"The goals will be set by the players," says new University of Michigan hockey coach Mel Pearson.
Ann Arbor — Mel Pearson looked relaxed and at home behind his desk in the hockey office at Yost Ice Arena Wednesday morning.
Oh, it took him a couple of weeks to feel comfortable enough to move into the former office held by Red Berenson, who guided Michigan’s program for the past 33 years. Pearson was Berenson’s right-hand man for 23 of those seasons, including national championships in 1996 and 1998 and a national title game appearance in 2011, an overtime loss to Minnesota-Duluth.
After six seasons as Michigan Tech’s head coach, Pearson, 58, returned to Ann Arbor to his dream job, after Berenson announced his retirement at the end of this past season. It’s also here where Pearson can be closer to his daughters, both Michigan graduates. Kim, 30, lives in Ann Arbor and Sarah, 27, lives in Farmington Hills. Mel and his wife, Susie, also have a son, Paul, 25, who lives in Minneapolis.
“Michigan is my dream job,” Pearson said. “I was here 23 years. I’ve only worked at two places and I’ve been in the business for 35 years. Michigan is Michigan. You hear that a lot, but it means a lot to me and I really believe it. There’s not many places that combine the academics and the athletic success across the board. It’s awesome and that’s the Michigan way.”
Sarah and her husband, Ulan, had their first child — Mel’s first grandson — two weeks ago; his name is Finnley. “That’s special,” Mel said. “We’ve been able to see our grandchild every day since he’s been born.”
Pearson is also enjoying his old stomping grounds, eating lunch at Mister Spots, The Brown Jug, The Cottage Inn and Zingerman’s Roadhouse.
Time to move on
Pearson is looking forward to competing in the Big Ten for the first time, especially since Notre Dame is joining the league this season.
Pearson felt it was the perfect time for him to move on and accept the head coaching job at Michigan Tech after the Wolverines lost in that 2011 national championship game. By that time, all of his kids had graduated from high school or college.
“I talked to Red about it (the Michigan Tech job) and Dave Brandon was athletic director at the time,” recalled Pearson. “I just wanted to know my situation here, like if Red decided to retire tomorrow, where do I stand? Dave was real blunt and honest and said, ‘You’d be considered, but there’s no guarantees. You’ll be strongly considered.’ But he also mentioned, ‘If you go out and get head coaching experience and have success, your resume will be even stronger and you’ll have a better opportunity.’”
So Pearson took the job at Michigan Tech, where he played from 1977-81.
“I went up there thinking I was going to be there forever. I thought that would be my last job,” Pearson said. “I had other opportunities in my six years to leave, good jobs, but I think the only job I was going to leave for was Michigan. I enjoyed it there. Going back up there was familiar and I enjoyed it, the people, the culture, the lifestyle.”
Pearson said he didn’t even mind the winters, though one year he broke his hand shoveling snow off his roof.
“I was content, I guess,” said Pearson of being at Michigan as an assistant coach. “You had a chance to win every game, had a chance to get in the (NCAA) Tournament, so you’re in a good situation. But you do get to the point where you say, ‘OK, maybe this is the time and the opportunity; let’s go for it.' The kids were all gone, so it was the perfect time.”
Pearson had quite a rebuilding job, taking over a Tech program that went 70-197-37 in the eight years previous to his arrival. But he guided the Huskies to a 118-92-29 record in six years, building the foundation the first three years, then going 75-34-14 the last three, including a pair of NCAA Tournament appearances.
Tech was 23-15-7 last season, losing in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.
Pearson’s ability to show he could lead a program gave him a shot to come back to Michigan as the head man.
“We’ll play aggressive,” Pearson said. “Everybody says, ‘We want to play up-tempo, speed, skill, aggressive.’ But we played that way here forever at Michigan and I instituted that at Michigan Tech. We want skill. We want speed and we want to get after it, but we want to play well defensively, too.”
Pearson’s first job at Michigan was to introduce himself to the players, make sure that incoming freshmen like Josh Norris was going to stay and play for the Wolverines.
“I wanted to make sure they knew what I was all about, just making sure we could keep the players who were committed here,” Pearson said. “Players like Josh Norris, telling him we had big plans for him, same with Quinn Hughes, a defenseman who has a chance to be a first-round pick next year.
“You were dealing with a different pool of players (at Tech). You have your higher-profile pool of players here. We dipped into that a little bit, but predominantly a different pool — good players, maybe a little older players.
“When we first got to Tech, we had players hang up on us, just no interest. But as we grew the program, the interest grew and we were able to get really good players come visit.”
Incoming freshman forward Dakota Raabe is one such player. He took a visit to Tech before deciding on Michigan.
“I almost went to Tech because I really liked Mel,” Raabe said. “I was really battling between (Michigan) or if I wanted to play for Mel, because I liked his style of play and how he was as a person. I signed (when Berenson was coach), but Mel’s here now. I just like how he is as a person, how he interacts with the guys. You’re not afraid to talk to him. You can just be yourself and he’ll help you become the player you want to be.”
Now that Pearson has finally landed his dream job, he has another rebuilding task ahead of him with the Wolverines.
Michigan played in a record 22 consecutive NCAA Tournaments from 1991-2012. UM made the Tournament again in 2016, but didn’t even sniff a postseason berth last year, going 13-19-3.
“I’m excited,” Pearson said. “Let’s drop the puck. That’s the hardest part — waiting. We don’t get on the ice until September. I can’t wait.”
Mel Pearson, a longtime assistant under legendary Michigan hockey coach Red Berenson, was hired to replace his former mentor after Berenson retired.