think that just builds in a comfort level,” Pearson said. “We know how each other thinks, what needs to be done — we just play off each other.”
The players echoed support for replacing Red with one of his assistants when the time comes. But like Pearson and Powers, they aren’t sure if that day will come anytime soon.
“I think that’s what coach (Berenson’s) been grooming (Pearson) for,” Nystrom said. “But who knows how long coach Berenson is going to be around for.”
For now, Pearson will continue to enjoy being on the ice and fine tuning his one-timer.
“The time will come when I get a head coaching job,” Pearson said with a smile. “Hopefully it will be at the right place.”
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Current Title:Associate Head Coach
Playing Days: Michigan Tech Forward 1977-81 (21 G, 35 A)
Time at Michigan:1988 – Named assistant coach
1996 – National Championship
1998- National Championship
1999 – Promoted to Associate head coach in 11th season
2000 – Asst. Coach award
Recent Recruits:Chad Kolarik, T.J. Hensick, Al Montoya
Current Title:Assistant Coach
Playing Days:Michigan Forward 1986-88 (50 G, 57 A)
1984 – 9th round pick of the Philadelphia Flyers
Time at Michigan:1988-90 – Graduate assistant
1992 – Named assistant coach
1996 – National Championship
1998- National Championship
Recent Recruits: Jeff Tambellini, Eric Nystrom, Brandon Rogers