DECC Athletic Hall of Fame: Sertich's change of heart led to UMD's run to national prominence
When Mike Sertich walked into the Minnesota Duluth athletic department offices on the morning of May 25, 1982, it wasn't to accept the job as head coach of the Bulldogs men's hockey team.
Sertich, who had resigned his post as Gus Hendrickson's assistant in February, was there to turn down the head coaching position. That's what he said he told his wife, Audie, when he left his home that morning for UMD, and that's what he told Diana Klosowski — athletic director Ralph Romano's executive secretary — when he arrived on campus.
"She asked me what I was going to do. I told her that I was not going to take the job," Sertich said, recalling the day. "She pulled me in the office and said, 'Why not?' I said I didn't feel very comfortable doing it. ... We talked about it, and I didn't have a job. She said something about the fact that it was time for me to try to be a coach.
"My wife was shocked I took the job. That was that. I think she was a little bit overwhelmed, too."
Initially just a one-year appointment, Sertich would go on to coach the Bulldogs to three WCHA regular-season titles, two league postseason championships, four NCAA tournament berths, two Frozen Fours and an appearance in the NCAA championship game in 1984 during his 18 seasons as head coach.
The Virginia native, who also played four years at UMD from 1965-69, is the winningest coach in the school's men's hockey history (350-328-44). He's been named WCHA Coach of the Year four times, was the 1984 Spencer Penrose Award winner as Division I coach of the year and was inducted into the UMD Athletic Hall of Fame in 2005.
On Wednesday, Sertich will be bestowed another honor when he and five others are inducted into the DECC Athletic Hall of Fame.
"I was actually quite surprised myself. It was a little overwhelming. It was kind of unexpected," Sertich said of the honor. He was the keynote speaker at the 2015 event. "I think when you start a career in sports, you never think you're going to get anything like that. It's a blessing."
Sertich, speaking from his home in Eveleth, said that giving back to hockey was impressed upon him early.
But on the morning of May 25, 1982, Sertich was not looking to continue his hockey career. He was planning to leave the sport behind.
"Initially, I had resigned my position as an assistant coach and was kind of looking around for another job, maybe even outside of hockey," Sertich said. "I wasn't going to do it (be UMD's head coach). I was not going to because Gus Hendrickson was a friend of mine. I worked for him for 13 years, and I always felt I didn't want someone would think I was behind the situation so I didn't want to do it."
Sertich's first six years coaching with Hendrickson were at Grand Rapids High School where the pair won the 1975 state championship. When Hendrickson became Bulldogs coach later that year, Sertich decided to join his mentor instead of taking the head coaching job at Grand Rapids.
Sertich said he owes a lot to not just Gus, but the entire Hendrickson family. Gus' oldest brother, Dean, was a math professor at UMD and was the one who recommended Sertich as an assistant coach.
Sertich said he still talks weekly with David Hendrickson. Hockey and the game today is often the topic of conversation, Sertich said.
"They were a pivotal part of my life," Sertich said. "I spent 13 years with Gus and he was with me during some of my darkest times personally and helped me along and taught me the game. The other brother, David, was kind of a mentor to me as far as learning the game even deeper. They impacted my career much more than people realize. I'm very, very indebted to the Hendrickson family for everything they did for me."
Both Gus and David had great insight into the game of hockey, Sertich said. They were innovative in what they did, how they taught it and how their teams played. Sertich said he learned so much from both of them, he "almost feels guilty sometimes."
Sertich's hiring as head coach and Gus Hendrickson's firing were announced on the same day, though Romano offered Sertich the job five days prior.
While he had nothing to do with Hendrickson's ousting, Sertich said there was a sentiment that he did and that concerned him at the time. He didn't want to hurt his friend.
"It was a hard thing for both families," Sertich said. "We had to overcome that and we did. We're maybe not as close as we once were, but still, I'll forever be thankful for what they did for me."
Right coach, right time
Sertich guided the Bulldogs to a 28-16-1 record and the school's first NCAA tournament berth in his first season in 1982-83.
It was an instant turnaround for a program that had finished under .500 in seven of the previous eight seasons.
"We got off to that good start and we really started believing. He made us believe and really pushed the right buttons," said Minnesota Wild goaltending coach Bob Mason, who as UMD's goalie was named WCHA Player of the Year in 1982-83.
"I remember him being in total charge, in total control of that team. From being an assistant coach where he was in and out recruiting and not being around all the time and maybe a smaller voice, he was the man (as head coach). He was in charge of that whole thing. He was running that and we were following him."
Sertich went into '82-83 thinking it would be his only season at UMD — when he was promoted the school planned to do a national search for a permanent replacement for Hendrickson — so he decided to experiment with fitness and skating programs that others in college hockey would soon mimic after Sertich's early success.
Discipline and commitment also were pushed to a level that didn't exist before, said former Bulldogs captain Tom Kurvers, who played from 1980-84. The days of coaches negotiating with players was over, he said.
"I remember as a senior trying to negotiate for my co-captain Bill Grillo, who was struggling with the two-mile run," said Kurvers, now the Tampa Bay Lightning's senior advisor to the general manager. "We had to run two miles around the old cinder track and we had to do it in under 12 minutes. If you wanted to get on the ice for practice, you had to do it in under 12 minutes or less.
"Billy Grillo had some trouble. I squeaked in and I made it. I remember going into Serts' office and trying to plead Billy's case, probably because he had me in an armbar and forced me to do it. And Serts just looked at me, he listened, and he kind of looked at me with that smirk, and he said, '(long pause), Are you done? He's going to have to run it tomorrow if he wants to practice.' "
UMD went a combined 65-21-5 the next two seasons, winning two WCHA regular-season titles and two WCHA tournament championships. UMD went to the NCAA Frozen Four both seasons, losing to Bowling Green State in four overtimes in the 1984 title game and in three overtimes to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the 1985 semifinals.
While those Frozen Four losses always stung to the coaches and players, Sertich said it didn't matter to the community that they lost. The community loved those teams — and still does — because of whey they represented during a hard time economically in Duluth's history.
"It was a difficult time. (Duluth) had just lost the airbase, the mines had kind of went downhill. Duluth was in a bit of a transition as far as their future," Sertich said. "We were not a tourist stop by any stretch of the imagination at that time. Economically speaking, we were probably at one of our low points.
"That team captured the imagination of the community. They gave back to that community. That's one of the reasons they were so revered. Their commitment to the area was significant. They were involved. It helped for people to see there was some hope. I didn't really realize the impact until later, much much later in fact."
If you go
What: 26th DECC Athletic Hall of Fame induction ceremony
When: Wednesday, May 24
Where: DECC Harbor Side Convention Ballroom
Inductees: Debbie Hunter, Joel Maturi, Bob and Ruby Maxson, Ted McKnight, Mike Sertich
Schedule: Social hour, 6 p.m.; dinner, 7 p.m.; awards presentations, 7:30 p.m.
Guest speaker: Pat Francisco
Tickets: Available at DECC ticket office, 350 Harbor Drive, Duluth, from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday until noon May 23; tickets $35 (cash or credit card only)