Monday, March 20, 2017

Getting The Band Back Together: The Case For Mike Kemp's Return as Head Coach

The prevailing sentiment during the 2016-17 campaign for the UNO Hockey program was that Coach Blais's time was drawing to a close.

As the team found itself with a so-so record in the second half of the season -- which included two embarrassing losses to a less-than-spectacular North Dakota team in Omaha -- the suggestion that a change might be in order once again surfaced.

At the time, a few souls on social media suggested that former UNO Head Coach Mike Kemp (on staff since 2009 as an assistant athletic director) should step in and take the reins of the faltering Mavericks. 

In the wake of Dean Blais's resignation last week -- and factoring in the state budget crisis that is impacting all government operations, including the university system -- some have suggested that UNO could save money by putting Mike Kemp back in charge of the program.

While the notion might be the ramblings of a vocal few on the web, the idea does have merit. In fact, it is an intriguing idea.

Here's why:

  1. Many believe UNO assistant coach Mike Gabinet will be named the next head coach. Be that as it may, some are wary regarding Gabinet's lack of experience in the NCAA, and no long-term experience recruiting at this level. 
  2. Much has been made of the fact that Dean Blais never purchased a home in Omaha. Some have implied he was more of a "commuter coach" who didn't fully invest himself in the practice of schmoozing boosters and fans.
  3. As a result, many have suggested UNO needs a coach who understands the unique culture at UNO -- even if it means sacrificing experience.
  4. Even though UNO Athletic Director Trev Alberts recently told a local radio talk show that financial pressures wouldn't impact hiring a new coach, it still is a factor in every decision UNO makes from an institutional point of view.
Mike Kemp might be the most reasonable choice -- especially if UNO sees Mike Gabinet as the future, but is worried about his experience.

Kemp satisfies all the criteria listed above. He has invested himself in Omaha the past 21 years. Prior to his stint as UNO head coach and assistant AD, he was a college assistant for 20 years, and was even the head coach of UNO's upstart club team in 1975. 

Kemp is perpetually a fixture at various UNO sporting events throughout the year -- representing athletics and the university in his official capacity. 

I've known Mike Kemp since the program began, and worked with him in various capacities when I was on the UNO Blue Line Club Board of Directors. 

If there are concerns about Gabinet being ready to pull the strings of a team two years removed from the Frozen Four, Kemp leading the team for a few seasons would allow Gabinet to more fully acclimate to the job.

It would also allow Kemp and Gabinet to find another assistant who can handle the bulk of the recruiting duties. I would imagine that former Maverick Rob Facca -- currently a Chicago Blackhawk scout -- would be a top choice for recruiting coordinator in that scenario. 

Prior to his NHL gig, Facca was an assistant with Northern Michigan University and Western Michigan University -- and recruited 18 players on the Bronco squad that is a #2 seed in this year's NCAA tournament. 

With Kemp as head coach, I think he could convince Facca to take an assistant position with the program. Facca has a home in Omaha and remains connected to the team's coaching staff and alumni. In addition to Facca, former UNO assistant (and player) Nick Fohr -- currently a coach with the U.S. National Development Team -- might be an attractive option.

I believe Mike Kemp is 64 (he was 43 when UNO hired him away from Wisconsin in 1996). If, in our hypothetical scenario, UNO was to name Kemp head coach, it likely wouldn't be a long-term job.

It would be for the short term, provide stability to the program, and allow the assistants to "season a bit" in the "meat grinder" that is the NCHC -- before taking over in a few years.

It would also allow Mike Kemp to go out as he started … with UNO. 

Kemp was 194-223-57 in his 12 seasons coaching UNO. While the record is sub .500, you're talking about starting from nothing. This isn't like Arizona State or Penn State -- schools that had successful club programs prior to moving up to D-1 (and UNO doesn't have athletics that play in a "power 5" conference). 

The record doesn't tell the whole story. Kemp teams got a lot out of players who weren't blue chippers. In his third season, the Mavs made the CCHA championship game at Joe Louis Arena. In his fourth season, UNO won 24 games and made the conference semifinals at Joe Louis Arena. 

UNO made its first NCAA tournament appearance in 2006, and had its first legit Hobey Baker candidate in Scott Parse. 

It might not have always been pretty, but the program accomplished a considerable amount during those years. 

I'm sure most former coaches have those moments where they say, "If I could do it again, I would do X, Y and Z differently..."

Two of the finest head coaches in Division 1 hockey today are former Kemp assistants -- David Quinn (Boston University) and Steve Rohlik (Ohio State). 

Here's a chance for Kemp to setup the next generation of leadership, and use his 30+ years of coaching experience behind the bench, once again.

Mike Kemp is likely the most experienced and qualified candidate for the job.