Mel Pearson will not return as Michigan's hockey coach
Mel Pearson, Michigan's hockey coach for the last five seasons, has been relieved of his position, the university's athletic department announced Friday, just days after a public revelation that a wide range of allegations had been made against him.
A 70-page report from Washington, D.C.-based WilmerHale law firm detailed the allegations and identified “cultural issues” in the program that “require attention.” In the report, Pearson is accused of retaining employees who had "contemporaneous knowledge of sexual conduct committed by former university physician Dr. Robert Anderson," mistreating women associated with the program, violating the university's COVID-19 safety protocols, and "retaliation against and unfair treatment of student-athletes."
The report, obtained Tuesday by The Detroit News, was given to Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel on May 5.
"It has been determined that Mel Pearson will not return as our ice coach," Manuel said in a release from the athletic department Friday afternoon. "This decision has been weighed heavily and for some time. We welcomed an independent third-party review into the climate and culture of our program before furthering our assessment in lockstep with campus leadership.
“Our student-athletes having a positive and meaningful experience is of paramount importance, and a clear expectation within our department is that all employees and staff are valued and supported. I deeply appreciate and value the many individuals who came forward throughout this review. Today's announcement reflects the seriousness with what we've heard and the values we hold dear at Michigan."
A message left with the athletic department by The Detroit News seeking further comment wasn't immediately returned Friday afternoon. Pearson told The News after the news was released Friday that he "can't comment right now."
Manuel last spoke publicly about Pearson's status after a university regents' meeting on June 16 when he presented the athletic department budget. He spoke with two reporters and was asked if he anticipated Pearson being the hockey coach this upcoming season.
“He’s our hockey coach, and I anticipate him being our hockey coach,” Manuel said at the time.
Manuel said at the time he did not have an issue with a coach working without a contract.
"We’re working through everything,” Manuel said in June. “He’s working and continuing to be our hockey coach. There’s no difference in my mind in what we’re doing. We’re just working through a process and looking at the things that we need to address and we’ll move forward.”
Pearson had been the head coach of Michigan’s hockey program since 2017, taking the program to two Frozen Four appearances, and continued to work as what Michigan described as "an at-will employee" the last three months in this role despite not having a new contract.
Pearson had confirmed the related investigation, first reported in January by MLive, to the Michigan Daily student newspaper in February and told the paper he was “confident that the allegations will be proved wrong."
According to the report, Pearson lied to investigators, including denying a conversation took place before a recording of the conversation was presented. Other allegations included that Pearson discriminated against female staff members, he retaliated against one of his student-athletes for raising concerns about the culture of the program, and Pearson advised players to lie on COVID-19 tracing forms before the 2021 NCAA Tournament. Because of COVID issues within the team, the NCAA Division I Men's Ice Hockey Committee removed Michigan from the 2020-21 tournament.
Former director of hockey operations Rick Bancroft, who retired from the position in June, was accused of discriminating against women on the hockey staff. Bancroft, according to the report, also allegedly knew of sexual misconduct by Anderson.
The report concluded that "multiple instances" have been identified in which "team leadership acted unprofessionally — especially in interactions with female staff members and in treatment of student-athletes" but that Pearson did not directly violate Michigan's policy on sexual and gender-based misconduct. Still, the report identified a number of issues.
“We do have concerns about the culture and operation of the men's hockey program,” the report reads.
The complainant in the report is Steve Shields, a former Wolverine goalkeeper who served as a volunteer director of player development for the program. Shields issued a complaint to the Equity, Civil Rights, and Title IX Office (ECRT), which then referred the investigation to WilmerHale, according to the report. WilmerHale also investigated allegations of sexual misconduct against Anderson.
The report states that evidence suggests "(Shields) confronted (Pearson) about the mistreatment of women in the hockey program on at least one occasion and that hockey program staff understood (Pearson) to be aware of complaints that Mr. Bancroft bullied his female colleagues."
One key member in the report is former goaltender Strauss Mann, who captained Michigan in 2020-21 and was named a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award. According to the report, Mann, who declined to be interviewed for the investigation, raised concerns about Pearson's handling of various issues within the program, including Pearson encouraging the team to lie on contact tracing forms.
It's alleged Pearson forced Mann to leave the program for serving as the "ringleader" of players who brought upon concerns that could get him fired.
"These accounts reveal a widespread assumption within the hockey program that (Pearson) linked (Shields) to issues surrounding the treatment of student-athletes and in particular (Pearson's) conflict with Mr. Mann," the report said. "And, as noted above, (Pearson) appeared to view the concerns being raised by Mr. Mann as a serious threat to his position as head coach.
"At the very least, the evidence is clear that Mr. Mann believed that his status with the hockey program was in serious jeopardy because of friction with (Pearson)."
The Pearson scandal is the latest controversy involving the University of Michigan, which has faced several significant issues of national scope in the last several years.
The most significant has been the Anderson sexual abuse case involving more than 1,000 victims, most of who played football and other sports at Michigan. Anderson retired from the university in 2003 and died in 2008. Anderson’s alleged misconduct included unnecessary hernia and rectal examinations on patients who went to him for unrelated ailments. Earlier this year, Michigan reached a $490 million settlement with his accusers.
A few days earlier, former University of Michigan president Mark Schlissel was fired after the university’s Board of Regents voted unanimously for his dismissal. Schlissel’s firing came after an anonymous complaint made on Dec. 8 2021 revealed Schlissel had been in an inappropriate relationship with a university employee. Former UM president Mary Sue Coleman was appointed as interim president, and Santa Ono will take over as president in October.
Under Schlissel’s watch, Martin Philbert, a UM provost, was fired and banned from campus in 2020 amid allegations of sexual misconduct. Philbert’s behavior emerged publicly in January 2020 when Schlissel received an anonymous letter from someone representing a group of women who shared their stories of alleged abuse by Philbert. A report from WilmerHale showed that sexual misconduct was prevalent throughout Philbert's 25-year career, beginning after he joined the faculty in 1995 as a toxicology professor before ascending to the dean of the School of Public Health and provost.
Pearson was Manuel’s first head-coaching hire after taking over as athletic director.
“I try to bring the best people to lead our programs that I can,” said Manuel during the news conference in 2017 to introduce Pearson as head coach. “I want great coaches who are great people, who are going to be great citizens of this university and this department and the community.”
Pearson was a Michigan assistant coach for 23 seasons — from 1988-99 and associate head coach from 1999-2011 — under Red Berenson before taking over as Michigan Tech head coach for six seasons. He led Michigan Tech to two NCAA Tournament appearances.