Exit Mike Randolph

And if, while following him, you ever feel a disapproving cluck rising inside your palate, as I sometimes do, don’t forget that inside most people you read about in history books in a child who fiercely resisted toilet training. Suppose the mess they leave is inseparable from their reach and grasp? Then our judgment depends on what they’re ambitious for—the saving glimmer of wanting something worthy.

-George Packer

Mike Randolph’s tenure at Duluth East ended not in victory or defeat. In fact, it came in a season in which the Hounds did not play a playoff game. It revealed itself not in one of those emotional roller coasters of hugs and tears on the ice after a big game, but in an odd whimper and a hushed-up meeting with school administrators. The caginess of the whole affair showed how high the stakes were, and how vicious the voices involved could be. Few people feel comfortable being the face of the defense when the sharks are circling, and few are willing to be the prosecution after the axe has come down.

Mike Randolph was one of the most intense coaches to ever stalk the bench of a hockey arena. The ability of players to adapt to that reality both made them and broke them. Some kids would skate through brick walls for him; some said he made their high school years a living hell. It was his show, his formula. His control over every aspect of the game allowed him to pull strings that others would not, and occasionally to get more out of less than any other coach in Minnesota. He rewarded those who met his standard, and those who did etched themselves into the collective consciousness of several generations of kids passing through a school on the east side of Duluth, their coming-of-age rites of passage in packed arenas in Duluth and St. Paul come playoff time.

Over the years I have worked hard, sometimes painfully hard, to offer a voice of detached neutrality when it comes to Mike Randolph. In part that’s who I am, and in part it has served my purpose of staying on good terms with just about everyone around a sport that, for me, is a diversion and an escape, not the serious business of life beyond the rink. This position is at odds with many people I interact with, including both Randolph himself and many of the kids and parents involved in the game. Those lives overflow with devotion and passion in the pursuit of a singular goal. The ability to delight in that world and yet still be able pull oneself out of that cave and see beyond it is not a common gift.

In some ways, my side gig as a hockey commentator was always building until this moment. Never have I been more nervous to send out a Tweet as when I got the go-ahead to share the news of his Randolph’s resignation with the world. On the next day I felt a queasiness my sometimes-weighty day job has never given me when I got to be the fly on the wall at a meeting that supportive current players asked for with their coach. It was raw and emotional: disbelieving kids, parents in search of a solution, and the grizzled coach pulling fewer punches than in his carefully crafted statement to the press a few days later. Randolph left the door open for a return if the political winds were to turn, but he knew the odds were not in his favor, and he told the gathered crowd as much. Some of the players tried to rally, but the reply one of them received from a school board member showed exactly where that course was going to go. There were still glimmers of Randolph’s old scheming, but he himself knew it was time to move on.

Later that evening, on a blissful summer night on the grounds of Glensheen, I stumbled upon a former East hockey parent. She extolled Randolph’s impact on her son’s life and shared the reprehensible and false things some detractors asked her to accuse him of to get him removed. A friend with her, meanwhile, had the exact opposite perspective: he lamented his son’s treatment in his time with the program and said he felt relief upon hearing the news of his resignation. The three of us hashed out a healthy conversation about what the man meant and where the program should go next. I am pleased that I have been able to have these conversations face-to-face with people over the past several years. (The grandstanding from anonymous social media or message board users is another story, and one I happily ignore.) The future of Duluth East hockey depends on them.

I got to know Mike some over the years. I wouldn’t call us intimates, but he was certainly willing to spill out his thoughts when he had the time, and he was bracingly honest when he did so. In those interactions he was only ever gracious, and would offer unsolicited praise for players past and present, including some whose parents I knew to be critics. He had a lot of fun doing what he did. Whatever else Mike Randolph might be, he is a marvelous storyteller possessed of a vicious dry wit. To anyone who enjoys high school hockey, the chance to watch him scribble schemes on napkins and to pick his voluminous memory was a trip down a rabbit hole that was hard to escape. A series of long nights on the town during his last State Tournament at East will forever rank among my favorite high school hockey memories. (I hasten to note that Randolph was completely sober for these encounters, as he has been for many years; he was merely out to suck up the atmosphere of that special week in March.) Over those nights, I saw with my own eyes his ability to pre-script dramatic games, and I got some windows into just how viciously some people treated him. The comparatively drama-free and successful mid-to-late 2010s felt like a valediction to a long career, as a battle-scarred man found peace, received his due, and delighted in the relationships he was building with his players. But history is rarely that easy.

