It’s been a few weeks since the biggest summer story in college hockey reached a conclusion and that story is the end of Mel Pearson’s tenure as coach of the Michigan Wolverines. We’ve likely learned as much about this as we are going to see at this point, and, for the Old Dog at least, it’s appropriate to look back at this tale. I think it’s also time to offer some observations and—as always—for the Old Dog to toss out some opinions about this episode.
The Basic Story
By now, anyone who follows college hockey knows the narrative. Pearson was accused of fostering a “toxic” culture in Ann Arbor. That included treating women associated with the program with disdain. There were also attempts to disgrace or otherwise discredit players who ran afoul of Pearson, and all of this was compounded by a pattern of deceit and lying.
Pearson encouraged players to lie about COVID exposure prior to an NCAA tournament game, followed by covertly sending players home to support these falsehoods. He tried to avoid a contractual obligation to play in the storied Great Lakes Invitational tournament, falsely claiming U-M medical staff decreed player safety would be compromised—when in fact he didn’t want to risk a loss while his best players would miss the tourney to play in the World Junior Championship.
The Michigan administration engaged a well-respected law firm to investigate these claims and the firm compiled a scathing report concerning the allegations. The report did not find any illegal activity but found clear violations of University policies. The results were then held under wraps while Pearson’s contract expired—and the report included evidence of Pearson lying to the investigators.
And yet he was not terminated. U-M Athletic Director Warde Manuel then apparently undertook a behind-the-scenes effort to retain Pearson, while the University President and the Board or Regents were firm in believing that Pearson had to go. Eventually, almost 100 days after his contract expired, and long after the report was delivered to the U-M administration, he was “no longer the coach at Michigan” and the smokescreen machine in Ann Arbor wouldn’t even acknowledge that this was a firing, or even use the word “termination.”
All this was going on after he built Michigan into a recruiting powerhouse, with some of the best talent ever assembled on any college team. In his five years at Michigan, Pearson’s team went 99-65-14, won a Big Ten tournament championship, and made the NCAA tournament three times and the Frozen Four twice—but, of course the 2021 team was removed from the tournament due to COVID infections.
The Rest of Pearson’s Career
By almost any measure, Pearson was a very successful player and coach. He was the Huskies’ leader when Them Dogs went to the NCAA tournament and lost in the Frozen Four to Minnesota during his senior season in 1981. While he was playing in Houghton, Tech won four straight GLI titles. After his graduation and the premature death of John MacInnes in 1983, Tech would fall from the upper echelon of college hockey—and would not begin to climb back until Pearson was hired as the Huskies’ head coach for the 2011-2012 season.
After graduation from MTU, Pearson served as an assistant at Tech before being hired as an assistant to Red Berenson at Michigan in 1988. He then had a long stint as Berenson’s right-hand man and was promoted to associate head coach in 1999. He remained in that role until he took over the Huskies in 2011. During his time as an assistant/associate at Michigan, the Wolverines made the NCAA tournament every year from 1991 until his departure in 2011. They also advanced to the Frozen Four eleven times and won it all twice in 1996 and 1998.
Before returning to Michigan as head coach when Berenson retired in 2017, as Tech fans know, Pearson spent six seasons leading the Huskies, and, after his recruiting magic gained full force, led Tech back to the NCAA tournament twice (in 2015 and 2017).
Overall, several dozen players that he recruited and coached have played in the NHL and countless more have played professional hockey somewhere else.
That’s a helluva resume by almost any standard.
My Personal Disclaimers
Before I get to my opinions, I have to make a couple of disclaimers. As it says at the bottom of every Old Dog in Texas column, I’m a graduate of both Michigan Tech and the University of Michigan—and I’m proud of both schools. Unlike a wide swath of Husky Nation, I don’t hate the Wolverines; in fact, I root for them whenever they aren’t playing against MTU.
In addition, I know what a first-rate institution U-M is, and that its reputation for academic excellence is well-deserved. I also believe that Michigan has always held itself to a high ethical standard in the midst of a collegiate athletic environment that is frequently tainted by dishonesty, major NCAA infractions, fraud and illegalities.
At the same time, I know that Michigan has strayed from that path several times in the last few decades, first with the Fab Five scandal, then with the shame of Robert Anderson’s numerous sexual assaults on student-athletes, and finally with the removal of the past University president from office for an illicit affair with a subordinate.
