Nine days ago, Steve Rohlik thought he was going to have to go job-hunting.
As it turned out, he didn’t have to go far to find the one he wanted.
Less than a week and a half after Mark Osiecki, the man who brought him to Columbus, was fired as the Ohio State men’s hockey coach, Rohlik was tabbed as the ninth head coach in program history Wednesday afternoon.
Rohlik admitted the intervening time was “an emotional roller coaster, a whirlwind,” but when the former OSU associate head coach sat down to think about his options in the aftermath of Osiecki’s dismissal, one thing became clear – he wanted to stay in Scarlet and Gray.
“It certainly was an emotional week, there’s no question on that,” said Rohlik, who had been named interim coach last Tuesday. “But when I went through this whole week, I looked at the kids we have in this locker room. I looked at the staff we have and the people around here and the passion for Ohio State hockey. I certainly felt like I needed to express that to the administration. I felt my time was ready.
“There’s not an exact blueprint on how you get to this spot. There’s no book you can read and you’re going to get this ending. My journey has taken a lot of different paths, but I believe in myself, I believe in this program … and I knew this was the place I wanted to be.”
It didn’t take Ohio State long to agree. After the posting for the job expired Sunday, athletics administration interviewed only Rohlik in person before inking him to a five-year contract.
“We believe we have a very good program right now in the locker room and we have great student-athletes,” said associate AD Chris Schneider, who oversees the hockey program. “When we opened up this position, we knew that there would be a lot of interest in leading our men’s ice hockey program, but the more that I talked with student-athletes and our staff and Coach Rohlik over the past week, I knew we wouldn’t have to look very far for the next head coach of our program.”
The St. Paul, Minn., native will be a first-time head coach at the NCAA level after having spent the previous 16 years as an assistant. Before his three seasons with Osiecki at OSU, Rohlik spent 10 years on the bench under Scott Sandelin at Minnesota Duluth, and he also worked with Mike Kemp at Nebraska-Omaha from 1998-2000.
Before that, Rohlik was the head coach at his prep alma mater, Hill-Murray High School in Maplewood, Minn., after also working as an assistant coach at Wisconsin in 1991. One year prior, he was a captain on the Badgers’ 1990 national championship team along with Osiecki.
That winning edge has seemingly followed Rohlik, who helped UMD to the 2004 Frozen Four and a 2009 Western Collegiate Hockey Association championship. During his career, he has recruited and/or coached two Hobey Baker Award winners, 12 All-Americans and 18 players who have reached the NHL.
It looked like such a turnaround might be in the offing at OSU under Osiecki. The Buckeyes finished fourth in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association this season and made an appearance at Joe Louis Arena for the semifinals of the league tournament, both occurrences that had not happened since 2005. In addition, sophomore Tanner Fritz led the league in scoring, while senior goaltender Brady Hjelle was named a first-team All-American.
“Each year, we always evaluate our programs, and a lot of times our fans help us in that evaluation,” Schneider said. “I can agree with our fans when I say our men’s hockey program is doing great things. We believe that on the ice, our men’s program has evolved very well in the last three years, as is evident with our fourth-place finish in the CCHA and advancing to the (league) semifinals.
“What our fans may not know if our student-athletes in our men’s hockey program are also excelling in the classroom, and they are also great representatives of this university and this department.”
Since his hiring, Osiecki had talked about the culture of excellence he expected both on and off the ice, which was shown by the fact that a full two-thirds of the team was named OSU Scholar-Athletes this year for having cumulative GPAs above 3.0.
However, Osiecki’s dismissal was announced April 15 by athletic director Gene Smith in a terse statement that referred to a “difference of opinion over the management of the program that could not be resolved.” Osiecki told BSB that the firing was not preceded by any critique of his coaching style from Ohio State leadership, though sources have told BSB of discord within the team and department in the way Osiecki ran the program.
Now, the program falls into the hands of Rohlik, who will be tasked with not only maintaining Ohio State’s turnaround but increasing it in what should be the toughest conference in the nation.
The Buckeyes are set to debut this season in what should be an ultra-competitive Big Ten Conference with traditional powers Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Minnesota – all of whom have won at least three national titles – as well as the new program at Penn State.
“I’d like to think our expectations are high,” Rohlik said. “We know we’re playing in the best league in the country. We’re playing against the quote-unquote powerhouses of college hockey, but you know what, that’s why we’re here and that’s why we’re moving into that conference. I feel good about what we have in the locker room. I feel good about the kids we have coming in. We’re going to compete, we’re going to show up, and I’d like to think that we’ll give ourselves a chance to win a lot of hockey games.”
He’ll have the support of his players, a group of whom approached Schneider and went to bat for Rohlik after the decision to relieve Osiecki of his duties.
“It’s just the type of person he is,” sophomore forward Ryan Dzingel said. “We understand he brings passion and energy every single day. We wanted someone who is going to lead us the right way, and that’s the guy who is going to do it.”
Rohlik – who was described by Osiecki as the former head coach’s “recruiting coordinator” after his arrival at OSU – added that he had reached out to Ohio State’s recruits in the wake of Osiecki’s firing and felt “really comfortable moving forward” in that realm. The Buckeyes in the fall signed three players, including a pair of NHL draft picks in forward Zach Stepan and goalie Matt Tomkins, and Rohlik said OSU received all of the NLIs it expected in the spring period as well.
The fan base will likely be a tougher sell. Many have been left puzzled by the abrupt decision to part ways with Osiecki, and with the thought of entering the Big Ten in mind, some fans wanted a bigger name to lead OSU’s program. However, Schneider believes the Buckeyes have made the correct choice.
“I think we’ve got the right guy,” the associate athletic director said. “It’s that simple. We have the best interest of this program in mind, the best interest of our student-athletes and staff, and moving forward, we believe Coach Rohlik is the guy.”
As for his lack of experience heading a major program before now, Rohlik said he is ready.
“I think 40-plus years for me being a player and a coach, 21 years as a coach, has put me in this position,” Rohlik said. “Every level I’ve been at as a player, I’ve been a leader, been a captain. It feels like I’ve been coaching since I was 7 years old, so this experience has put me in a position where I can stand here today and honestly say I’m ready to be a head coach.”
Rohlik will retain the services of assistant coach Joe Exter, who worked with the team’s goalies. An assistant coach job to fill the open slot on the staff has been posted on Ohio State’s human resources website.