The UW announced its firing of Eaves on Friday, a day after the Badgers' 5-2 loss to Penn State in the B1G 10/12/14 quarterfinals. The defeat in St. Paul ended an 8-19-8 season that included only three wins in 21 games against conference opponents. It also ended to a two-year span in which Wisconsin went 12-45-13 -- 5-30-7 in conference -- the worst back-to-back stretch in program history. By far.
Those weren't just losing seasons. Those were dispiriting, non-competitive seasons.
That's a startling fall from grace for a program that has six national championships, including the 2006 title with Eaves behind the bench. But that was ten years ago, and six years have passed since Wisconsin last reached the Frozen Four. For Badger fans, that's too long to wait.
Wisconsin's historically loyal supporters expressed their unhappiness by their absence. Attendance has dropped to an 18-year low and the average turnout dipped under 10,000 for the first time since the move to the Kohl Center -- one of college hockey's top venues -- in 1998. USCHO.com reports season ticket sales have dropped 23% from just a year ago and 50% from 2007.
That's bad news for a UW athletic department that relies on men's hockey as a revenue sport; the growing disinterest forced the hand of AD Barry Alvarez. ""Our fans and everyone expect more," Alvarez told the Wisconsin State Journal. "With our facilities and what we have to sell, we feel we should be at a championship level."
What led to Eaves' demise? One fault was a noticeable decline in recruiting.
In 2006, Wisconsin's last national championship season, Eaves' assistants included Mark Osiecki and Bill Howard. The former was a former Badger player who went on to be head coach at Ohio State and is now an assistant in the AHL. The latter turned Wisconsin into "Goaltender U," tutoring keepers like Julian Baretta, Marc Behrend, Mike Richter, Curtis Joseph, Duane Derksen and Brian Elliott.
But those two were long gone (Howard under cloudy circumstances) by the time the nadir arrived, when Eaves had to abruptly change his staff for a host of reasons SB Nation explained in depth.
Another fault is being in the B1G. Since adding men's hockey in 2013, the conference simply hasn't generated the same passion and zip its members enjoyed in their former leagues. Badger (and Gopher) fans will tell you -- it ain't the WCHA.
Changing conferences gave Wisconsin new rivals. But gaining Michigan State, the Buckeyes and Wolverines (and an ascendant Penn State) hasn't made up for the loss of North Dakota, Denver, Colorado College, Minnesota-Duluth, Michigan Tech and other former long-time WCHA foes. Especially North Dakota. But that's another story for another time.
(The March 14 USCHO poll included three of Wisconsin's former WCHA rivals in the top six; the B1G's highest-ranked team is Michigan, at #7.)
Wisconsin can't do anything about its conference. But it can do something about its new coach. Among the early front runners are Osiecki, George Gwozdecky (a teammate of Eaves' on UW's '77 team), and Don Granato, another former Badger player with long ties to Wisconsin.
But the fan favorite is Mark Johnson. The son of the late "Badger Bob" Johnson, Mark starred on the great '77 team and gained his greatest fame as the leading scorer on the 1980 "Miracle On Ice" US Olympic team. The UW selected Eaves over Mark Johnson when Jeff Sauer retired in 2002; Johnson took over the women's program that year. Since then, he's taken the Badgers to nine Frozen Fours (including this year) and won four national championships.
Suggested reading: Sports Illustrated's story on UW's '77 title (written by Peter Gammons). That team is considered to be one of the greatest in college hockey history and still permeates Wisconsin's on-ice culture nearly 40 years later.
Added bonus: The cover story on Al McGuire's last Marquette basketball team.