Tracking the Coaching Turnover

by Alexander Agadjanian | 4/10/16 6:51pm

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When athletic director Harry Sheehy announced on the morning of March 21 that men’s basketball head coach Paul Cormier would not return for the 2016 season, the news came as somewhat of a surprise. Despite building consistent improvement up until last season and fielding two consecutive freshman classes that contained an Ivy League Rookie of the Year, Cormier now leaves a program to which he devoted 13 total years of his coaching career. Beyond Cormier’s inability to bring the team to a conference win, the decision follows a broader development within Dartmouth athletics — a recent surge, for one reason or another, in turnover among the Big Green head coaching ranks.

In October, it was announced that Jim Wilson would retire as head coach of the men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams at the end of the season. In February, volleyball coach Erin Lindsey left the position, and a few weeks later women’s ice hockey coach Mark Hudak announced his retirement. The following month brought even more change: Sheehy decided to move in another direction with the basketball program and then just two days later came the announcement that Ruff Patterson — head coach of the men’s Nordic ski team — was resigning.

At the same time, this should hardly imply chaos within Dartmouth sports. Several programs have enjoyed coaching stability, and even among those that have not, success has remained within those teams’ reach. Moreover, teams continue to thrive and make strides, breaking through historical cold streaks to arrive at newfound prosperity — the football team’s first Ivy League title in 19 years under the trusted tutelage of Buddy Teevens ’79 being the prime example.

Instead, the current juncture represents more of a crossroads, with the usual combination of promise and uncertainty associated with head coaching vacancies, only multiplied by the unusual number. The athletic department is in a state of flux, but with a sense of direction. The moment attracts greater weight, and accordingly, it’s worth parsing through where each individual program stands and where it goes from here.

The first indication of coaching turnover came before a coach’s season even started. Nearly a month before the first meet of the 2015-2016 campaign, Wilson announced his retirement in October. This brings his time to an end as a mainstay in Dartmouth athletics while coaching swimming and diving — 10 years for the women’s side and 23 years for the men’s.

“I loved Jim as a coach,” said Christine Kerr ’14, who captained the team her senior year. “His method of coaching was very old school. He wasn’t the kind of guy who runs up and down the deck yelling and screaming at you.”

Kerr added that Wilson’s method of coaching works best for swimmers who are very self-motivated. While his style of coaching was very beneficial for her, she acknowledged that it did not work for everyone — especially for some swimmers who need a coach yelling in their face.

“But I loved Jim,” Kerr said. “He was one of the best coaches I ever had, and I’m one of the lucky ones that was able to swim personal-best times every year.”

Both the men’s and women’s teams experienced some of their greater recent success in the 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 seasons, during which both finished in the top five in the Ivy League Championships.

Yet the trajectory since then has fallen decidedly downward under Wilson’s reign. When averaging the Ivy finishes among both men’s and women’s sides, the last few years reveal a consistent decline in conference performance. As one explanation for this trend, Kerr points to the continual difficulty with recruiting, and simply not matching the number of recruits from Ivy rivals.

“[The struggles at the end] were mostly due to not being able to get the recruits that the other teams in the Ivy League were getting,” she said. “Dartmouth would benefit from getting a big freshman recruiting class, because the upperclassmen feed off the energy of the freshmen. So when you have a lot of freshmen that are hyped, it permeates through the upperclassmen.”

When Kerr, as well as swimmer Charlotte Kamai ’16, discuss the process of finding a new coach, one key common theme arises: coaching adaptability and receptivity to new training methods. Traditional styles of coaching rely on swimming as many yards as possible. Influenced by new research, the style of coaching has changed to focus on less yardage with higher intensity, which has been found to be more effective.

“We are looking for coaches who do a lot of research and are constantly updating their techniques,” Kamai said. “Creativity and ingenuity are two keys for a successful coach. You don’t want to be doing that same thing year after year. We’re definitely looking for coaches that aren’t stuck in their ways but are open to doing what’s best and are really adaptable.”

A new coach could bring a “rebirth” to the team, Kerr said, bringing a change that could steer the program considerably in the right direction if Wilson’s replacement comes with extensive knowledge on new training methods.

With all of the new coaching transitions, Sheehy made the decision to involve the student-athletes themselves with the search processes, calling the players on these teams very thoughtful about who they want to coach them. Sheehy said it would be hard to imagine a process where he just handed a new coach to a team without its input.

“The process has been narrowed down to a few candidates, they’re coming to campus to do interviews and one part of the interview process is talking to a group of swimmers,” Kamai explained. “It’s really exciting [to be part of the process]. It’s cool to be able to talk to these really accomplished coaches and explain to them why we like Dartmouth swimming and why they should come here.”

Middle blocker and outgoing senior Kaira Lujan ’16 from the volleyball team mentioned the same type of experience, saying that she has met with a range of qualified head coaches and assistants from large and smaller programs.

In her and her team’s case, the task calls for replacing Lindsey. If successfully done, a new coach will build on the winning ways with which she left the program after her senior season.

“She was really invested in our development, both as athletes and as students,” Lujan said about Lindsey. “She was very successful at getting the results she wanted. Her technical skill and background prepared us really for matches.”

Out of all of the teams with coaching changes in the last academic year, volleyball was the only one to steadily improve heading into its realignment. After hitting a low over the last six years with a 2-22 record in 2012, the team has enjoyed substantial jumps in Ivy League success in two of the last three years.

