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Tom Oates: Coaching staff coup shows UW hockey is high priority for Barry Alvarez

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Granato scoreboard photo

The new UW men’s hockey coaching staff is introduced at an event at the Kohl Center on Wednesday. Tony Granato, center, takes over as the program’s head coach, with his brother Don, second from left, and Mark Osiecki, second from right, as associate head coaches. The trio is joined by athletic director Barry Alvarez, right, and UW athletic communications director Brian Lucas.

Barry Alvarez didn’t have to do much arm-twisting to get Tony Granato to come home.

The University of Wisconsin athletic director called Granato, a fan favorite as a UW men’s hockey All-American in the 1980s and an NHL player and coach since then, to sound him out on potential candidates for the Badgers’ coaching vacancy.

Granato, like everyone else Alvarez spoke with, mentioned three former Badgers — UW women’s hockey coach Mark Johnson, Mark Osiecki, associate head coach of the AHL’s Rockford Ice Hogs, and Don Granato, coach of the U.S. National Team Development Program’s under-17 team — as perfect for the job. Then a thought popped into Alvarez’s head.

“I said, ‘How about you? Would you be interested?’ ” Alvarez related. “He said, ‘Would you want me to apply?’ I said, ‘Are you interested?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I’ve always thought about coming back.’ Then I went on a full-court press.”

That wasn’t necessary. Alvarez could have sat back in a zone and still convinced Granato, a Detroit Red Wings assistant coach, to return to Madison and rescue UW’s program from the lowest point in its storied existence.

“My initial reaction was, absolutely,” Tony Granato said.

It has been much harder than that for Alvarez to convince the hockey community, both locally and nationally, that UW is still serious about the sport after the program lost its way — and a good deal of its fan base — the past two seasons. Yet, with one brilliant coup, that’s exactly what he did.

Wednesday, Alvarez answered the critics who think UW no longer cares about men’s hockey in the best way he could. He introduced a coaching dream team of Tony Granato as UW’s head coach with Osiecki and Don Granato, Tony’s brother, as his assistants.

In his discussions with Alvarez, Tony Granato’s only stipulation was that those two would come with him. Perfect, thought Alvarez, because he considered Osiecki and Don Granato viable head-coaching candidates anyway. In hiring an exceptionally strong staff, Alvarez sent a message to every hockey precinct in North America that the Badgers are back in the game, and in a big way.

“I think this is a very unique hire, a special hire,” he said. “I think it brings excitement and energy to the program and we’d like to share that with the hockey fans and those that care about Wisconsin hockey.”

In his wildest dreams, Alvarez couldn’t have imagined his three-birds-with-one-stone hire. Tony Granato is extremely personable, which should help repair the growing rift with UW fans. Collectively, the three coaches cover all the bases — coaching, teaching, recruiting and knowledge of UW’s tradition and inner workings. Just as important, they have connections with and the respect of people at every level of hockey, from potential recruits to NHL front offices.

Much of that was lost as UW plummeted to a 12-45-13 record the past two seasons, causing Alvarez to dismiss coach Mike Eaves. Eaves’ teams won an NCAA title in 2006 and played for another one in 2010, then went into decline. It should be noted that UW’s recruiting was never the same after Osiecki, Eaves’ top recruiter, left following the 2010 season.

But Alvarez’s hat trick of a hire proved that UW is committed to fielding a winning program, one that will once again fill the seats at the Kohl Center and compete for national titles.

“I’m very confident that we’ve taken the right steps today in re-establishing the dominance of our hockey program,” he said.

Just in case people didn’t believe that, UW officials made a big deal out of introducing the new coaches Wednesday. They invited the public, placed the podium on the Kohl Center ice, put the assistants on the dais with the head coach and handed out red socks with an attached card that contained an Alvarez quote: “This hire will knock your socks off.”

For a change, it wasn’t hyperbole. Alvarez said the coaching hires and UW’s state-of-the-art facilities should eliminate any perceptions that the hockey program is not longer a priority.

“Hockey is important to our athletic department because of the tremendous history and success that they’ve had,” he said. “We miss something if we don’t have success in hockey.”

It’s up to Tony Granato to restore that success. He said UW will play an entertaining brand of hockey based on skill, which should be a welcome relief from Eaves’ plodding, defense-oriented style. Osiecki and Don Granato said the key to UW’s success will be the coaches rolling up their sleeves and getting back to recruiting high-end players, something that had waned in recent seasons.

The only other candidate Alvarez spoke to about the opening, besides the three hired, was Johnson. Alvarez said he asked Johnson if he was interested but “never got an answer back.” Of course, Johnson was a little busy at the time preparing the women’s team for the NCAA tournament.

Regardless, it seemed like once Alvarez talked to Tony Granato, his mind was made up. He became convinced he could have the best of both worlds, keeping Johnson in charge of UW’s elite women’s program and hiring three respected coaches with deep UW ties to return the men’s program to that level.

Contact Tom Oates at toates@madison.com or 608-252-6172.

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Tom Oates has been part of the Wisconsin State Journal sports department since 1980 and became its editorial voice in 1996, traversing the state and country to bring readers a Madison perspective on the biggest sports stories of the day.

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