Bulldogs coaches react to UMD athletic director Josh Berlo's departure for Denver
Josh Berlo is leaving the University of Minnesota Duluth after nine seasons to become vice chancellor of athletics for the Pioneers. While Berlo's first job as athletic director got off to a controversial start, he leaves the university a popular administrator.
DULUTH — While most of the Minnesota Duluth athletic department was caught off-guard Thursday morning when news broke that athletic director Josh Berlo was leaving the Bulldogs after nine seasons to become vice chancellor for athletics at the University of Denver, very few of the coaches he worked with were surprised.
And while those coaches are sad to see him leave, they were happy to see him make the jump to an athletic department that features 18 NCAA Division I programs.
“When this opportunity came up, I just had to go after it,” Berlo said Thursday during his introductory press conference on the Denver campus . “I thoroughly enjoyed our time in Duluth at UMD. We did some great things there at UMD we are so proud of. … We have our mantra of the three ‘Cs’ — classroom, community, competition — and they are really firing on all three cylinders. But here I see an incredible opportunity to be part of something that is very special and continue to chase championships with academic integrity, and to make the world a better place along the way.”
Thanks to all for the emails, texts, calls & tweets - I will get to you all as soon as I can. It has been an exciting and bittersweet day for the Berlos, we have loved every single day spent as @UMDBulldogs and in Duluth but CANNOT be more excited to join @DU_Pioneers! (1/2)— Josh Berlo (@DU_AthDir) June 2, 2022
The News Tribune spoke with a six Bulldogs head coaches on Thursday to get their reaction to Berlo’s departure, including three of the eight coaches he hired during his tenure, and a trio who were at UMD before Berlo arrived on campus.
Women’s hockey coach
Hired by Berlo in 2015
One of the few to get some sort of advance notice — she was quoted in Denver’s announcement Thursday — Crowell said Berlo wasn’t just a great athletic director for UMD women’s hockey, but for the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, and all of NCAA Division I women’s hockey.
Berlo chaired the search for WCHA commissioner Jennifer Flowers — who is stepping down this month to become athletic director at Southwest Minnesota State — and has always been very active at league meetings, Crowell said.
“He’s done tremendous things not only for our program at UMD, but hockey at large,” said Crowell, who has taken the Bulldogs to three NCAA tournaments in eight seasons, including back-to-back NCAA Frozen Fours in 2021 and 2022 and the national championship game this spring. “I think it’s really unique to find an administrator who puts as much time into our sport as Josh did in so many ways, attending games and being on the (NCAA) committee. … There aren’t a lot of administrators with that kind of interest level and I think his voice has been really powerful for us. It’s too bad Denver doesn’t have a women’s program.”
Berlo has also been the WCHA’s representative on the NCAA Division I women’s ice hockey committee since 2000. Crowell said he was a helpful ally on the committee during the coaches campaign that got the NCAA tournament expanded from eight to 11 teams in 2021-22.
“He was big because when us coaches started talking about it, we know what we wanted, we just don’t know the avenues you have to go down,” Crowell said. “He tipped me off to access ratios. I didn’t know that term. That wasn’t something that rolled off the tongue. He said, ‘You need to look at the access ratios to men’s and women’s hockey, but also other sports. Find the data, look to the data.’ That spearheaded that whole line of argument and that was the most valuable one.”
Men’s hockey coach
Been at UMD since 2000
Since Berlo took over the athletic department in 2013, Sandelin’s team has gone to seven straight NCAA tournaments, was in four consecutive Frozen Fours between 2017-2021, played in three straight NCAA title games between 2017-2019 and won back-to-back national championships in 2018 and 2019.
But what stood out the most to Sandelin on Thursday about Berlo’s impact on UMD athletics was the AD’s ability to take fundraising to a whole new level at UMD.
According to numbers provided by UMD Athletics, the department has generated over $15 million during the last 10 years and hit the $1 million annual fundraising mark during each year of Berlo’s tenure.
