Overtime: On Steve Cobb’s firing

TNT may know drama, but the UAA athletic department is becoming very friendly with it.

Seawolf backers have had their heads spinning over the last few months as the hockey program has been in flux.

The commotion started with long-time head coach Dave Shyiak receiving his walking papers. A coach can only lose so much, and it appears Shyiak hit his quota. The decision wasn’t hard to wrap one’s around.

Everything that’s happened since then is far from standard. While the school was debuting its candidates for the head-coaching gig, two organizations — the Alaska State Hockey Association and the UAA Hockey Alumni Association — were scribing resolutions against Athletic Director Steve Cobb’s management of the hockey program.

Both associations wanted Cobb out of the picture. In short, they didn’t think UAA hockey was in a position to succeed under the former athletic director.

The public protest must have had an impact, because Chancellor Tom Case decided to re-tool the coaching search, even after the four hopefuls had their public forums on campus.

Shortly after that, stories came out about Shyiak striking a player with a stick during a practice back in 2011. The incident was investigated by Cobb at the time and didn’t warrant a punishment. Case has also backed Cobb’s handling of the situation.

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Even so, the news didn’t help Cobb’s standing during a period when he was already being held to the fire.

Then came Gov. Sean Parnell’s letter to University of Alaska president Patrick Gamble. Parnell urged Gamble to “take a stand.” He asked for action and said the state deserves more from the athletic department. Well, he got his wish.

Now we’re here. Cobb is gone, the hockey team has no coach and the future of UAA athletics is foggy at best.

If there was any question about hockey being the universities flagship sport, I think this firing has given a precise answer. To be athletic director, one better understand what hockey means to UAA and the Anchorage community.

What’s not so clear: Was it Cobb’s treatment of the sport that got him fired or the public outcry against his treatment of the sport that got him fired?

It was likely a combination of the two. Would Cobb still be here had Parnell, ASHA and the Alumni Association not spoken up? Maybe. But their words wouldn’t have held as much weight if not for the abysmal years UAA hockey has had with Cobb on duty.

To frame it in a sports context: Cobb won a lot of regular season games, but failed to bring home a championship ring. And in this scenario, a thriving hockey program is that championship ring.

He simply lost control of the program. If the University of Alabama started dropping football games, heads would roll. Apparently the same thing applies to the Seawolves and hockey, just on a slightly smaller scale.

The new sports arena will become symbolic of the Cobb era. The complex should benefit nearly all of the athletic programs at UAA. Except for hockey, which can’t be played there.

I can’t overstate how big of a blow that could be for the sport. Recruiting to Alaska is hard enough; being edged out from a state-of-the-art facility doubles the difficulty level.

Holding hockey games at the Alaska Airlines Arena could have been vital in progressing the Seawolf hockey culture. A cozy, on-campus venue that is capable of creating a serious home-ice advantage.

Instead, they’ll continue to play in a lifeless Sullivan Arena. Make the team good and the crowds and tradition will grow — easier in theory than practice.

Overall, the errors Cobb made with hockey don’t negate the success he had away from the ice.

Track and field, men’s and women’s basketball, volleyball and cross-country all did great things during Cobb’s run as athletic director. The Seawolf Hall of Fame is also his doing.

Oh yeah, good luck sticking the decline of the Great Alaska Shootout on him. Only an act of God would have saved that tournament from the inevitable. And having said that, the Shootout has actually shown signs of new life lately.

A precedent has been set. It may have always been there, but it is impossible to miss now.

Hockey is number one. And I doubt the next athletic director’s leash will be as long as Cobb’s was when it comes to delivering a competitive hockey program.