Former Badger Gives Team Fresh Start, While He Finishes His Degree


Granato called this unusual arrangement exciting, in part because three of his four children already have graduated from college and the fourth will graduate from the University of Colorado in May.

“It’s been a challenge, just from the standpoint that there are lots of things going on during the day, and you’ve got to prioritize,” he said. “I’ve got to make sure I’m taking care of the school part of it.”

He does that by carving out time away from his work to study, even while in a plane or a car on recruiting trips.

“Every day, I try to save a few hours to get my studying and work done,” he said. “It’s just like in coaching, where you’ve got to get yourself ready for meetings and presentations.”

Photo

Granato during the Badgers’ exhibition game against Victoria in Madison, Wisc., on Oct. 1.

Credit
Lauren Justice for The New York Times

Mary Weaver-Klees, the associate director of academic services who oversees the men’s basketball and hockey programs, calls Granato “the perfect advisee.”

“He’s been amazing,” she added. “He embraces this. He takes it so incredibly seriously.”

During his days as a Badgers player, Granato was named the Western Collegiate Hockey Association’s Student-Athlete of the Year in the 1986-87 season.

“I was a good student, but I wasn’t a great student because I didn’t love school,” he reflected on a walk to class last week. “I did well, and didn’t mind it, but my drive was hockey.

“Now, I’m enjoying it. It’s a different experience, because now I see the importance of learning and why you need to keep learning.”

Weaver-Klees said Granato’s players were following his lead.

“He tells his team to get their homework done first to free time to focus on hockey when they’re on the ice,” she said.

Mark Osiecki, an assistant coach for Granato, said that when he is out recruiting, “we point to Tony and what he’s doing” to give parents an example of how seriously the Badgers take academics.

Granato, 52, was hired to revive the program. Eaves, another former Badgers star, won titles as a player (1977) and coach (2006), but his last two seasons in Madison produced only 12 victories in 70 games.

Wisconsin had led the nation in attendance for 38 of the previous 43 years through the 2011-12 season, first at the Dane County Coliseum and since 1998 at the on-campus Kohl Center, which seats 15,237. Last season, ticket sales were 52 percent below 2006, the most recent of Wisconsin’s six championship seasons, and the attendance of 6,467 for the Northern Michigan game was the lowest in Kohl history.

After firing Eaves, Athletics Director Barry Alvarez targeted the former Badgers Don Granato, Tony’s brother and the head coach of the United States national team development program; Osiecki, a former assistant at Wisconsin and head coach at Ohio State; and the women’s coach Mark Johnson, a member of the gold-medal-winning 1980 United States Olympic team.

Tony Granato was not initially considered because he was thought of as “an N.H.L guy,” Alvarez said.

Granato, who at the time was an assistant with the Detroit Red Wings, had been coaching in the N.H.L. since 2002, a year after his 13-year playing career ended.

In his fifth-floor office overlooking Camp Randall Stadium, where he led the Badgers football team to three Big Ten and Rose Bowl titles in 16 years as coach, Alvarez shook his head when asked if he had any idea of hiring Granato when he called him in March to ask his advice on the candidates.

As their conversation progressed, Alvarez recalled, Granato asked, “Would you want me to apply?” Alvarez responded, “Are you interested?”

When Granato told Alvarez that he had thought and dreamed about returning to his alma mater one day, Alvarez said, “Let’s go for it.” Granato’s brother Don and Osiecki, whom Granato has known for 30 years, joined him as assistants.

“For me, it was probably the only way for us to have the best chance for success and do things right,” Granato said of his staff.

Although Wisconsin is coming off the worst consecutive seasons in program history, it does not have an urgent need to rebuild. Eight of the top 10 scorers return, including the leading scorer Luke Kunin, a sophomore forward who was the 15th pick in the N.H.L. draft in June. Four other Badgers were taken in the first five rounds, including the freshman forward Trent Frederic, at No. 29 over all.

“There are a lot of good players here,” Granato said. “The pieces are in place. That I’m sure of.”

He said his Badgers would play with creativity offensively. “I want to be on the attack,” he said. “We want the energy back in our building.”

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Tony Granato, the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey coach, worked with his tutor, Angela Forgues, on a paper this week.

Credit
Lauren Justice for The New York Times

Granato’s passion for Wisconsin hockey already reverberates through the campus.

The junior forward Cameron Hughes said he had noticed “a big buzz” heading into the season, which begins Friday in Green Bay against Northern Michigan. Season ticket sales are up 15 percent.

Connor Knop, a junior from Lake Forest, Ill., arrived on campus two years ago expecting to see high-level college hockey, so he called the past two seasons a “bummer.”

Granato, described as “feisty” as a player by his brother Don, now channels his enthusiasm into promoting Wisconsin hockey.

Tara Genske, who interacts regularly with Granato as part of Wisconsin athletics’ Guest Services department, said: “From Day 1, he has come in and been the most personable, most polite and his enthusiasm and energy being here is palpable and it’s infectious. You can’t not be in a good mood when he’s around.”

Granato’s connections to Wisconsin hockey and Madison run deep. His youngest brother, Rob, also played for the Badgers, as did his cousin Kevin Granato, and his niece Baylee Wellhausen plays for Wisconsin’s women’s team. Granato’s wife, Linda, is a Madison native, and for the 13 years he played in the N.H.L., Madison was their off-season home.

Having his brother and Osiecki as assistant coaches adds to the comfortable atmosphere for Granato, whose last head coaching job was with the Colorado Avalanche in the 2008-9 season.

“We’re very much in tune with each other on what we bring to the table,” Granato said.

Osiecki added, “It seems like we’ve always coached together. There’s no hidden agenda except for the program to excel.”

Pointing to pictures of past Wisconsin teams on the wall outside of his team’s locker room, Granato noted that wherever you saw his brother, Osiecki was next to him. So close are they, Granato joked, holding his thumb and index finger a couple of inches apart, “If they get this far away from each other, they get nervous.”

Now all three are together for this first time, at the university that means so much to all of them.

“This is home,” Granato said on the way back to his office after class. “This is what we want to be part of.”

Correction: October 6, 2016

An earlier version of this article misstated the surname of an employee of the University of Wisconsin’s athletics department. She is Tara Genske, not Genges.

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