November 25, 2022

Michigan: More cleaning to do : College Hockey News

August 14, 2022
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What we still don’t know speaks volumes

by Adam Wodon/Editor-in-Chief (@CHN_AdamWodon)

The 97 day coaching watch in Michigan finally ended while I was on vacation for a few weeks so outside of a few pithy comments on Twitter I didn’t get a chance to say much .

But it was good, because it gave me the opportunity to reflect on the big picture and come to the conclusion that the saga is not – or at least should not be – over and that it lasted well over 97 days.

I don’t believe Michigan will have fully addressed culture in its athletic department until it answers many lingering questions publicly.

Why didn’t sporting director Warde Manuel do anything about head coach Mel Pearson as early as May 2021? What has Manuel been waiting for all summer? What was Manuel’s endgame like?

We reported, twice, that Manuel asked Pearson to quit at some point. I’m still very sure that happened. But then there are reports that he wanted to re-sign Pearson over the summer, and even after the investigation results were released. How is all this mocking? No one can understand it.

These are just some of the questions.

And while not part of this report at all, the problem with the Great Lakes Invitational remains a thorn in the side for many in the college hockey world.

When the GLI debacle happened (cancelling a game when there were enough players to play, and blaming it on health and safety protocols, then claiming that team doctors were the ones who forced to do it, when it wasn’t true), I went on Mel pretty hard. Nothing made sense about how it was handled, and the subsequent revelation of internal emails confirmed my suspicions. There was a contingent of Michigan fans who thought we were making a mountain out of a molehill. But they didn’t know — and it’s not their fault — that I knew more than I could write at the time.

Most of us knew there was something fishy with Michigan leaving the 2021 NCAA Tournament, something that went beyond just mistaken close contact with COVID-positive people.

We’ve also known for a while that Strauss Mann left Michigan after his freshman year for much more complicated reasons than was public knowledge. And we knew that Steve Shields was the one who called out a lot of wrongdoing, and that he was the “disgruntled employee” that Pearson was referring to.

We also knew that Lora Durkee left Michigan last summer because she was tired of Dir. hockey operations Rick Bancroft, and how he treated her and the others. And even that Manuel confronted Pearson about it.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t dedicate enough time to research to confirm these things to the point where I felt comfortable putting them in an article. But it’s all there now.

That’s why the GLI stuff was part of a much more disturbing pattern than just lying to the media.

Just like with the main report itself, none of these things rise to the level of a crime. But that’s not how a university should want a top-notch sports program to run its business.

As we try to get out of this saga, I’m still left with the biggest problem of the whole case: why didn’t Manuel take action against Pearson in June 2021?

I have said this since the time I saw the WilmerHale Inquiry allegations in January; but – purely from a hockey perspective – lying on COVID contact tracing forms is the worst offence.

Please re-read this carefully so I don’t get overwhelmed with idiots like I was on Twitter: I’m NOT saying the harassment and bullying of female employees and the treatment of Straus Mann etc. isn’t terrible . From a human perspective, these are the worst things in the report, hands down.

But Manuel didn’t need anything from the WilmerHale investigation to act. As Katie Strang pointed out in The Athletic, those responses to the May 2021 survey were damning in themselves. You had players talking about a toxic culture and Mann’s treatment. And that’s before I get into the allegation that Pearson used an ethnic slur.

But more importantly, several players described the lie to the NCAA.

At best, at that time, I thought Pearson made a reckless, stupid decision to take players to the NCAAs who were roommates of another player who tested positive. Lo and behold, these roommates arrived in Fargo and started having symptoms. Pearson then attempted to drive those players out of town in the middle of the night and tell the players to lie about contact tracing, according to the investigation and Strang’s report.

That’s it. That’s all Warde Manuel needed. But there were no suspensions, reprimands or dismissals.

But wait… Manuel didn’t renew Mel’s contract either. Pearson was in his final year as a lame duck. That’s unusual for a DI head coach. The season started before the WilmerHale investigation began. So Manuel clearly knew SOMETHING was going on.

Then the 2022 season came to an end and all the seniors went to Athletic Department staff to raise their concerns about the program again. Then we go through the whole WilmerHale investigation, and Mel is accused of lying some more, and all sorts of others are exposed.

But again, Manuel did nothing. In both cases.

That’s why none of Manuel’s actions really make sense. We have a missing link in our collective knowledge. No one has been able to figure it out, but it’s something.

It’s hard to play armchair psychiatrist and understand why Pearson did a lot of these things. As our friend Jess Myers pointed out in a recent column, Mel has always been good for a lot of us, good conversations, insightful stuff. It’s so hard to reconcile that with all the shenanigans behind the scenes. But the evidence is there. I can’t deny it. Who knows what motivated him. I don’t believe people are all bad or all good, and I don’t think Mel should be portrayed as an evil monster.

But this stuff happened, for some reason. And that’s not OK. The lie, the intimidation of Straus Mann. It’s easy to believe, because Pearson spent most of the summer badmouthing Shields and Brian Wiseman to anyone who would listen. It was a crude attempt at self-preservation.

Why did it last so long?

It’s high time for Michigan to come clean. But they dodged the GLI issue, they dodged the investigation and dodged all the questions I raise here.

Then I won’t hold my breath.

If Manuel can’t answer these questions, then he should go too.

For more, please listen to our latest podcast, which includes an interview with author and Michigan alumnus John Bacon and a conversation about hiring new coach Brandon Naurato.