Mike Corbett understands why a recruit would be hesitant to come to Alabama-Huntsville. After all, Corbett recently made the gamble to leave Colorado and take charge of a program nearly in shambles.
When Corbett officially accepted the head coaching position at Alabama-Huntsville on July 8, 2013, one of his first acts was to find a goaltender.“We needed a goalie -- we didn’t have a goalie,” Corbett said. “We were literally talking to kids we maybe had seen play, never had talked to, never met and we’re trying to sell them on the program.
"I said to the kids, ‘You got to take a leap of faith with me. I took a leap of faith about a week ago by taking this job and now you got to take a leap of faith with me.’”
Considering the circumstances, it was no average leap of faith. Less than two years before Corbett took over, it was announced that the program was going to be dropped to club level at the end of the 2011-12 season. Though that never came to fruition, the team had faced lean years with a total of nine wins in the prior three years.
A coach in his first head coaching job would normally lean on seniors to help teach the younger players how to be successful. But Corbett hasn’t had that luxury.
Earlier this season, the seniors suffered career loss No. 100.
“The ropes the senior have been through have been losing,” Corbett said. “You can take it one way or the other. They’ve more taught them how to prepare, how to train or how to handle school whereas we as a staff have to get them to understand that as a group of 26, 27 guys what it takes to be a Division I player, how to win. We’ve had six or seven one-goal games and we haven’t gotten over that hump because of the losing mentality to nobody’s fault. They’ve just lost games.”
With the seniors thrust into a leadership role and a seemingly stable future, it was allowed them to look back on what the rough hand they were dealt.
“This year, as seniors, we’ve really reflected on the past few years,” Brice Geoffrion said. “We never really thought about it or analyzed it but it really is incredible some of the things we’ve been through. During that present time that it was happening, you never really thought about it.”
It’s been more than the record where the loses have showed up -- Corbett is the third head coach Geoffrion has seen come through Huntsville.
So when Corbett arrived in Alabama after a successful run as an assistant at Air Force, he noticed right away that the team needed to know that he was in it for the long run.
Now, with the end of the first year under Corbett in sight, the players have no doubts about how seriously Corbett wants to be in Huntsville.
“You can kind of feel he’s here to stay and he’s here to build the program to where it should be,” senior Alex Allan said. “In years past, you could feel like a stepping stone for some coaches or the school wasn’t fully behind the program.”
It’s not just what Corbett says that gives players hope that he’ll stay but it’s his expectation level for the team.
“I think the standard [Corbett and his staff] brought in and raised to this program is something that Alex and I have never had before,” Geoffrion said. “This year has been harder. The practices have been harder, games are a little bit harder and you have more pressure on you to make sure that as a senior you are especially doing all the little things right because you’re a leader and guys are looking up to you to do that.”
Corbett brought in an assistant, Matty Thomas, to work with the defense. Prior to this year, the seniors never had a defensive coach on staff.
The results haven’t been instantaneous but Corbett knew it would be that way. He knew that he would have to institute a step-by-step process to bring the team back to competing for conference titles.
Eleven of the 26 players on this year’s roster are freshmen and is seeing signs that next year’s crop of six or seven newcomers will understand that the program in trending up.
“You’ve got to get kids understanding that we are in this, we’re in this for the long haul and we’re here to win eventually,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of kids visit this year -- some have committed but no kid came away from it saying ‘oh, that place is a bad place,’ or ‘those guys are bad guys.’ They just decided the place wasn’t for them and that’s standard. But they went back to the locker room saying good things and that’s what we want right now.”
Being in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association has been a big boost in getting a recruit’s attention. Teams from the conference have won the national title 37 times -- most of any conference in any sport -- and 16 Hobey Baker Memorial Award winners have played in the conference.
“You can see so many things here starting to turn around and to be part of the full turnaround would be amazing,” freshman Joakim Broberg said. “I know a lot of the other guys and the coaching staff have put in so much faith in work in this program. To see this program successful would mean a lot to us.”
Turning a program around can be a long, tedious process as the players are finding out this season. But all it takes to do it is a leap of faith.