I’ve heard out many parents who did not like Randolph, and I have listened with ears wide open as others talked around me. Their critiques ran the gamut, from line combinations to mind games to some less savory rumors unrelated to hockey. (In 2021, as one of the few non-parents in the pandemic-limited arena, I heard little else.) When I also struggled to see the logic in some of Randolph’s tactical or personnel decisions, I tended to agree with them, and frankly that was not an uncommon occurrence over the past two years. But it was also interesting to see how, once a parent developed an initial beef, perhaps one with some merit, all of the rest tended to follow. It was almost amusing how the same critiques in the same exact phrasing would filter their way down through the rumor mill from year to year. If Randolph was to be guilty of one thing he was to be guilty of everything, a black and white world with little room for Greyhounds in between.

Randolph was no doubt hardened by the attacks upon him over his career. He had an ego, as will most anyone who is driven to win, and was proud of what he had achieved. He surrounded himself with assistants who were full believers, almost exclusively ex-players who bought in to what he preached and sought to replicate it throughout the system. Loyalty, above all else, became central to the Duluth East program. Many people circle the wagons when under duress, and the strain only seemed to grow over recent seasons, the coaching staff set against a growing camp of bitter skeptics. At what point, I wondered in one late-night discussion with a hockey confidante, was the atmosphere around the program too toxic to endure without a change, whatever Randolph’s merits as a coach?

By 2021, it seemed like Randolph’s supporters felt they had to whisper their actual feelings to me in private lest anyone overhear something that went against this brewing narrative. Given the imbalance in what I was hearing, I was almost stunned when I saw the number of current players and parents who showed up to support the man wholeheartedly at the end. The media narrative since Randolph’s fall has likewise been mostly supportive of the coach. Figures large and small have lamented the power of parents to bring him down, and East players from down the years have blasted the softness and blindness of those who, in their minds, could not see Randolph’s tough love as the demanding standard that could illuminate the path to greatness. I don’t quite buy the argument that Randolph is someone whose style got left behind by the times; some very recent classes, including many of the current underclassmen, appeared to value his frank talk. I also know and respect some parents from much earlier years who still nurse hard feelings. Something much deeper and more fundamental was afoot.

The question throughout the drama has been whether Randolph’s purported sins should cost him his job. I have only been able to look at the evidence before me, which at this point is little different from the same things I have been hearing for 15-odd years, supplemented by a few emails from past parents who saw in a new school district administration a fresh opportunity to take the man down. There were some rumblings about the booster club, but a district official, I am told, said there were no lingering issues there at a parents’ meeting after his resignation. Opacity denies us closure. The late-stage pandemic further removed any drama from the final act; I expect the school district is all too pleased its meetings are still on Zoom, depriving us the board room drama that erupted last time around. At some point, the district will, hopefully, comply with the data requests made by the media regarding the complaints against Randolph, and we may learn from the source material if there is anything truly salacious within them. Until then, we are left in a cloud of doubt, sorting through stories that call him the most powerful influence on the lives of some and a source of misery for others, struggling to reconcile the fact that both can be true.

In the moments when hockey has seemed to overwhelm other commitments in my life, I’ve often stopped to wonder why I, a Duluth East alumnus who never skated for the program and the owner of a rich and satisfying life beyond hockey, became such a devoted follower of this sport at this level. The reason, I think, circles back to Mike Randolph: not necessarily to the man himself, but to the idea behind this sometimes brilliant, sometimes intimidating, sometimes flawed human. Life roughed up Randolph in his early years, a tale he told in his final statement: limited resources, his father’s stroke, the care he received from his own high school coach. He bypassed many other roads to wed himself to the little corner of the world that made him, a place where he saw an opportunity and pour out his soul for over three decades. He wrote himself into the lore of a Minnesota tradition and took none of it for granted, scrapping every step of the way, always demanding more.

Perhaps he erred along the way; perhaps his ambition at times took him too far. But the idea he stood for, that glimmer of the worthy pursuit: that lodged in the mind of more than a few teenage strivers in need of some discipline, some fuel for the drive. Thanks for the memories, coach. The young men you formed include a few who never even played for you.

The End of the Mike Randolph Era

Mike Randolph’s tenure as head coach of the Duluth East boys’ high school hockey team is over.

