Red Berenson talks about his decision to retire as Michigan's hockey coach. Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News
Ann Arbor — Longtime Michigan hockey coach Red Berenson was a rarity playing in the NHL with a college degree and an MBA.
“I was preparing for life after hockey,” Berenson, 77, said Monday, skillfully setting up the punch line. “So I guess now life after hockey will start officially, and I’m OK with that.”
Berenson drew plenty of laughs, which he was going for at his retirement news conference that included in the crowd Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh and basketball coach John Beilein. He began his comments saying this was not a wake.
Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel discusses Red Berenson's retirement as UM's hockey coach. Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News
"I feel like it’s the right time,” Berenson said, so concluding his 33-year coaching career at Michigan, his alma mater where he was a three-time letterwinner not to mention an All-American and team MVP his junior and season seasons.
He led the Wolverines to national championships in 1996 and 1998, and overall, 22 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances (1991-2012), including 11 Frozen Fours during that span. Berenson led Michigan to its final NCAA Tournament appearance last season after winning the Big Ten tournament championship. He was Big Ten Coach of the Year in 2016.
Berenson shared a story about the late Michigan athletic director Don Canham advising him not to coach well into his years.
“Canham says, ‘You’re 44, you don’t want to be coaching when you’re 55,’” Berenson said. “I guess I didn’t listen. But nevertheless, I feel like it’s the right time. Although my wife is not sure yet. When I left the house this morning, she said, ‘Are you sure you’re doing the right thing?’”
Berenson then mentioned a story from his wedding day when a friend asked if he was sure he wanted to go through with it.
“I was sure,” Berenson said. “I didn’t like getting married, but I wanted to be married. I don’t like the fact we’re going through this, but I want to be retired, and I want to get out of the way for the next coach to take the program to a high level. I’ve been so lucky to be here.”
Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel, who had worked with the hockey program early on in his career in athletic administration, rattled off all of Berenson’s achievements at Michigan. Berenson said he and the program should have done more.
“I don’t think we did as well as we should have with the players we had and the teams we’ve had,” he said. “I can blame the referees, I can blame we had a lot of situations we didn’t like that ended our seasons, and we had a couple of good ones that ended it the right way. But I thought we could have done better, and I still think we can do better, and that’s what keeps me going.”
Manuel has been especially close to Berenson considering their previous working relationship. When Manuel took the job early last year, he made it clear he wanted Berenson to stay as long as he wanted.
The men met on Monday as Berenson finalized his decision. Manuel said he will begin working on finding the next hockey coach on Tuesday.
“I can’t continue to be selfish in the thinking about Michigan and really had great conversations with Red about where he felt we needed to be,” Manuel said, before he told a story about one of their early encounters. “It’s a lot of appreciation for Red and for hockey. He told me at one point, he looked at me and said, ‘Every administrator of hockey has to know how to skate.’ Literally the next day, I put on some skates, hung around the whole board, skated around, got off, took the skates off, went up to his office and said I skated on the ice, and then he accepted me.
“He means the world to me, and he means the world to this place. You don’t use terms like legendary lightly. He deserves that distinction amongst the lore of 151 years of Michigan athletics. Red said it well — we’re looking for someone is going to move the program forward and have that passion for Michigan, have that passion for these young men, embrace our alums and get a chance to understand what Michigan hockey has been about. Looking for somebody to lead us to have success with these young men on the ice and off. How that will come to be, I’ll start addressing that tomorrow. My focus has been on Red, the current team and the staff. Tomorrow, we’ll start the process of taking a look at it.”
Once news began leaking Monday afternoon that Berenson was retiring, his phone started ringing.
“First two calls I got this afternoon, Brendan Morrison calls from Calgary,” he said. “Brendan is one of my favorite people, one of my favorite players. He did it all, he did it right. He reminded me of the good years and the good days, so it was good to hear from him, and the next call was from Mike Babcock. He’s coaching Toronto if you don’t know Mike, but Mike said, ‘Well, I was hoping you’d last a few more years because Michigan has been my dream job.’ I’m not sure how to take that, but nevertheless we’ve had a lot of friends and we’re going to hear from a lot of them.”
Harbaugh played football at Michigan and has known and respected Berenson for years. He praised Berenson’s straightforward approach.
“Great All-American here at Michigan, great player, great coach, great man,” Harbaugh said. “You always knew where you stood with Red Berenson. He never sugarcoated anything. He never led anybody along. He did what he said he was going to do.
“I asked him for a pair of skates not too long ago, maybe about six months ago, and he said, ‘Yeah, you should come over and skate.’ And he goes, ‘Yeah, they rent 'em out, 12 o’clock at open skate.’ I was trying to get him to give 'em to me. ‘Can I get a pair of skates?’ ‘Ah, they got ‘em for rent.’ He’s just the best that way. You know where you stand with Red Berenson. Tells it like it is. Straight shooter. Always has been, always will.”
Jim Harbaugh on Red Berenson, who announced his retirement on Monday. Angelique Chengelis
Beilein did not take long to find the words when asked what Berenson has meant to Michigan.
“Is the word iconic correct? Can you use that word? Legendary?” Beilein said. “When we came here, I had no background on Michigan other than what I saw on TV, so he was one of the first guys who spoke with me and then I would go meet with and talk about how we built this program. You see that NCAA Tournament every year, and you’d see our (basketball) program hadn’t been there in a while. And between him and Lloyd (Carr) and Carol (Hutchins), they had this consistency that I really wanted to be a part of. He was very helpful in that, staying with the values, get the right kids that fit Michigan that you think will not be in shock when they come here with the academics. It’s worked out.”
Beilein marvels at Berenson’s longevity. Berenson, in turn, has tried to change some of Beilein’s less healthy habits.
“It’s amazing because he stayed in such great shape,” Beilein said. “My first couple events I went to with him, God forbid it was on the second or third floor, and I went to the elevator. ‘We don’t do elevators. We do stairs.’ I put cream and sugar in my coffee, he told me, (and) I don’t it anymore, ‘You can’t be drinking that, you’ve got to be drinking black coffee. That’s not good for you.’ I’m all black now. I’m over on the treadmill with him because we didn’t have a workout area because my office was over there, and I think I’m going pretty good, he looks over, and he goes, ‘Well, you’ve got to go faster than that.’ I look at him and he’s way faster than me. It’s amazing. But a great influence on young coaches, older coaches, everybody.”
Because the hockey and basketball seasons overlap, Beilein would take in one game a season and Berenson would drop by a basketball practice. Beilein said the two shared the same approach to practice.
“Here’s one thing that resonates that he told us,” Beilein said. “He said, ‘Practice like you’re in second place, and then play like you’re in first place.' I just said it to my team before we went to the (NCAA) Tournament when we had all the success. We’re going to practice like we’re in second place, but we’re going to play like champions. That really resonates.”
Berenson said he will not be straying much from Ann Arbor. After all, in so many ways, Michigan has been the biggest influence in his life.
"It changed my life,” Berenson said of coming to Michigan and then becoming coach at his alma mater. “That’s been my, I would say my motivation to help it change their lives and live their dreams.”
Red Berenson file
Age: 77 (1962 Michigan grad)
Head coach at Michigan
Record: 33 years, 848-426-92, ranks fourth nationally behind Jerry York of Boston College (1,033), the late Ron Mason of Michigan State (924) and former Boston University coach Jack Parker (897).
Conference championships: 10 (9 CCHA, 1 Big Ten).
NCAA tournament appearances: 23, including 22 straight starting from 1991-2012.
NCAA Frozen Four appearances: 11
National championships: 2 (1996, 1998)