Turmoil finds Randolph again

John Gilbert

Mike Randolph

For a guy who loves to coach, and would prefer to avoid all the complexities and political wrangling behind the scenes, Mike Randolph has been entangled in a couple of the most outrageous political ambushes in Minnesota high school hockey history. Randolph was stunned when the St. Thomas Academy athletic director drove to Duluth to meet him in person and notify him that the private school in Mendota Heights was not going to offer him a new contract.

In essence, they fired him, because that’s the way it’s done in high school sports. At a private school like St. Thomas, things are governed by a board of directors, which may include alumni, current staff and major donors to the financial support of the school. The headmaster or president or principal is at the top of the board but is also only an employee of the board, and the athletic director is more or less a spokesman for the board’s decisions.

If Randolph felt blindsided by the move, it’s understandable because after hiring him as an assistant coach and then associate head coach and then head coach, reactions had been strongly favorable about his performance among players, parents and staff.

He and his wife, Ginny, rented a place in the Twin Cities close to the STA arena, and he guided the Cadets through a successful season against many of the state’s top teams, before they lost to Cretin-Derham Hall in the Section 2AA championship game. When they won the semifinal game, it gave Randolph 707 coaching victories — tying him with former Rochester Mayo coach Lorne Grosso for the state record.

When he asked why the move was being made, he was told basically there were three reasons:

1. He missed the hockey team’s post-season banquet;

2. He wasn’t around the school much or interacting with the community; and

3. Some parents questioned the style the Cadets played under Randolph.

The banquet was on Monday, and after a snowless winter, Duluth got hit with a 14-inch snowfall on that Sunday, which closed schools, restaurants and stores for three days, in addition to plugging up the Lakeside street where the Randolphs live and they were unable to get out to drive back to the Twin Cities. So Mike sent all his notes and his prepared speech to his assistant coach, who read it at the banquet.

As for being a presence around the school and community, that was a part of his accepting the job, because Ginny has responsibilities in Duluth, so they would keep their home while renting a place in the Twin Cities, and they did a lot of commuting.

As for the style of play, Randolph has always been one of the most adaptive coaches anywhere, always waiting to assess his team’s talent before deciding on a style that would be best for their manpower.

“They were three pretty flimsy reasons,” Randolph said. “I know there must be more to it, and I just wish they were honest with me and tell me if they’d rather have someone else coach.”

Someone in mind?

How about on the day St. Thomas Academy notified Randolph his contract would not be renewed, an informational outlet named “Hockey Hub” already had published the news that Mark Strobel would be the new St. Thomas Academy hockey coach next fall. Strobel and his identical twin brother Mike played on a state championship Hill-Murray hockey team, along with Steve Rohlik.

After college, the Strobel brothers tried their hand at pro hockey but didn’t get a NHL chance. Rohlik, who was head coach at Hill-Murray, joined Mark Strobel as assistant coaches by Scott Sandelin when he became UMD’s coach. Strobel left UMD to assist at Nebraska-Omaha in 2002, and two years later, when Rohlik was hired as head coach at Ohio State, Strobel joined him as assistant. Later he was an assistant coach for five seasons at his alma mater, Wisconsin, under Tony Granato.

It didn’t take much digging to learn of the tangled web that seems to be guiding St. Thomas Academy. At the parent gatherings for the school’s holiday tournament this past Christmas, word now is that one prominent board member was telling others that “next year” Randolph would be gone and they would be hiring Mark Strobel as coach, because he’s a private school guy from the Twin Cities, and he’s got a background in college hockey coaching.

Ironically, Randolph’s first job after playing on the U.S. Olympic team was to become an assistant coach at St. Scholastica. In his first year as assistant, the Saints won the NCAA Division III national championship. He then was an assistant coach at UMD under Gus Hendrickson, assisted for a year at Denfeld High School, reaching the state tournament, before getting the head coaching opportunity at Duluth East. His success there is legendary, as he piled up 18 trips to the state tournament and two championships.

Randolph resigned from East after a couple of parents of marginal players made accusations of players’ treatment by Randolph, and when the East administration and a new school superintendent decided the complaints merited more acceptance than the record of the man considered the best hockey coach in the state, Randolph resigned for the lack of support. Trent Eigner, coach at St. Thomas Academy, brought Randolph in as assistant, then elevated him to associate head coach. The team captain that year was Jack Strobel, Mark’s son.

It turns out, the same board member who had proclaimed at Christmastime that Randolph would be replaced by Strobel, chose to not renew Eigner’s contract, and then coaxed Randolph into applying and hired him. Eigner had limited the playing time of the board member’s son.

A more naive person might decide that those two elements are coincidental, except that an older son had tried out for the St. Thomas Academy hockey team several years earlier, when the remarkably successful coaching tandem of brothers Greg and Tom Vannelli were piling up state championships and moving the program from Class A to Class AA. The older son was cut from the team, and the board made another “coincidental” decision to not renew the Vannellis’ contract.

Mark Strobel has undergone his own private turmoil in recent years, even if some of it might be self-induced. He and his wife divorced eight years ago, he is estranged from his son and daughter, and reportedly he and identical twin Mike are not on speaking terms. None of that appears to be an issue if he can prove to be a great coach in his first attempt to be a head coach. That may be all that matters to St. Thomas Academy.

Mike Randolph is eager to coach again this upcoming season and is checking out various openings. As the record stands now, St. Thomas Academy can evaluate the comparable head-coaching wins: Mike Randolph – 707; Mark Strobel – 0.

UMD grad student Brayden Buttweiller pitched a masterful 4-1 victory over Mary at Wade Stadium on the final regular-season weekend.

UMD done: UMD’s baseball and softball teams ended their seasons last weekend. The softball team won its way into the Northern Sun Conference championship game with two impressive performances, but in the final, the Bulldogs ran into league champion Augustana and were blitzed 9-0. The Bulldogs managed three hits — by Morgan McMillan, Elle Potts and Julia Gronholz — off Augustana pitcher Grace Glanzer, who struck out nine and walked one.

Those were the only three hits Glanzer allowed in three games. UMD finished 41-15 for the season. The UMD baseball team came through with a heartwarming performance on its final weekend. Brayden Buttweiller, a graduate senior from Las Vegas, kept up a constant game plan of throwing strikes. The lanky left-hander had a no-hitter through the first five innings in the first game of a doubleheader Friday at Wade Stadium against the University of Mary Marauders as the Bulldogs posted a 4-1 victory.

Buttweiller was eager to throw his third complete game, but his control escaped him in the sixth when he walked in a run and was relieved for the final out. Mary came back to rip the Bulldogs 7-2 in the nightcap, but UMD climaxed the season with a 5-2 victory on a drizzly Saturday afternoon. UMD finished 14-26 in the NSIC and 18-31 overall.

Future promise: Freshman Sam Kliber delivered a single and a run-scoring squeeze bunt to help UMD beat Mary 4-1.