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Coaching icon nears milestone: Duluth East’s Randolph is three victories from joining 600-win club

Duluth East boys hockey coach Mike Randolph smiles during win No. 500 in 2012. Randolph is only three victories from becoming the fourth coach in Minnesota history to join the 600-win club. (News Tribune file photo)

To best understand why Mike Randolph is still coaching high school hockey 30 years after he started, consider that this is a man with few hobbies.

“Some people like to sit in a deer stand. Some people, like my brother-in-law, he sits out in the boat for hours, and I go, ‘How the hell can you do that?’ And he says, ‘How the hell can you sit in an arena in the middle of summer?’ ” Randolph, 66, said.

He was talking on the opening day of his 29th season at Duluth East. A week prior, he was in the Cities with his wife, Ginny, who had a baby shower to attend. Which meant Randolph had time to kill. So he found a rink and watched hockey, like he always does.

“Whenever she goes to functions like that, I just go to an arena. One time I went to the Blaine Super Rink and I sat in that arena in the middle of July. So people think I’m crazy,” Randolph said. “And yet I can go to the lake and see these goofballs sitting in a boat fishing all day, and I think they’re crazy.

“I guess it’s whatever you like to do.”

Randolph likes to coach. Sometime next month, he will notch his 600th career victory, something only three others have accomplished in the history of Minnesota prep boys hockey. Randolph is at 597 going into Friday’s opener at White Bear Lake.

How much stock does Randolph put in that big, round number? When asked his thoughts on getting to 600, he replied, “600 what?” The retired elementary school teacher is focused not on individual milestones, but on molding a deep Greyhounds team into one that finds its way back to Xcel Energy Center in March.

That’s what makes Randolph tick. It’s the tinkering in December and early January, when lines and roles are subject to change as the coach tries to maximize his roster’s potential. It’s the competition and, especially, the kids.

On the first day of the season, Randolph was out of bed at 5 a.m. and at the Heritage Center an hour later for varsity practice. He was back at the building that afternoon to work with the junior varsity, finally getting home for good about 7:15 p.m., likely just in time to find an NHL game on TV.

A few years ago, on a Saturday in May, a News Tribune reporter stopped by the Heritage Center about 8:30 a.m. There was Randolph, on the ice with a group of youngsters.

“He doesn’t do much besides hockey,” East assistant Dylan Mills, who played for Randolph in the mid-1990s, said. “It’s what he does, it’s what he’s good at and it’s what he enjoys.”

‘Changed with the times’

Randolph started at East in 1988. He was on the bench through 2002-03, after which East administrators controversially decided not to renew his contract, a move that was upheld by the Duluth school board. Randolph, though, was reinstated before the 2004-05 campaign, and shows no signs of slowing down.

There was speculation that when his son, Jake, commenced his college career at Nebraska-Omaha in 2014, Randolph would hang up his whistle so he could follow the Mavericks. But he forged a deal with East athletic director Shawn Roed in which he’d hand control of the Greyhounds over to assistants Mills and Brendan Brooks for a handful of weekends each season, allowing him to travel and watch Jake.

Roed was receptive, as were parents within the program. Had they not been, Randolph says he “probably would have quit.”

“I’m very thankful that the parents allowed me to do that, that Shawn was cool with it and that I’ve got great assistants,” Randolph said.

East has appeared in 16 state tournaments under Randolph, who is 16-3 in section finals. Two of those defeats, both to Grand Rapids, came the past two years. Prior to that, the Greyhounds surprisingly advanced to the Class AA title game in 2015, but Lakeville North denied them their first championship since 1998. They also won in 1995.

On the flip-side, there have been five runner-up finishes, including an agonizing, triple-overtime loss to Kyle Rau and Eden Prairie in 2011. That one must have stung just as bad as the five-OT debacle against Apple Valley in the 1996 state semifinals.

Mills was a junior then — his shot in the second OT, tipped by Matt LaTour, appeared to win the game, but play continued — and says Randolph retains the same intensity he’s always had. But the coaching style has changed.

“He’s a dinosaur, but he’s a dinosaur that’s evolved,” Mills said. “He’s changed with the times.”

Earlier this month, East senior Ian Mageau started to answer a question about Randolph by joking that he’s “getting a little soft on us.” But the forward quickly caught himself and changed tunes.

“I’m glad to hear that because we can always go at 5 o’clock in the morning,” Randolph quipped upon being told of Mageau’s remarks.

Mageau first skated for Randolph, he believes, while participating in a camp as a sixth-grader. Just as he does now, Mageau wanted to please Randolph, who he said was “scary then.”

“He’s been one of my best role models growing up,” Mageau said. “You always want to please him, impress him, and I think that’s why we all work so hard — just trying to get that smile from him.”

He might be demanding and driven, but Garrett Worth, another senior forward, wouldn’t have it any other way.

“If I could take four more seasons with him, I’d do anything for it,” Worth said.

No plans to walk away

Randolph was a star center at Duluth Cathedral, which captured three straight Catholic school state titles from 1967-69. And he was the last player cut from the 1976 U.S. Olympic team that was fifth at the Winter Games in Innsbruck, Austria.

After his own playing days were over, he paid his dues as an assistant coach — at Minnesota Duluth, St. Scholastica and Duluth Denfeld — and spent one winter guiding Cathedral before arriving at East to succeed Art Amundson.

How does Randolph think he’s changed over the past three decades?

“I don’t know if ‘softer’ is the right word, but I think growing into the job and realizing that it’s not about me,” Randolph said. “I think coaches sometimes think it’s about them. I was guilty of it. But I think as you evolve into the job, you realize that it’s about the kids and you enjoy being around kids, and that they enjoy coming to the rink.”

As long as he enjoys coming to the rink, Randolph sees no reason to give it up, despite the fact that he’s now coaching children of former players, such as Rusty Fitzgerald’s son, Jack.

“As long as I can bend over and tie my skates and not kill myself on the ice, I’m going to keep going,” Randolph said.

Hey, it beats sitting in a boat.

Minnesota prep boys hockey 600-win club

Name Team Wins

Lorne Grosso Rochester Mayo 707

Roy Nystrom Albert Lea 705

Willard Ikola Edina 616

Coaching turnover

When Hermantown’s Bruce Plante retired last spring after 28 seasons with the Hawks, East’s Randolph became the dean of Northland coaches.

He will see some fresh faces on opposing benches this winter. That’s because the offseason was filled with turnover, including a number of high-profile changes.

Plante gives way to Patrick Andrews at Hermantown, while Chris Marinucci replaces Trent Klatt at Grand Rapids, meaning the state’s two defending champions will have new bosses. Kevin Smalley left Duluth Denfeld to succeed Dave Esse at Cloquet-Esko-Carlton. Smalley’s former post is now manned by Dale Jago, who was an assistant at Duluth Marshall.

Incidentally, Marinucci, Smalley and Jago all played collegiately at Minnesota Duluth.

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