Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Penrose Pugilist

Let's say an award existed for "Father of the Year," and one of the finalists has three children that he sent off to Ivy League institutions, all of which are now graduating magna cum laude and are landing high-paying jobs after graduation. All of them say their father did a tremendous job encouraging them throughout school and into college, and by most accounts, people say he's a nice guy and a good father. Sounds like a good candidate, right? Now, let's say that it comes to light during the vetting process that, some years ago, he was convicted on domestic abuse charges for striking his wife and was sentenced to several years of probation. Is he still really a good choice for "Father of the Year?"

It seems that, when it comes to the American Hockey Coaches Association, the answer is... sure.

The AHCA (not the ACHA as several outlets have reported, that's a club hockey organization) announced today that Union coach Rick Bennett will be honored in May with the Spencer Penrose Award as the national coach of the year. To be nominated, a coach must have either won his conference's coach of the year award, or have coached his team to the Frozen Four. Bennett was nominated in the latter fashion.

There's little question that when it comes to pure coaching, Rick Bennett is placing himself among the top names in the nation. He's taken Union - that's UNION COLLEGE - to two Frozen Fours in three years. That was so unfathomable in the recent past that to some of us it's still fairly unfathomable. He's done a tremendous job putting the pieces in place and operating his team to be successful, there's no one that can doubt that.

As good as Union has been in the last several seasons, there were few people back in October picking the Dutchmen as the top team in the ECAC - which they were in the regular season and then in the tournament - let alone a Frozen Four team. The team has reached 30 wins on the season for the first time ever, and this is even despite a relatively meager start in October. Looking solely at the on-ice product, one would have to conclude that Bennett is a solid choice here.

But when we take a look at the whole season, there's a serious black mark, and one which really needs to be considered when we're talking about who the best coach in the country was this season - his involvement in the brawl at the Times Union Center in January. The facts are the facts. He went after a fellow coach, throwing punches in the process. One of these punches connected on the helmet of an opposing student-athlete.

The Penrose voters had to have heard about this - for a week, it was the talk of the college hockey world. There was news when it first happened. It came up again before the weekend was out when Union suspended him for a game. It popped up again when the ECAC at first declined to punish him further, stirring up discussion on how inappropriate that was. It was news a fourth time when the league finally came down with what should have been a minimal penalty for such an action - a four game suspension. We wrote at the time that he was lucky to not have been suspended for the rest of the season (as did others), and that's still a belief we hold.

What he did at the TU Center was a very serious transgression for a coach. Apt comparisons were made at the time to Woody Hayes and Bob Knight, among others.

We all make mistakes in life. How we learn from those mistakes is an important part of how we grow as human beings, no matter what your calling is. Bennett was immediately apologetic for his actions. He had to be - but he should have been thinking about the potential ramifications while he was taking swings in front of a crowd of 7,100 witnesses.

There's little doubt that his actions that night cost him the ECAC's Coach of the Year nod, which went instead to an equally deserving Don Vaughan of Colgate, who had managed to guide his team to a much-higher-than-predicted finish without channeling Rocky Balboa in the process.

That was a good, solid signal that the coaches of the ECAC consider character and actions to be an important part of what makes a coach laudable. Along similar lines, the Hobey Baker Award very distinctly talks about the character of candidates as an important distinguishing factor. In fact, if you go to the part of their website that discusses the award, the first thing it says is "CHARACTER MATTERS."

Apparently, the AHCA as a whole doesn't hold its own members to the same standard when it is choosing the best of its own ranks. The standard for determining the best student-athlete in the nation is demonstrably higher than the standard for choosing the best coach. Weren't we supposed to be holding coaches and administrators to a higher standard than their charges?

Our friends at Where Angels Fear to Tread, a Cornell blog (well worth your read), put it perfectly on Twitter this morning:
When coaches and administrators refuse to hold their peers and employees to high standards, winning becomes the only criterion of success and all means of achieving that end legitimated. People can conjure up the specters of other scandals and try to distinguish, but a common thread lingers: emphasis on winning over the self-aggrandizing and self-important principles of collegiate athletics.
What happened in Albany was an embarrassment for Union College, for RPI, for the ECAC (which became an even bigger embarrassment thanks to their own actions), and for college hockey in general. It's something that, over time, will rightly fade from prominence when we talk about Rick Bennett's resume and legacy. It will be more of a footnote than a point of focus.

But this year, the stain is still there. It is still fresh, and it was an important happenstance in his season. Without holding ill will against the man, it's clear to say that this was not the year to honor him as the best bench boss in the nation. Vince Lombardi once said, "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." In college athletics, this has never been the mantra, and it shouldn't be now.

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