Sandelin — who along with Crowell coaches UMD’s only NCAA Division I sports — credited the Division I background Berlo brought from Notre Dame back in 2013. The athletic department is in a much better place financially today than it was before Berlo’s arrival, Sandelin said.
“He was a huge supporter of us and every program,” Sandelin said. “I’m happy for him to get a different opportunity. It’s a good place. Now he’s a competitor.”
Women’s basketball coach
Hired by Berlo in 2015
Pearson, who has taken the Bulldogs to four straight NCAA tournaments, said Denver is lucky to land Berlo. He’s been a strong mentor and communicator, and was popular with her players.
“He’s done a good job of having a system at UMD that allows us to feel supported at all times by our administrators,” Pearson said. “He wasn’t my direct report — Karen Stromme was the person I directly reported to — but if I needed to go to him at any time, he was always willing to pick up the phone, always willing to meet with me.”
Pearson said it’s been a tough couple of weeks for her at UMD after Stromme, the Bulldogs’ senior associate athletic director and senior woman administrator, and Gary Holquist, UMD Athletics’ senior development officer, announced their retirement last week. The husband and wife are both former basketball coaches at UMD, and were strong supporters along with Berlo.
The departure of those three, along with the upcoming retirement of UMD chancellor Lendley Black, has created uncertainty in UMD Athletics this offseason.
“Here’s what I did today: My dad came up here and we put wood flooring in a bedroom in my basement. I’m trying to avoid thinking about it,” Pearson said of the shakeup at UMD. “From Karen to Gary to Josh, I don’t think you could have a better group of administrators to be around. I know Gary technically wasn’t an administrator, but the three of them, and even Chancellor Black, were just so approachable, so kind. The four of them, those are some big, big shoes to fill at UMD.”
Been at UMD since 2002
Romano Gymnasium, home to the Bulldogs basketball and volleyball programs, underwent an extensive $10 million renovation under Berlo, giving Boos’ program a new floor, air conditioning and what he said was better branding throughout the facility.
The winningest coach in UMD volleyball history said Berlo will be missed, but the department is also excited about the next chapter in UMD Athletics.
“He’s been nothing but amazing as our leader and has certainly changed our thinking and the way our department runs,” said Boos, who has taken UMD to 17 NCAA tournaments. “Just the overall branding and marketing of our Bulldog brand has been at an entirely different level under his tenure.”
Men’s basketball coach
Hired by Berlo in 2018
Like Pearson and Boos, Wieck said Berlo has been a mentor of his. Berlo is one of the smartest people he’s been around, said Wieck, who has appreciated the insight Berlo has provided on a number of topics.
“He’s been one of the best bosses I’ve had just as far as being super, super involved in everything,” said Wieck, whose program is coming off an NCAA tournament appearance. “His fingerprints are on everything, but he also lets you do your own thing and your own program.”
Women’s soccer coach
Founded women’s soccer program in 1994
Hired by Bruce McLeod, Cane said Berlo was the most ambitious athletic director he’s worked for in his 24 seasons at UMD, and that ambition was clear when the young AD took over the Bulldogs in 2013.
Cane said Berlo was a “big picture guy” who was good at fundraising for capital development and capital needs at UMD. Noting every program has different needs, Cane said he didn’t always agree with Berlo’s approach, but the AD was a tough guy to argue with. Berlo did what was best for everybody in the athletic department, not just what was in the best interest of one program.
“He didn’t have a tremendous impact on the soccer program,” Cane said, speaking honestly. “And the reason is, it all comes down to money. He had the same impact to all programs in terms of getting us thinking that we had to do more things on our own. And what I mean by that is not giving us autonomy, but, if you want something done, you’re going to have to really initiate it and do it. Sometimes he kind of pushed us into it or dragged us along.”
What Cane said he appreciated the most about Berlo was his support, and that he left the coaching to the coaches.
“He was supportive when you were winning, he was supportive when you were losing, he was very supportive of the student-athletes,” Cane said.