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Tony Granato says goodbye to a Wisconsin program still trying to recapture the magic of the '80s

Originally from suburban Chicago, Tony Granato played for the Badgers at a time when sellouts were automatic and they were the hottest commodity in Wisconsin. On Monday, he was fired as head coach.

Wisconsin Men's Hockey
Former Wisconsin Badgers head coach Tony Granato behind the bench for a Oct. 26, 2019 game versus Clarkson at the Kohl Center in Madison, Wis.
Greg Anderson / Wisconsin Athletics

MADISON, Wis. — In an NHL career that spanned 800-plus games, Tony Granato took more than 250 shots that ended up in the back of the net. But like any person who shoots pucks for a living, he had dozens more attempts that missed the net or worse, hit the goalpost. Those are the moments which offer the painful reminder that the difference between winning and losing in this crazy game is sometimes a matter of a tenth of an inch or less.

When Granato had a brief, impromptu meeting with a group of media members on Monday, just hours after learning that he and his staff would not be returning to coach the University of Wisconsin next season, those microscopic differences between a win and loss were on his mind.

The Badgers bowed out of the Big Ten playoffs after a pair of losses at Michigan last weekend, which was expected with the Wolverines ranked in the top five nationally and Wisconsin in the conference cellar. But Bucky didn’t go down without a fight, taking Michigan to overtime on Friday and taking a 4-4 tie into the Saturday game’s final minutes before seeing a disappointing season come to an end.

On Monday, Granato thought back to six games versus the Wolverines this season. Wisconsin won one of them. In four of the six games, Wisconsin was either tied or within a goal in the final minutes of the game.

“I think the part that makes me sad is we had a really good opportunity that nobody, nobody believed we could be successful,” Granato said, acknowledging the losses came despite what he considered all-in evenings from his team. “It wasn't for the lack of effort from our kids. They left it on the ice and that's something that they can be proud of and that I will always remember them by.”


The now-former coach said it was no surprise to anyone – after Wisconsin followed up a 2021 Big Ten title with sixth- and seventh-place finishes in the seven-team conference – that he was summoned to meet with the school’s athletic director less than 48 hours after the current season ended. The hard part, he said, was breaking the news to players that Granato and his staff recruited to come to Madison and wear the program’s iconic fire engine red.

“That's the hardest part, you know, having that conversation, because they're young kids,” Granato said, adding that they were mostly able to block out the outside noise this season, despite speculation that Granato and his staff needed to win to stay on the job. And he vowed to keep in touch with the extensive and active network of Wisconsin hockey alumni, whether former players are looking for advice from him, or vice versa.

“You want to be there for them in the future, if they ever need anything down the road,” Granato said. “Or (if) I do. I might need to call them and say ‘I'm having a little bit of a problem here. I need your advice.’”

The Granatos, who hail from the Chicago suburb of Downers Grove, Ill., can rightfully be considered the first family of American hockey. Tony and his younger brothers Don and Rob all played for Wisconsin. Sister Cammi was the nation’s first women’s hockey star. Today Don coaches the Buffalo Sabres and Tony is a former Colorado Avalanche head coach. The two younger Granato boys skated for Burnsville High School’s 1986 Minnesota state title team.

NHL: Winter Classic-Buffalo Sabres vs New York Rangers
Team USA hockey Olympic head coach Tony Granato speaks at a press conference during the second period in the 2018 Winter Classic hockey game Jan. 1, 2018 between the New York Rangers and the Buffalo Sabres at Citi Field in Queens, N.Y.
Danny Wild / USA TODAY Sports

When Tony was picked to take over his alma mater in 2016, it was called a “dream” hire by former Badgers football coach and athletic director Barry Alvarez. The positive results were immediate. Wisconsin made it all the way to the Big Ten tournament title game in 2017, falling to Penn State in two overtimes.

In 2018 Granato took a few weeks off from the Badgers to coach Team USA at the Winter Olympics. In 2020 he was elected to the US Hockey Hall of Fame. In 2021 his Badgers won the conference and captured the school’s second Hobey Baker Award winner. And 23 months later, Granato and assistant coach Mark Osiecki were dismissed. The final record will show that Wisconsin was above .500 in just two of Granato’s seven seasons at the helm, with one NCAA tournament appearance (they fell to Bemidji State in the 2021 first round).

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Granato played for the Badgers at a time when they always, always sold out the 8,500 or more seats at Dane County Coliseum – the highest-capacity rink in college hockey at the time. Their traveling fan base was the largest and most enthusiastic in the game, and Wisconsin coach Jeff Sauer would hold court with the media, scouts and friends at a table covered in pizzas and Bud Light bottles after most road games. As an astute college hockey observer once said, “When the Badgers visited, it was like the circus was in town, and the ringleader was buying.”

The Badgers were winners under Bob Johnson and then Sauer, and in the 1970s and ‘80s they filled a void in the state of Wisconsin. In that era the Badger football and basketball teams were generally lousy. The Packers, Bucks and Brewers (with the exception of a one-season blip in 1982) were mediocre at best. In Badger hockey, you had the only consistently successful and interesting name-brand team in America’s Dairyland, and fans hungry to support a winner turned out in droves to see them play.


Tony Granato (21) was the Wisconsin Badgers' captain in the 1986-87 season, when their home games at Dane County Coliseum in Madison, Wis., were routinely sold out.
Contributed / Wisconsin Athletics

Under Sauer’s successor, Mike Eaves, the Badgers won the 2006 NCAA title and made the championship game in 2010, bringing the school its first Hobey in Blake Geoffrion. But a perception that Eaves’ teams played uninteresting hockey, a run of losing seasons and dwindling crowds inside the cavernous Kohl Center in the mid-2010s prompted a change. Enter Tony Granato , who walks away seven years later acknowledging that athletic director Chris McIntosh did what he probably had to do.

“I wasn't surprised when I walked in there,” Granato said of his exit interview with McIntosh, a former Badgers offensive tackle who played a role in a pair of Rose Bowl victories. “He's got a tough job and he's got to make decisions which he thinks are right for the program moving forward. And I give him credit for having enough guts to do it.”

The next Wisconsin coach will take over a big name program with excellent facilities, playing in a high-profile conference where most games are on TV. They will get to recruit players to a highly-regarded school in a community that is often judged to be America’s top-rated college town. The fact that Granato and his staff failed to consistently produce a winner with those advantages is a puzzle the new coach will need to solve.

As for Granato, he admitted that even though the news was expected, it stung. But at age 58, he expects to spend his remaining years in the working world doing something that involves hockey.

“I love coaching. I love being part of teams,” he said. “This won't slow me down or lose the passion, but I have to be around hockey teams and players in sports. So what I will do after this next, I don't know. But I will always want to be part of a team.”

Jess Myers covers college hockey, as well as outdoors, general sports and travel, for The Rink Live and the Forum Communications family of publications. He came to FCC in 2018 after three decades of covering sports as a freelancer for a variety of publications, while working full time in politics and media relations. A native of Warroad, Minn. (the real Hockeytown USA), Myers has a degree in journalism/communications from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He lives in the Twin Cities. Contact Jess via email at jrmyers@forumcomm.com, or find him on Twitter via @JessRMyers. English speaker.
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