Mason loved the Michigan State-Michigan rivalry

David Goricki
The Detroit News
Former MSU hockey coach Ron Mason died Sunday at age 76.

There’s no doubt Ron Mason got the most out of life, passionate about his job as head hockey coach and then athletic director of Michigan State, spending quality time while taking care of his family and then enjoying every ounce of retirement.

Mason died at age 76 Sunday at his daughter's home in Haslett, Michigan.

Mason came to MSU in 1979 and quickly turned the Spartans into a national power. Then, soon after Red Berenson was named head coach at Michigan in 1984, the MSU-UM rivalry became the best in college hockey, highlighted by the Cold War game at Spartan Stadium, which attracted a then-hockey-record crowd of 74,554 on Oct. 6, 2001.

Mason owned a 42-29-8 edge in the 18 years his teams played against Berenson, but just 29-26-8 edge the last 15 years.

And, yes Mason was haunted at times by the Wolverines and their House of Horrors, Yost Arena. He frequently recalled how the Spartans defeated Michigan all four times the teams played in 1998 when the Wolverines won their second national title in three years.

Mason’s biggest losses came at Yost, both in NCAA regional games, a 4-3 overtime loss to Ohio State in 1998, putting an end to the Spartans’ 33-6-5 season -- which included CCHA regular season and conference championships -- and the final game of his Hall of Fame coaching career, a 2-0 loss to Colorado College in 2002.

Still, Mason loved the rivalry with Michigan and had tremendous respect for Berenson’s talented teams, and the victories tasted so much sweeter. The Spartans were 7-6 against the Wolverines during Michigan’s best three-year run from 1996-98 when the Wolverines won two national titles and had a national semifinal appearance in 1997.

“The one thing I’ll miss is that we always talked about going fishing together and we’re not going to get that chance now,” Berenson said Monday morning.

It didn’t take Berenson long to know what he was up against when he took the job at Michigan.

“When I first got to Michigan I didn’t know a lot about Ron Mason,” said Berenson. “I knew that he was the captain of the St. Lawrence team that we played in the NCAA tournament my senior year in 1962 when I was the captain at Michigan; that was about all I knew. And, then when I started looking at the coaches in the CCHA and Ron Mason obviously set the bar in that league, even though Bowling Green won the national championship the previous year.

“Michigan State was the team that we tried to emulate, like we had to get a lot better. He had Michigan State at the top of the pack and Michigan kind of used Michigan State as a barometer. He had a head start. He was so good when I got there. Oh, it was a wake-up call after we first played them. They were bigger, stronger, faster and better in all areas. His teams were well coached so it was easy for us to use them as the standard.”

When he retired, Mason was the winningest coach in college hockey (924-380-83, 36 years), including 635-270-69 in 23 years at MSU. He won his lone national championship with the Spartans in 1986 when Mike Donnelly scored with 2:51 left for the difference in a 6-5 win over Harvard.

"I don't even know what to say, so shocked, really struggling with this right now, feel like someone just sucker-punched me," said Donnelly about Mason's death.

Mason brought Donnelly in as a walk-on and developed into a first-team All-American, scoring an NCAA-record 59 goals during that '86 season before playing in the Stanley Cup Finals with the Los Angeles Kings in 1993.

The Spartans won 17 CCHA regular-season and conference titles and earned 23 NCAA tournament appearances under Mason's guidance, including 2001 when they advanced to the Frozen Four as the No. 1 team behind Hobey Baker-winning goalie Ryan Miller before a semifinal loss to North Dakota.

“I don’t think you can judge Ron Mason by the national championships, but you can judge him by the league championships, the first-place finishes, the wins vs. losses, doing what was right for the players, the program and college hockey in general,” Berenson said. “We never won the national championship with our best teams and I don’t know if he did either because he had some great teams.

“It was offense vs. defense when we played and we ended up having some great battles, but through thick and thin we became even better friends. And, Ron went out of his way to stay in touch after he retired. He’d show up at some of our meetings or when we played at Michigan State he’d come over to our locker room and say hello and talk with our coaches. He wanted to make sure we knew he was still interested."

Mason’s pure love of the game was well noted when he sat next to former Lake Superior State coach Jeff Jackson at the sports bar in the Milwaukee Hyatt during Frozen Four weekend, watching the Red Wings play the Colorado Avalanche in the famous brawl in late March 1997.

When the Red Wings’ Darren McCarty started delivering blow after blow to Colorado’s Claude Lemieux, Lemieux curled up on the ice to protect himself while both Mason and Jackson smiled like little kids while yelling and pointing, “Turtle! Turtle!”

Yes, it was a sight to see.

Mason was proud of the job he did as MSU’s athletic director, talking about the time the Big Ten athletic directors were sequestered in New York while the league was working on the arrival of the Big Ten Network.

Mason’s hires worked well too, bringing in Rick Comley to replace him as head hockey coach, and Comley guided the Spartans to the national title in 2007.

Mason was annoyed by women's basketball coach Joanne P. McCallie, who flirted with a number of coaching jobs in 2007, including LSU and Florida. He handed her a new five-year rollover deal worth $500,000 that could be pushed to nearly $650,000, only to have her leave weeks later to take the job at Duke. After all, he wondered, why anyone would want to leave MSU?

Then, Mason brought in Suzy Merchant to fill McCallie’s position, saying, “I could tell in the first 15 minutes she had the personality and after an hour that she was the right coach to lead this program.”

And Mason was happy to lend a hand in landing Mark Dantonio as head football coach before stepping down as athletic director.

“Well, a lot of people say I didn’t, but to be honest with you I was the guy who hung on and said Dantonio was the guy," Mason said. "He was my first choice. Mark (Hollis) was there and of course Mark was taking over. We talked a lot about it and I said, 'You know, Dantonio is the guy we have to have.' They hung in there and thank goodness we got Dantonio, but it was my guy, first choice. I battled for him and we got him.”

Mason talked in a lengthy phone interview this past January while on his boat fishing in Florida, commenting on MSU’s struggles in hockey and a variety of other topics. It was at this time that he was thrilled to announce he would be attending the Spartans’ game with the U.S. National Development program’s U-18 team at Munn Arena in late January, gushing about his grandsons and how one of them, Travis Walsh, would be playing against the U.S. program that had his older brother Tyler as intern assistant coach.

No doubt, Mason made sure he would watch his grandsons grow up, children of his daughter Tracey and the late Shawn Walsh, Mason’s former assistant coach at Bowling Green and MSU who went on to win national titles in 1993 and ’99 at Maine before dying from cancer in 2001.

Mason was frequently at practices and games to watch Travis play for the USHL Muskegon Lumberjacks in 2011 while also taking on role of senior adviser of the team.

“He was fortunate, not many coaches have that opportunity or the time, but it worked out well that Travis Walsh would have his grandpa watching him, supporting him and probably coaching him too,” said Berenson. “He certainly seemed to enjoy his retirement. There’s a lot good things with Ron Mason. It’s a tragedy that he died early, but certainly more good than bad in this."