One of the more surprising aspects of yesterday's announcement that Kyle Okposo would be leaving the University of Minnesota was the incredible amount of backlash there was here towards Minnesota coach Don Lucia.
Lucia is certainly in a unique position. In some ways, he has the easiest job in college hockey; he gets his pick of the best players in the most hockey-crazed region of the country, his program has a huge fanbase, and their games are on TV every week. But other ways, it can be the worst job in the country; incredible pressure and scrutiny, dealing with players/parents/agents with big aspirations and even bigger egos.
So how does Lucia really measure up as a coach? Coincidentally, I did a bit of a study over the summer on a WCHA coach towards the other end of the spectrum. I measured the average finish of every WCHA team over the course of Minnesota State head coach Troy Jutting's tenure at MSU. Jutting started coaching in the 2000-2001 season, which lines up nicely with Lucia, who was in his second year at Minnesota. We'll throw out Lucia's first year, where Minnesota finished 6th, likely a continuation of the struggles at the end of the Doug Woog era.
Here were the results. No other program comes close to Minnesota in terms of average finish, and Minnesota is the only program to finish in the top 4 every year.
But as I mentioned earlier, Minnesota has a lot of built-in advantages that no other team has. They probably should be finishing near the top of the conference every single year. So perhaps it's better to compare Lucia to his predecessor Doug Woog. For the sake of comparison, we'll throw out the last two year's of Woog's reign when the program started to suffer, and Lucia's first rebuilding year.
Woog: 2nd, 2nd, 1st, 1st, 2nd, 2nd, 1st, T-2nd, 2nd, 4th, 2nd, T-1st
Lucia: 3rd, 3rd, T-2nd, T-4th, T-3rd, 1st, 1st
Woog seems to have a slight advantage in terms of conference finishes, but also keep in mind that he was coaching in a different era when the WCHA was not as strong, or as deep.
Perhaps a better comparison would be to look at how Minnesota has done nationally. Here's a look at Minnesota's seed in the NCAA tournament under each coaches tenure. (Note: The '86 and '87 tournaments had 8 teams seeded 1-4 in each region, 88-02 had 12 teams, seeded 1-6 in each region, and 03-present was 16 teams seeded 1-4 in each region). Again, we'll ignore that three-year period at the end of Woog's tenure/start of Lucia's where Minnesota didn't qualify for the tournament.
Woog: 4th, 4th, 1st, 2nd, 4th, 4th, 2nd, 5th, 2nd, 3rd, 3rd, 4th
Lucia: 5th, 2nd, 1st, 1st, 1st, 1st, 1st
You could make the argument that Woog's teams that were seeded second would have been one seeds under the current format, but Lucia would still have more number one seeds, in less time. It's impossible to argue with Lucia's success at the national level.
The Gophers haven't had as much success in the NCAA tournament in recent years, but a single-game elimination format isn't a great judge of a team, or coach's capabilities. Ironically, it was the two year's Lucia's teams weren't seeded first that they won an NCAA title.
Of course, as it stands right now, Minnesota is on the bubble of the NCAA tournament, and there is a very real possibility that they could miss the NCAA tournament this year. If that did happen, I think some questions may need to be asked, but one off year isn't enough to turn the heat up on Lucia that much, especially when the Gophers are trying to transform the make-up of their team with more four-year players. Based on past performance though, I have a hard time accepting some of the criticism directed towards Lucia.