“Building a program” has become a buzz phrase around Michigan athletics.

Ariel Bond/Daily
Head Coach Red Berenson speaks at a press conference after Michigan’s loss against Notre Dame for the CCHA championship at the Joe Louis Arena on Saturday, March 21, 2009.

John Beilein is doing it with the men’s basketball team by taking a big step in that direction this year. Rich Rodriguez promises he is doing it for football.

But what many people forget is that once you’ve built a program, you have to work just as hard to keep it strong.

Any coach looking for advice on how to build and maintain a top program should have one name at the top of the list of people to learn from: Red Berenson.

Berenson’s Michigan hockey team made the NCAA Tournament for the 19th season in a row yesterday, building on a record that will probably never be broken.

Berenson, now finishing up his 25th year behind the Michigan bench, took over a program without direction in the mid-1980s. By the early 1990s, he had a powerhouse. In 1996 and 1998, he coached teams to the National Championship.

That quick bio ignores his prolific playing career, both at Michigan and in the NHL. Before he returned to coach the Wolverines, he had already won an NHL Coach of the Year Award.

Berenson gets the job done no matter the circumstances. It’s as simple as that.

Just take a look at this season. Michigan lost its top three scorers from last year. Two of its best defensemen missed extended time with injuries. Still, Berenson and Co. got the job done.

Year after year, players graduate, leave early for professional hockey or just plain leave, but Berenson’s teams keep on winning. And that’s the most important thing, isn’t it?

When Rodriguez and Beilein came to Michigan, there was a lot made of the new systems they brought with them (the spread offense and 1-3-1 zone, respectively). What most people failed to focus on was a simple question: do they win?

History says yes, and winning transcends system.

A coach’s hardest task is to teach his or her team how to win. Even with all the talent in the world, if a team can’t win a close game, it won’t be successful.

Berenson’s teams have been winning close games for two decades now.

This is where Berenson’s old-school style deserves so much credit. Michigan hockey has been scarily consistent for many years. It’s almost like a perpetual-motion machine.

Berenson built his program by instilling solid values and work ethic in every player. Now, the players pass down that ethic to their younger counterparts. Even though the college game is different now, with more pressure on players to go pro than ever before, the system still works.

Berenson makes coaching look easy, even though it’s not.

Michigan fans used to take it for granted that the football team would make a bowl game. Think again. The same goes for Kentucky basketball in the NCAA Tournament and the New York Yankees in the MLB playoffs.

Dynasties don’t just last forever without some driving force.

Some time in the future, Michigan hockey will miss the NCAA Tournament. Maybe not next year, or even in 10 years, but some year down the road.

It’s no secret Berenson is getting older, even though he still might have the best backhand of anyone on Michigan’s bench. He recently signed a one-year contract to coach again next season, but he won’t be here forever.

Whenever Berenson decides to step down, his legacy will be secure.

His hockey program is the example against which all others should be measured.

And all others will have a hard time measuring up.

— Sandals can be reached at nsandals@umich.edu.

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