Henning: Mason brought excellence, intelligence to MSU
Rarely would you have met an intellect that came within a 60-foot slap shot of matching Ron Mason’s mind.
He had some of the fastest mental wheels in college sports, the biggest reason why, for so long, he was the winningest college hockey coach in North America and why ultimately Michigan State decided to transfer him from Munn Arena to the athletic director’s office in 2002.
Super smart. Terrifically personable. Good-humored. A man you could not out-organize, out-plan, or, on an ice rink, often beat, died Sunday night at 76.
He had about him an incandescence that flowed from his white hair and moustache, punctuated by dark eyes that were like X-rays in their ability to detect anything that mattered, professionally, competitively, or personally.
And yet he was such a pleasure to be around. Always genial – his players at frequent moments saw another necessary side – and as unpretentious as his hometown of Blyth, Ontario. He loved to fish, either in Canada, on the Great Lakes, or in his retirement years, on the Atlantic Ocean off his winter home in southeast Florida.
And he loved sipping a snifter of Grand Marnier, especially when it came alongside an hour of good conversation.
The man was extraordinary – and so close to belonging to a school other than Michigan State.
It was spring, 1979, and Amo Bessone, who seemed to have matched the Beaumont Tower as a campus landmark, was being eased into retirement. Then-athletic director Joe Kearney had a knack for hiring coaches and would choose between two prizes as he mulled Bessone’s successor.
He could go with the accomplished 39-year-old luminary at Bowling Green, Mason. Or he could opt for that impressive 33-year-old whizbang from Clarkson, Jerry York.
Kearney opted for Mason, who would become college hockey’s all-time coaching victory champion, with 924 – until a man named York surpassed him after long stints at Bowling Green and Boston College.
Mason skated into East Lansing and couldn’t believe what he saw – good and bad. On the dark side, a hockey program that had won its national championships was stuck in such prehistoric times its “recruiting files” consisted of a manila folder.
Mason saw a shimmering five-year-old facility in Munn Arena, a campus with so many attractions Canadian and American kids would be dazzled, and a Western Collegiate Hockey Association (an old arrangement of Denver, Colorado College, Michigan Tech, Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, etc.) begging to be ruled by a university with MSU’s capital.
He applied a bit of a stranglehold almost immediately. Seven years later, he won a national championship. He nearly won others, all while pushing through the system one NHL-caliber star after another: Rod Brind’Amour, Jason Wooley, Joe Murphy, Kevin and Kip Miller, Ryan Miller, Jim Cummins, Shawn Horcoff, Bob Essensa, Adam Hall, etc., and before them, Mike Liut and Ken Morrow from Mason’s Bowling Green days.
He was a master recruiter and supreme ice general in the fashion of, yes, Scotty Bowman, whose IQ was from the same stratosphere as Mason’s. It is not coincidental that two men so smart had two careers so extraordinary.
Players knew him as a coach who would surround them with talent to win championships. If they didn’t win, Mason was famous for guilt-tripping them with a ploy designed to gut-punch adolescents who were turning steadily into men:
“We give you the best equipment, the best arena, the best travel and amenities, and then you play like this,” he would say after a rare defeat.
Players shamed generally are players motivated to win the next night. And the Spartans typically did.
If you happened to be a player concerned about your status, ice time, or your future playing hockey at Michigan State and wished to have a word with the coach, by all means stop in. But it wasn’t going to happen impromptu. No, Mason would designate a time for the two of you to talk, which was purely tactical. It gave him time to prepare -- essential for a man who, had it not been for hockey, would have been quite an attorney
His gifts for coaching and administration were never lost on his bosses or colleagues at Michigan State. When it came time to end too many years of drama in the AD’s office, his peers and MSU execs decided Mason would make one fine athletic director and bring to Jenison Fieldhouse supreme competency and experience coaches could respect.
He moved across the street and assumed the same clean-desk efficiency and facile ease in multi-tasking he had displayed for 23 years at Munn Arena.
He was progressive and good with numbers and helped commandeer a rebuilding of Spartan Stadium’s west side, which remains a landmark project in reconstruction and in helping re-design MSU’s football revenue.
He also was obliged to hire a couple of coaches. And here he had mixed results.
He brought in his great friend, Rick Comley, to run the Spartans hockey team, and while Comley won a national championship, he never approached during his years in East Lansing anything close to the overall elevation or status Mason knew.
Mason showed his lack of football savvy, perhaps, when in December 2002 he opted for an all-voices-heard, computer-like profile of what the Spartans needed in a new football coach. He thought about Marvin Lewis, who would eventually command the Cincinnati Bengals, but finally chose a man who seemed from the start to be a bit of an odd pick: John L. Smith from Louisville.
Four years later, Smith was fired and Mason’s successor-to-be, Mark Hollis, pinpointed a coach at Cincinnati who would prove to be a more sage selection: Mark Dantonio.
Mason was happy Hollis would be taking over, delighted with the Dantonio grab, and ready for some fishing and a bit of Grand Marnier.
He had given the university so much of distinction during his nearly 30 years there. He had brought excellence and personal class and that magnificent intellect to East Lansing. And in those qualities’ ability to give continually and perpetually, Mason will live lengthily at Michigan State, which owes him a happy debt of thanks.