That improvement culminated in Lindsey’s best season during her Dartmouth tenure in 2015, when the Ivy League named her Co-Coach of the Year — the first time a Dartmouth coach attained the honor in program history. Most importantly, Dartmouth contended for the conference title for the first time, falling just short of the Ivy League crown after a five-set defeat by Yale University.

While joining the volleyball staff at the University of Illinois represented a clear movement up in the ranks for Lindsey, Sheehy said the decision was influenced by family considerations.

“She actually would have probably preferred to stay here,” Sheehy said. “[The volleyball team] was two points away from the Ivy championship this year, and she brings almost everybody back. And Illinois is one of the best volleyball programs in the country, so it was an opportunity for her to go to the highest level.”

Lujan offers a very promising future outlook for her former coach’s career, even as Lindsey takes on a position below the head coaching one and enters a more competitive volleyball environment.

“I definitely don’t think she’s even neared her peak as a coach,” Lujan said.

While the key concern heading into the next season is staying on the same track of progress Lindsey paved beforehand, Lujan sees the program Lindsey left at Dartmouth as well-equipped to handle the departure and continue to grow.

“The assistant coaches have been running the show, and I think they’ve kept us in a very good position,” she said. “It was slightly disruptive to hear the news, but we have a very close team and I think that we’re all committed to the end goal of winning an Ivy championship. While it’s a bump in the road, we’ve really handled it quite well.”

In the same month as Lindsey’s departure, Hudak announced not only his retirement from the post as women’s ice hockey coach after 18 years with the program but also likely his permanent exit from the sport. Both aspects of this decision certainly came as a surprise to those close to the team, including captain Laura Stacey ’16.

“I was definitely was very shocked by [his retirement], I wasn’t expecting it at all,” the soon departing senior said. “What we were told is that he doesn’t intend on coaching hockey anymore and that he wants to take a break, and move away and pursue other aspirations, whether that’s hobbies or career paths. I didn’t expect him to move on from hockey, but I definitely support him in what he’s going to move toward next.”

In his 13 years as head coach of the team, Hudak guided the Big Green to two Ivy League titles and amassed the most total wins as a coach in program history. At the same time, the trajectory of the team over the last few years was very distinctive. Dartmouth has plunged from its heights five years ago, performing below program average within the Ivy League in the last three.

Nevertheless, Stacey attests that Hudak leaves a largely positive and impactful mark on the program.

“I think he’s left a really big legacy and footprint on a lot of us here, so he’s definitely going to be missed,” she noted. “Although we weren’t the most successful these last four years, I think he’s always instilled a culture of excellence and I think that’s something the program and Dartmouth generally owes a lot to him. He’s done an amazing job of keeping that culture alive.”

Most recently, Patterson resigned as the head coach of the men’s Nordic ski team, a post he occupied for decades. His 27 years at the helm ties him with three other coaches as the longest tenured coach during the 2015-2016 academic year. With 14 skiers earning 31 All-America honors during his time at Dartmouth, Patterson also received the Eastern Intercollegiate Men’s Nordic Coach of the Year award four different times.

“Ruff’s a great, unique individual,” Sheehy said about the former coach. “With his retirement, there’ll be a big gap to fill there.”

Lindsey’s success is helping her trade up in the sport’s ranks, but for four of the five other teams that consistently play Ivy League opponents, a clear pattern leads up to a coach’s departure. Men’s basketball, women’s ice hockey and both swimming and diving teams experienced downturns en route to seeing their coaches on the way out. For men’s basketball, it took just one year of decline.

But even the five latest coaching changes don’t speak to the swell of recent restructuring among coaching positions in Dartmouth athletics. Over the last four years, 15 coaching changes have taken place.

The length of coaching tenure at Dartmouth is fairly polarized — teams predominantly have either had a coaching change in the last few years, or have played under the same coach for decades. Seven coaches have been at Dartmouth for at least 24 years.

At the other end of the spectrum, a crowded young crop of coaches aims to break through into tenure security. In the last year, there were 32 coaching positions at the College. By the end of the 2015-2016 academic year, seven of these positions will only have been occupied by the current coach for one year or less, and 11 for two years or less.

Few coaches fall in the middle ground — those that have stayed at Dartmouth have done so for relative eternities, or on the other hand, have just started. Yet such a stark split in tenure of coaches was likely not as definite in years past.

Rather, this concentration of younger-tenured coaches represents a more recent phenomenon, and one intentionally ushered in by Sheehy as he has sought to significantly reshape the athletics program since his arrival in the fall of 2010.

“When I got the job [as athletic director] five years ago, it was clear to me we were going to have to make some staffing changes to have better programs,” he said. “Some of those changes we initiated, some of those changes were retirements. The way I look at it, every change is an opportunity for Dartmouth to get better. From a values standpoint, we’ve very much been able to hire to a new vision for the department.”

Balancing what’s best for the student-athletes and pursuit of success forms another essential aspect of managing all these coaching positions and hirings for Sheehy. All the while, Dartmouth’s athletic director sticks fast to a vision and a core of values that he feels will guide all the athletic programs to new levels of success.

“We want a great student-athlete experience, but we also want to win games,” Sheehy said. “[In] tying those two goals together sometimes, there can be some tension and friction, but I don’t think there has to be. Our vision is to be operating at a high level as a department and be values driven — development, resilience, ingenuity, valor and excellence. We want every decision we make to be driven by those five values.”

Speaking about the situation last Thursday, Sheehy said that most of the new hirings will be done in the next couple of weeks.

Next week, Agadjanian will provide in-depth coverage of the men’s basketball program’s dynamics after losing its head coach.