Saturday, June 18, 2016

Ron Mason (1940-2016)

I was stunned Monday morning to wake up and learn of Ron Mason's passing. He was probably the youngest-looking and hardiest 76-year-old man I'd ever seen.

Mason was, if not the greatest coach in college hockey history, one of the greatest coaches. He is certainly in the top two or three.

One fact is certain, he put Michigan State hockey on the map.

Before Ron Mason arrived in East Lansing in 1980, Michigan State hockey was completely average. Amo Bessone did have his moments as Spartan hockey coach, but not that many. In 1966, the Spartans came out of nowhere to win an unexpected national title. But in Bessone's 28 years as coach, he compiled a fairly pedestrian overall record of 367-427-20.

Ron Mason changed all of that quickly. The Spartan hockey program went from being merely competitive to being one of the elites of the collegiate world.

In the early 1980s, Spartan football and basketball had fallen precipitously. Muddy Waters' gridiron gladiators were Big Ten also-rans, while Jud Heathcote was unable to sustain any momentum after the 1979 championship season. Hockey, however, was another story.

Ron Mason built a perennial championship-caliber program, and hockey was easily the biggest ticket on campus. When I arrived at Michigan State in 1986, students waited in line for hockey tickets. Munn Ice Arena was sold out for every home game. Beginning on December 19, 1985, MSU hockey had 323 consecutive home sellouts. (As a student, I went to a handful of hockey games, and that was only because I know some friends who'd managed to get season tickets. Otherwise, there's no way I could have ever made it into Munn).

MSU sports in the 1980s was the reverse of what it is today. In the '80s, you could fire a cannon in Jenison Fieldhouse--then the home of the basketball team--and not hit anyone, while Munn was standing room only. In 2016, they can't give hockey tickets away, while basketball (and to a lesser extent, football) are the hot tickets.

Anyway, one person was responsible for MSU's powerhouse hockey program--and that was Ron Mason.

I won't bother with a recitation of Mason's accomplishments as a coach. All you need to do his "google" his name to find that information. Suffice it to say that he was one of the greatest coaches in the history if college hockey. Perhaps THE greatest.

After retiring as hockey coach in 2001, Mason was MSU athletic director from July 1, 2002 until January 1, 2008. Although he takes some heat in retrospect for his hiring of John L. Smith as head football coach back in December 2002, I've always felt that criticism to be unfair. Although Smith's football schemes ultimately ended up unsuccessful in the gritty Big Ten, he at least cleaned up the program. And in fairness to Ron Mason, he recognized the Smith failure (firing him in 2006) and, along with the assistance of Mark Hollis, Tom Izzo, and Lou Anna Simon (among others) found a great new football coach in Mark Dantonio.

Through his tremendous successes as a hockey coach, and even in his failures as A.D., there's no doubt that Ron Mason always had Michigan State's best interests at heart. So farewell to a great Spartan.

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