Friday, December 21, 2012

What If: Tempered Temper

* April 1989: Mike Addesa resigns as coach after using a racial slur two months earlier

Martika - Toy Soldiers

From almost the first moment, and even through perhaps the greatest high in the history of the school's premiere athletic program, Mike Addesa was at odds with the powers that be in the Institute's administration. He was too brash, too presumptuous, and too focused on exploits outside of the classroom to mesh with the powers that were. Once the team backed away from the heights of a national championship and fell from grace, the sharks were circling.

The excuse the school was looking for came in February of 1989, late in a season in which the Engineers, much as they had the previous year, took a promising start and ground to a very disappointing end. Following a 2-0 win over Brown in Troy on February 3 - a win, it would turn out, that would be the last of the season for RPI and the final win of his tenure - Addesa berated the team for a lack of seriousness on the bench, including senior Graeme Townshend, who had scored the game's winning goal. Townshend, a Jamaican-Canadian and one of two black players on the team, had been trying to get his teammates focused on the game and had words on the bench with Bruce Coles, the other black player.

Addesa, as was his usual, sought to get his team fired up. Never one to mince words, he certainly went more than a bit too far in this instance, lumping Townshend in with the rest of the team to try to evince the "us vs. him" mentality that he was famous for as RPI's bench boss. Townshend recalled Addesa saying, "What I saw between you and [Coles] really made me sick to my stomach. If you don't stop acting like a n*****, I'll start treating you like one."

Townshend later confronted Addesa in private, asking him not to use the word around him any more, but Townshend recalled Addesa reasserting himself in that conversation. Eventually, word got out of the locker room about the incident, the newspapers caught wind, and a major controversy was underway.

The program had fallen almost as quickly as it rose under Addesa. Since going 35-2-1 and winning the national championship, the Engineers had been on the decline basically every season since. 1986 was still a 20-win season for RPI, but 1989 had represented a third consecutive losing season at 12-17-3 as RPI glided to an eighth-place finish in the ECAC, losing to the likes of Dartmouth and Army down the stretch and just barely qualifying for the eight-team playoff for the third straight season.

There were plenty of people in the RPI administration who were ready to be rid of Addesa from the moment he stepped on campus and successfully lobbied for athletic scholarships. But despite his string of losing seasons, the national championship four years prior and the support that came from alumni because of it made getting rid of him practically impossible - they couldn't just can him without a good reason, or there would certainly be repercussions from upset boosters and alums.

In that light, the locker room incident was practically a godsend for the administration. Controversy flared up in the local media - the truth was, a lot of local sports writers were no fan of his either, since his caustic personality and black and white mentality alienated them. Minority student groups rallied on campus for Addesa's dismissal.

At the time, Townshend - a physical forward who was a captain at RPI in 1988 and played in the NHL - defended Addesa, but later came to regret sticking up for his coach as he came to grips with the borderline relationship he had with his mentor.

Eventually, the pressure became overwhelming, and Addesa resigned as head coach, officially leaving the school on his own terms but in reality quitting before being fired. It served as a disappointing bookend to what had been an amazing decade in RPI hockey history.

Addesa never found another job in college hockey. He applied for the open position at Denver in 1990, but current Air Force coach Frank Serratore was given the nod. The following year, he fell short in his bid to take the reins at Northeastern, a job that went to then-Dartmouth head coach Ben Smith. The root of Addesa's struggles then manifested itself when he was asked about whether he would then apply for the newly open position in Hanover - "I don't believe in the academic index," he said, essentially declaring that he had given up on the ECAC in general before declaring the gravity of having been labeled a racist. "The RPI scam has eliminated any possibility of me coaching college hockey."

Today, separated by time from the bitterness of his term in Troy and with the grand nature of his accomplishments during that term shining brighter than the dark moments, Addesa appears to be on at least friendly terms with the Institute. He returned to campus in 2010 and spoke during the celebration of the 1985 championship team's 25th anniversary.

But what if Addesa hadn't gone too far that night in Troy? What if, instead of pushing the envelope, he'd simply shouted at the team and stormed out of the room? What would have been the result?

Again, with conjectural questions like these, it's difficult to say with certainty what could have happened, and a look around at what did happen is certainly in order. The desire of many of the powers that were at RPI to see Addesa gone would still have been hanging over things even if they were unlikely to be able to do much about it without cause.

Under new head coach Buddy Powers, RPI's fortunes improved to the tune of winning records in 1990 and 1991, and as one could expect, it was largely on the backs of players recruited by Addesa like Coles and Joe Juneau, the latter of which truly came into his own during his junior and senior seasons despite having led the team in scoring in both of his first two seasons as well.

If Addesa had been able to pull of similar results, the Institute probably would not have been rid of him until the mid-1990s at the earliest - more likely, Addesa's frustrations with RPI likely would have seen him out the door by then, though the question of who his successor would have been is dicey. Powers had been at RIT before the RPI job opened up, and he left Troy after just five seasons to coach at Bowling Green. Dan Fridgen was then hired directly from Powers' staff. If Addesa had been able to stay beyond 1989, it's likely that his replacement would have been someone else, changing RPI's fortunes in the late 1990s.

Addesa's comments on the ECAC's academic index indicate that he probably would not have been long for RPI in the 1990s anyway, regardless of the team's record or the administration's dislike of him. Given that the team's resurgence in the early-to-mid 1980s did not follow on with the team establishing itself as a national power or even a firm new power in the ECAC, it is by no means a given that a lengthened tenure from Addesa would have provided any specific boost. Meanwhile, the Powers and Fridgen-led teams of the following ten years, while some may have certainly underperformed at times, were at least very competitive for the duration of the 1990s.

Thus, while we may look back and ponder what could have been had Mike Addesa had the opportunity to build upon his successes at RPI, his departure from the program at the time it occurred may have been just what was needed to soldier forward in the right direction.

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