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Miller criticizes process after UMD opts to not renew coaching contract

Shannon Miller, head coach of the Minnesota Duluth women’s hockey team, discusses her reaction to the news that her contract is not being renewed after this season at Amsoil Arena in Duluth on Tuesday afternoon. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com1 / 2
UMD women's hockey coach Shannon Miller2 / 2

And while the five-time NCAA Division I champion coach said she was willing to discuss a pay cut in order to stay in Duluth and aid the university’s budget woes, the two sides never formally discussed a salary reduction.

“I think the appropriate steps are to meet with people and to have adult conversations with adults and problem-solve together, but that was never done. Never done,” Miller said late Monday night, after the university had sent out a news release announcing she would not be retained for the 2015-16 season.

“I wasn’t given the opportunity to help find a compromise after being here 16 years and being such a successful coach,” Miller said. “I think it’s a very wrong move on their part and I’m embarrassed for them. I’m saddened and disappointed in what’s happening without open conversations and trying to solve a problem together as adults.”

Team's reaction to loss of winning coach

Those discussions never took place because the university felt a significant pay cut would not be appropriate for Miller, according to athletic director Josh Berlo.

Miller is the highest-paid coach not only in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, but in all of college women’s hockey. Her contract extension that was signed in 2010 just before chancellor Kathryn Martin retired and more than two years before athletic director and football coach Bob Nielson left for Western Illinois paid her $170,000 in 2010 and went up in increments to $207,000 for this season. Add in a vehicle stipend and that figure jumps to $215,000 for 2014-15. That extension expires at the end of this season.

“We had initial discussions with coach Miller over the course of time, but as soon as we realized we weren’t going to be able to sustain (her salary), we informed her that we weren’t going to be able to extend her contract,” Berlo said. “We weren’t able to keep doing what we were doing and didn’t feel it appropriate to ask her to take a significant pay cut.”

Now, with the university facing a $5.5 million budget deficit, the next head women’s hockey coach stands to make significantly less than Miller.

According to Berlo, when the university begins its search after the season, it will look at the salaries of recent coaches hired in the WCHA. During the offseason, Eric Rud was hired at St. Cloud State and Jim Scanlan was named head coach at Bemidji State. Rud is making a reported $99,440 per year and Scanlan makes a reported $91,100.

Berlo said UMD is not necessarily in a position to outspend Minnesota or Wisconsin, the league’s Big Ten institutions. The Gophers’ Brad Frost recently received a contract extension that pays him $155,000 this season and $170,000 next year, plus a guaranteed $10,000 a year for media obligations. Wisconsin’s Mark Johnson makes $164,000 per year.

“Any time a contract comes up, we have to take a hard look at it and decide where we are at,” Berlo said. “This one is unique because of the timing and also because of the salary that UMD has invested.

“We’re going through the budgetary process now and we’ve got a responsibility to be fiscally prudent and we will continue to do that and, at times, make tough decisions like this one.”

Even if Minnesota Duluth was willing to match salaries paid by Big Ten schools —such as Frost’s $170,000 next year — Miller would be facing at least a 17.9 percent reduction in pay. Considering the university is looking to pay the next coach what recent hires such as Rud are making, that means Berlo would have had to ask Miller to take a 52 percent cut in pay.

Miller said she never told the university how much of a pay cut she was willing to take because the university never even asked her to take one. Last spring, Miller said she was informed the university was “in serious financial trouble” and UMD didn’t feel “it could announce a contract extension of her magnitude.”

Miller said she, chancellor Lendley Black and Berlo met again during the summer. She then didn’t hear from Black or Berlo concerning her contract until Dec. 9 when Miller was informed her contract would not be extended after this season. On Dec. 11, her two assistant coaches, Laura Schuler and Gina Kingsbury, and part-time director of operations Jen Banford (who was retained as softball coach) were informed in writing that their contracts would not be renewed after this season as well. Miller held a team meeting Friday to inform her players. The university sent a press release to media at 9:50 p.m. Monday.

After the summer meeting, Miller said she assumed the lines of communication would stay open and both sides would come to a win-win deal.

At 51, Miller, who coached the 1998 Canadian women’s team to an Olympic silver medal before taking the UMD reins, said she has no intention of retiring from coaching. She is the fourth-winningest coach in the history of college women’s hockey at 375-137-48. Her five national titles (2001-03, 2008, 2010) are the most among all Division I hockey coaches, as are her 15 NCAA tournament wins. The Bulldogs have been to the NCAA tournament 10 times and have reached the Frozen Four seven times. She’s also won four WCHA regular-season titles and five playoff titles.

After back-to-back subpar seasons, UMD sits third in the WCHA at 7-5-2 this year. The Bulldogs (12-5-3) are ranked No. 6 in the latest poll and seventh in the PairWise rankings.

“This shouldn’t be my last season,” Miller said about coaching at UMD. “I should be able to decide when my last season is. It’s very difficult because I have turned down opportunities at bigger schools obviously for more money and I don’t regret that at all. I’ve always wanted this to be the team I coached. I always wanted to be at UMD and Duluth to be my home for my coaching career. I’ve never, ever been shy about saying that publicly or to my players.

“The fact that this is happening, like it says in the press release, it’s shocking and saddening,” Miller said. “When you turn down bigger fish to make this your home and this your team, you don’t expect something like this to happen.”

Matt Wellens

College hockey reporter for the Duluth News Tribune covering the Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs men's and women's teams, as well as the NCAA Division III programs at St. Scholastica and Wisconsin-Superior.

(218) 723-5317