The news is not a total shock to anyone who has followed the events of the past few months. The school district had engaged a private investigator to poke around the program following a heap of parent complaints, and the rumor mill swung back and forth from week to week: he was done for, he was fine, or no one knew what was going on. Randolph has been through the ringer in his time with the Hounds; he’s been through countless questioning parents and a purge that removed him from his job for a year before an intense campaign swung a school board election and helped return him to his longtime post. This time, however, he has chosen to make his exit rather than go through it all again.

Let’s get the record out there first: 658 on-ice wins (third-most all-time; 646 of those at East), 18 State Tournament trips (second-most all-time behind Edina’s Willard Ilkola, who has 19), and two state championships. Six second place finishes, four third place finishes, three consolation titles, and a hand in some of the most memorable games ever, such as the Duluth East-Apple Valley five overtime affair in 1996 and the East-Eden Prairie three overtime final in 2011. His presence, both through tactical innovation on the ice and in his fight for his job off it 18 years ago, has driven the narrative around high school hockey far beyond the shores of Lake Superior. With the exception of the 2003-2004 sabbatical, he has been coaching Duluth East hockey my entire life.

I will embargo some of the other things I know until a longer retrospective next week; a planned press conference on Friday will, I expect, provide some added juice. I will also acknowledge there is much I do not know, and may never know, about what happened behind closed doors. I have a lot of thoughts that will take some time to process, and will take some time to filter back through the thousands of conversations I’ve had over the past 16 years with people regarding Mike Randolph. Love him or hate him, he is a fascinating figure, one whose story winds its way through just about every theme one could possibly associate with high school sports, from the glory to the pain and every emotion in between.

The open coaching job is a fascinating one. It’s a position with one of the most illustrious programs in the state and no shortage of history to draw upon. There is some talent to work with, and while we cannot pretend that it is still 1996 or even 2016 (a fact that has been difficult for some to accept), the long-term fundamentals of the program are pretty solid, and a new coach will have a chance to build on deep foundations. On the flip side, this program is also a hornet’s nest, and I will be fascinated to see how long a honeymoon the new regime gets. Duluth East is hardly alone in this; Randolph is just one of several fairly prominent coaches who have headed for the exits this offseason, and while the details vary from place to place, the roots of the purge are always the same. I do not envy anyone who takes a head coaching job these days, and rather hope the next Hound head man is not someone with any immediate tie to the program and the mess it has been the past few years. School board, if you’re reading this, go get someone from the outside with a proven track record.

For those looking for a walk down memory lane, here’s a selection of posts that have focused on him:

The Duluth East hockey history series, starting with the post that includes Randolph’s hiring in the 80s

Revisiting Randolph’s removal in 2003-2004

An appreciation amid the 2015 stunning run

On coaching decisions in a high-stakes program

Observing some of the cracks in the walls after the 2020 and 2021 seasons

More to come.

A Storm Gathers Strength

The team in its road blues pops in another goal. A groan goes down the line. One of the assistant coaches calls out the numbers of the five boys on the ice, and tells the girl with the scoresheet to circle one particular culprit. “We need to realize that just because someone does well in a drill, it doesn’t mean they’ll do well in a game,” muses another. Someone asks a much younger kid, the son of former Wild winger Antti Laaksonen, if he brought any gear and might be available to suit up. It’s all in good fun; part of the long and slow process of building up a hockey program into relevance.

Most of my hockey-watching involves matchups between the very top high school teams in Minnesota. I usually only see those outside the top 20 or so when they play Duluth East, and even then, I tend to be more intent on what the Greyhounds are doing. On Thursday night, I enjoyed a welcome change of pace and, on the invitation of a member of the forum I moderate, immersed myself in a program I hadn’t seen before.

Chanhassen High School broke off from Chaska just five years ago, and its fledgling hockey program under coach Chris Wilson has had just one winning season to date. They still share a youth program with Chaska, and have the added difficulty of being in AA; while Chaska became small enough to play in Class A after the split, the Storm are left battling the likes of Edina and Burnsville in the first round of the 2AA playoffs. This season also brings the Storm some new challenges, as the old Missota Conference dissolved, leading to the formation of the Metro West. Chanhassen now has perennial title contender Benilde-St. Margaret’s on its schedule, plus another longtime state power in Bloomington Jefferson. They entered this game at 2-2-1; one of those wins was over a decent Hopkins squad, but they were coming off a humbling 7-1 loss to rising 2AA power Prior Lake earlier in the week.