Nor do I hold any ill-will to Pearson for his departure from Tech to take the job that Red Berenson held for an incredible 33 years. I think he was deceitful and less than professional in the way he managed his departure from MTU, but in the world of big-time college athletics, what he did was a minor sin in my eyes.
Does Ever-Greater Success Lead to Hubris?
Does excessive pride always lead to tragedy? The ancient Greek society that much of western culture derives from thought so, and we know this today as hubris.
However, the answer is not necessarily. This path, from achieving immense success to thinking that you are bigger than the pond you swim in, does happen, and in the age of social media we certainly see it more often than we used to. It’s also tied to another idea, schadenfreude. Schadenfreude literally means, “damage joy,” or the pleasure one derives from seeing another suffer misfortune.
Both of these are in play in this melodrama. It seems inarguable that Pearson believed that he could get away with whatever he thought would lead to championships, and that he could shape the discussion to evade any responsibility for acts that happened outside of the spotlight. And it also seems that a good portion of Husky Nation is wallowing in their smug satisfaction that Pearson finally got his comeuppance.
I don’t think either of these ideas is worthy of someone who aspires to an honorable life.
When I was at the recent Tech alumni reunion game, I asked Darcy Way what he thought about Pearson’s fall. Way, who was Pearson’s teammate for three years at Tech, had one word: disappointing. Later that evening, I posed the same question to Joe Shawhan. Shawhan, ever more savvy with the media these days, simply said “I am grateful to Mel for the opportunity he gave me here at Tech.”
For the Old Dog, it’s a bit of a mystery how someone who played for John MacInnes and then was so close to Red Berenson would fall victim to what we’ve seen from Pearson. Both MacInnes and Berenson exhibited remarkable moral character and always endorsed the idea that “the college game” was more important than their own team’s success, and Pearson strayed from both of these principles.
The Path to the Dark Side
In a very long business career as an owner and entrepreneur, I learned important lessons that bear on Pearson’s demise. No one—at least no one I’ve ever known of—wakes up one morning and says, “I’m going to lie, cheat, steal, whatever it takes to get ahead.”
Instead, the road to deceptive and less than ethical behavior is a twisting, gradual descent. Small, insignificant acts that are ethically ambiguous creep in during a lengthy career. As you move along, you also find that the difference between clearly principled conduct and a modest lie or two or three isn’t always distinct. It becomes easier each time to convince yourself that the facts are something different than you first believed, or that the ends justify the means. And you also learn that never entering the gray zone of ethics makes your success far less likely or even impossible.
In particular, the more responsibility you have, the fuzzier and less distinct these lines become, and because you are dealing with complex situations where facts are rarely clear, the line between right and wrong is harder to recognize and the pressure to succeed becomes almost unbearably intense.
If you are perceptive, you’ll recognize that the difference between a few modest distortions and illegal, even felonious behavior is also harder to perceive. Drifting away from the straight and narrow to behavior that will look terrible on social media or in court (because it is terrible) isn’t a jump—it’s just a step or two down a very shallow ramp. The more money that’s involved, the muddier and more slippery that ramp becomes, and college sports today, even men’s hockey, involves non-trivial money.
I have a strong feeling this is what happened to Pearson. There are rumors and whispers that he wasn’t always honest during his recruiting at Michigan, even back in the 1990’s. And there have been rumblings of problems in the locker room during his recent turn at the helm of the Husky program. (THG is working to tell that story in more detail and we hope to present it soon.)
Once he found that these tactics were effective, and his desire to ascend to the very top of his profession grew, I believe his ability to deceive himself metastasized, and that he began to feel that what was he was doing was part of the gig, part of the “game” you have to play to get to the top of college athletics in this hyper-competitive era. He then made the leap to believe he could lie his way through any exposure—or worse, his self-deception became so great that he no longer knew when he was way, way over the line.
For the Old Dog, this is not something I enjoyed watching unfold. That’s true because we can never forget that Pearson is a “Tech man,” a business administration graduate, who brought great honor to the Huskies and MTU both as a player and as a coach. He’s one of ours, and I was proud to point that out when his Wolverine teams were successful.
I think Darcy Way said it best: disappointing.