Myers: Badgers hire Mike Hastings, and Gophers' Bob Motzko finds another friend working for the enemy
In bringing Minnesota State Mankato coach Mike Hastings to Wisconsin as the new boss, the Badgers might be trying to replicate the formula Minnesota used so successfully five years ago.
MANKATO, Minn. – When you’re a fan of the Minnesota Gophers, just the sight of that cardinal shade of red is supposed to raise your blood pressure a touch. And the sound of a brass band belting out “On Wisconsin,” in the most extreme cases, will make your ears bleed.
When your job is to coach the Minnesota Gophers, and battle head-to-head with the hated Badgers for the best talent available among these unfriendly neighbors, the intensity and animosity is supposed to ratchet up that much more. Kind and honorable men like Jeff Sauer and Doug Woog were just barely cordial face-to-face sometimes during their days behind the benches for Wisconsin and Minnesota, respectively.
With all of that history of bad blood between the Border Battle combatants, some may have been surprised at a sympathetic note earlier this month. Tony Granato was fired after seven seasons as the Badgers coach, and when current Gophers coach Bob Motzko commented on the transaction, there was a genuine touch of sadness in his voice.
“It’s terrible. In the five years I’ve been here, I’ve become really good friends with Tony,” Motzko said. “I know the Gophers and Wisconsin aren’t supposed to like each other … but Tony is a true gentleman and really is a good friend of mine, so it is hard to see that happen. It’s the ugly part of our business.”
In the era of the transfer portal , where there is a never-before-seen marketplace of available talent each March and April, and college rosters can be radically re-made in a matter of weeks, the pressure was on Wisconsin to get a new coach in place sooner rather than later. The Badgers made their move on Thursday, grabbing the now-former Minnesota State Mankato head man Mike Hastings to make the move from a state school in Minnesota to a higher-profile Big Ten school, and to all of the attention that comes with it.
Motzko, who came from a great gig at St. Cloud State and took over the Gophers job five years ago this week, admitted there are plenty of similarities. Hastings is 57, as was Motzko five years ago when he made the move.
Both men cut their college hockey teeth at St. Cloud State, where they were teammates in the 1980s when the Huskies were still a Division III program. Both men are from small towns in Minnesota – Motzko from Austin and Hastings from Crookston. Both have coaching roots in the USHL. After meeting head-to-head in the NCAA playoffs the last two seasons, with the Mavericks prevailing in a 2021 regional finale and in the 2022 Frozen Four semifinals, they will now occupy the opposing benches when the Badgers come to Minneapolis and when the Gophers go to Madison.
“I’m really happy for Mike. We go back to college together and he’s an outstanding person,” Motzko said on Thursday evening. “Wisconsin just got a world-class coach.”
Where will Wisconsin finish in the Big Ten in Mike Hastings' first season?— The Rink Live (@TheRinkLive) March 30, 2023
Five years ago, while the Huskies were contending for the NCHC title and the NCAA playoffs on an every-year basis, some questioned why Motzko would give that up and relocate to a Minnesota program that seemed stuck in neutral. Crowds were dwindling at 3M Arena at Mariucci and Gopher hockey seemed to be falling down the fan interest pecking order among teams in the Twin Cities.
Others joked that Motzko had “300,000 reasons” to make the move, noting that his salary doubled when he left St. Cloud State, where the athletic department has had well-documented fiscal struggles, to Minnesota, where a $7 billion influx of television contract money is on the way.
In his introductory press conference inside the Gophers 50,000-seat football stadium on a March day in 2018, Motzko offered a more practical explanation for the move, saying that a job like running the Gophers program was a once-in-a-career opportunity, and he needed to take his “kick at the can” when it came his way.
The results so far have been everything Gopher fans could have dreamed up. Three consecutive Big Ten banners. Two straight trips to the Frozen Four. Three Hobey hat trick finalists in the past two years. Sold out crowds returning to Minneapolis, and an excellent shot at the program’s sixth NCAA title (which would match them with the Badgers) if two more wins can be acquired in Florida next week.
In 11 years with the Mavericks, Hastings’ journey is similar to that of Motzko during his decade-plus as the Huskies boss. They both took their teams from also-rans in Minnesota to the top of their conferences, to the NCAA playoffs, to the Frozen Four, and each brought an eventual Hobey Baker Award winner to campus.
So now, five years after Motzko made the move, Hastings gets his shot with a Badgers program that was once the toast of the state, but now plays home games in a cavernous, mostly empty rink on many nights. With another friend heading to the bench of his program’s most heated rival, Motzko admits that the resumes and the challenges seemingly run parallel to one another.
“I think it’s very similar,” the Gophers’ coach admitted. “Mike’s been through the recruiting wars and been through building a program.”
Asked what guidance he would offer from experience, five years after accepting a similar challenge to the one Hastings faces now, Motzko offered a chuckle instead.
“I don’t need to give him any advice,” he said. “Mike will be just fine.”
Sounds like the next chapter in a beautiful friendship.