Their opponent on Thursday was Class A heavyweight Breck, and while the game wasn’t quite as lopsided as the 6-0 scoreline made it look, the Storm were certainly on their heels for most of the contest. They held their own for substantial chunks of the first period, but were bottled up whenever the Mustangs’ top line hit the ice, and Breck—not an overwhelmingly deep team themselves—exposed the lack of depth on both goals in the period. Things began to unravel in the second, with all three goals coming in painful ways: off a juicy rebound, on a shorthanded rush, and a very soft shot just before the end of the period. A victory was probably out of the question, but a rematch might bring out a better fight.

With the game out of reach, Wilson and his staff shook things up in the third. They loaded up their top line, pairing together their two more skilled junior forwards in search of a little more offense. Running up against the age-old high school hockey conundrum of age and experience versus youth and promise, they put in a freshman goalie, who performed ably. (Their best skater on the ice was also a young gun, a sophomore defenseman.) The Storm had some of their best chances in the game’s dying minutes, finally applying some serious pressure as the clock ticked down to zero.

This was some consolation to the group I joined in a perch behind glass at one end of the rink. While Chanhassen’s stats and video operation can’t match Benilde’s small army of backroom staff, a group of student managers kept meticulous stats and shots, and the assistant coaches at their side kept a running commentary, delighting in improvements from some players and sighing in defeat when others repeated old mistakes. They rushed down to the locker room between periods to relay things they’d seen from their perspective, doing all they could to correct errors and dissect trends in Breck’s approach. (This was all new to someone used to the Duluth East method for collecting details on games, which mostly involves Mike Randolph’s memory.)

After the game, the Storm staff huddled in the small coaches’ office next to the locker room, looking to regroup after a second straight game ended in running time. I diagnosed a work in progress; the players are hearing the right messages, but have yet to have them drilled into their minds. The learning curve is long, and after a pair of lopsided losses, the coaches have to play that delicate game of ego management. They want the top players to be confident and creative, but one can only tolerate so many attempts to dangle through traffic when there are open teammates, or blind backhanders that gift-wrap the puck to the opposition. The coaches want to play appealing and aggressive hockey, but how much does the opponent dictate what a team does, at what point do they content themselves with a neutral zone trap—or even simple damage control? They want to put pressure on the bubble players so they know their jobs are on the line, but at what point does juggling mess with their minds? There’s no easy formula for any of those questions, and Wilson’s staff has to experiment on the fly. Their approach for Friday night? A pasta dinner for the team.

Most of the conversation themes were familiar to anyone who’s been around youth hockey, but I was left with an appreciation for how much thinner the margin for error is with a team like Chanhassen. Where an elite team might be able to withstand a slight lack of hustle on the forecheck, a defenseman out of place, or an attempt to dangle straight through the heart of a defense, such lax play does in the Storm. So much of the game still comes down to fundamentals: if the breakout isn’t swift enough, it’s only a matter of time before someone is caught running around, and even when they do clear the blue line, there’s the whole matter of gaining the other team’s zone. The challenge comes in turning hesitation into instinct, and in getting a group of boys to buy into a complete team concept that might get them somewhere by February.

What path might this Storm take? Realistically, they can use their two games with Bloomington Jefferson and one with Holy Angels to earn a 4- or 5-seed in 2AA. There’s a very capable core of players here, and if they come together, they have some chance of winning a playoff game for the first time in school history. Beyond that, they simply have to keep strengthening the foundation, building a young program shift by shift.

A Coaching Controversy Revisited

 

 

 

Today marks the ten-year anniversary of the most infamous day in the history of Duluth East hockey. It wasn’t a loss in a game, nor an embarrassing off-ice incident. In truth, the stunning news of April 24, 2003 didn’t affect the team’s performance in any measurable way. But the decision handed down that day attracted statewide attention and dominated Duluth’s news for the next year. The Duluth East administration chose not to renew the contract of head coach Mike Randolph, effectively firing the state’s most decorated coach.

ImagePhoto credit: Duluth East High School Hockey Facebook Page

At the time, Randolph was a hockey icon. In his fifteen years at the helm of the Hounds, he turned a perennial underachiever into one of Minnesota’s premier hockey programs, guiding them to eight State Tournaments and two championships. East hockey had become a breeding ground for Division One hockey players, abandoning its conference to play the most difficult schedule possible and attracting talent from across the state. Randolph had a reputation as an intense, fiery leader; a brilliant hockey mind who demanded excellence at every turn. His will to win was unquestioned.

But as is so often the case, the very traits that made Randolph great were also his downfall. He pushed his players so hard and was so unrelenting in his demands that some lost their passion for the game. He had to cut many players over the years, and he never was one to mince words in doing so. In his efforts to balance the development of his stars and playing time for all, he’d inevitably made a number of enemies. Fixated on his team, he delegated team fundraisers to his assistants, and some accounting issues sprang up. Randolph, his critics argued, had lost sight of what high school sports were supposed to be. Down came the axe, with no explanation given: data privacy laws allowed the administration to dismiss him without cause.

If Randolph’s tale were a Greek tragedy, the story would have ended there, with the hero felled by his tragic flaw. But Randolph, a fighter to the end, demanded answers. His legions of supporters mobilized against the alleged injustice, and the coach waived his right to privacy and threw open his confidential personnel file for the world to see. His supporters had responses ready for each and every charge, and claimed conflicts of interest at every turn; many of the complainants were parents of cut players with axes to grind—including the East principal—and a leading Randolph critic on the school board had prominent ties to East’s private school rival, Duluth Marshall. No one seemed to have an objective account of what really went on in the East hockey program, and no one’s testimony seemed entirely trustworthy. All of the intrigue culminated in several explosive exchanges with the school board, which ultimately voted to uphold the administration’s decision.

For one year, anyway. That fall, the fate of a hockey coach became an election issue. Three school board members who had opposed Randolph’s reinstatement either lost their bids for re-election or retired. In April 2004, shortly after East’s 3rd place finish in that year’s Tournament, the board declared it had erred the previous year. Randolph had his job back.

Naturally, people with little interest in hockey found the whole affair absurd. Duluth public schools faced declining enrollment and tough budgetary decisions at the time, and yet the only thing that inspired any passion was a man in charge of an extracurricular activity who made $4,000 a year. And even if Randolph had been wronged, why drag out a fight that would only serve as a distraction?

To some, it was a matter of justice, pure and simple. To those who took a longer view, it raised crucial questions about the meaning of high school sports, and even a high school education in general. The debate over whether the program was “too big” probably deserves its own post, but there are plenty of other things to consider. There’s no doubt Randolph was (and is) a tough coach, and that he is not for everyone. But he wouldn’t be controversial if it didn’t work. Is high school too soon to place a hockey team under the command of someone so demanding? Are the claims of burnout enough to invalidate the testimony of those who cite Randolph as one of the most important formative figures in their young lives? Even if the administration had just cause to can Randolph, were there issues with their methods? Should the wronged party (whichever one it might have been) ever stop fighting an injustice for the good of the team, or the community? Where are the lines between demands for perfection and emotional abuse, between intensity and depravity? Would we rather have coaches who push us to the limit, or ones who take things as they come? When framed in those terms, the questions become near-existential, and it’s not so hard to see why the Randolph saga enjoyed so much attention in Duluth. In the beginning it was only about hockey, but by the end came to mean so much more.

So, what verdict might we pass on Randolph’s return to Duluth East? Naturally, it’s in the eye of the beholder. I’ve been through nearly every press clipping, talked to many people around the program, watched every old State Tournament game on DVD, and done my share of eavesdropping at the rink, and I’m not still not sure I have an easy answer. East has been to six State Tournaments in his nine years back on the job, though the third state title has eluded him, and there have been a few playoff disappointments along the way. Moreover, the scrutiny brought on by the 2003-04 saga has left him under the microscope ever since, with controversies at every turn: an accusation of physical abuse (unsubstantiated), players leaving high school for junior hockey (some citing the coach as a reason), Randolph’s criticisms of those who leave, alleged favoritism when his own son was on the team (untrue, in my opinion), claims of recruiting, and scheduling controversies, along with the typical disputes over playing time and cuts that plague most any high-profile program.

On more than one occasion, I’ve wished he might find some way to ride off into the sunset so that we could leave all of this behind and move on to the next coach. But that, of course, wouldn’t be Randolph’s style, and for the time being East hockey is wedded to him, both in victory and in defeat. And even if I grumble from the stands from time to time, I can’t quite picture East hockey without Mike Randolph stalking the bench behind his players, arms folded, glower in place as he barks at his Hounds, orders them to begin that patient cycle that so enthralled me as I watched from the stands in his first season back on the job. I was a freshman back then, and without his quarter century of work, I doubt I’d care about this sport half as much as I do.