Mel Pearson, Michigan’s hockey coach the last five seasons, will not have his contract extended and has been relieved of his position, the university’s athletic department announced Friday.
This comes just days following the revelation of allegations made against Pearson and “cultural issues” identified in the program that “require attention” in a 70-page report from Washington DC-based WilmerHale law firm. The report, obtained Tuesday by The Detroit News, was given to Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel on May 5.
Pearson’s original five-year contract expired at the end of April, just more than three weeks after he had taken his team to the NCAA Frozen Four. Pearson, 63, has been the head coach of Michigan’s hockey program since 2017, taking the program to two Frozen Four appearances, and continued to work as what Michigan described as “an at-will employee” the last three months in this role despite not having a new contract.
“It has been determined that Mel Pearson will not return as our ice coach,” Manuel said in a release from the athletic department Friday afternoon. “This decision has been weighed heavily and for some time. We welcomed an independent third-party review into the climate and culture of our program before furthering our assessment in lockstep with campus leadership.
“Our student-athletes having a positive and meaningful experience is of paramount importance, and a clear expectation within our department is that all employees and staff are valued and supported. I deeply appreciate and value the many individuals who came forward throughout this review. Today’s announcement reflects the seriousness with what we’ve heard and the values we hold dear at Michigan.”
Pearson told The Detroit News after the news was released Friday that he “can’t comment right now.”
Manuel last spoke publicly about Pearson’s status after a university Regents meeting on June 16 when he presented the athletic department budget. He spoke with two reporters and was asked if he anticipated Pearson being the hockey coach this upcoming season.
“He’s our hockey coach, and I anticipate him being our hockey coach,” Manuel said at the time.
Manuel said at the time he did not have an issue with a coach working without a contract.
“We’re working through everything,” Manuel said in June. “He’s working and continuing to be our hockey coach. There’s no difference in my mind in what we’re doing. We’re just working through a process and looking at the things that we need to address and we’ll move forward.”
Pearson had confirmed the investigation, first reported in January by MLive, to the Michigan Daily student newspaper in February and told the paper he was “confident that the allegations will be proven wrong.”
According to the report, Pearson lied to investigators, including denying a conversation took place before a recording of the conversation was presented. Among the allegations, that Pearson discriminated against female staff members, he retaliated against one of his student-athletes for raising concerns about the culture of the program, and Pearson advised players to lie on COVID-19 tracing forms before the 2021 NCAA Tournament. Because of COVID issues within the team, the NCAA Division I Men’s Ice Hockey Committee, removed Michigan from the 2020-2021 tournament.
Former director of hockey operations Rick Bancroft, who retired from the position in June, was also accused of discriminating against women on the hockey staff. Bancroft, according to the report, allegedly knew of sexual misconduct by Dr. Robert Anderson, a physical in the Michigan athletic department.
The report concluded that “multiple instances” have been identified in which “team leadership acted unprofessionally — especially in interactions with female staff members and in treatment of student athletes” but that Pearson did not directly violate Michigan’s policy on sexual and gender-based misconduct. Still, the report identified a number of issues.
“We do have concerns about the culture and operation of the men’s hockey program,” the report reads.
The complainant in the report is Steve Shields, a former Wolverine goalkeeper who served as a volunteer director of player development for the program. Shields issued a complaint to the Equity, Civil Rights, and Title IX Office (ECRT), which then referred the investigation to WilmerHale, according to the report.
WilmerHale also investigated allegations of sexual misconduct against Dr. Anderson earlier this year.
The report states that evidence suggests “(Shields) confronted (Pearson) about the mistreatment of women in the hockey program on at least one occasion and that hockey program staff understood (Pearson) to be aware of complaints that Mr. Bancroft bullied his female colleagues .”
One key member in the report is former goaltender Strauss Mann, who captained Michigan in 2020-21 and was named a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award. According to the report, Mann, who declined to be interviewed for the investigation, raised concerns about Pearson’s handling of various issues within the program, including Pearson encouraging the team to lie on contact tracing forms.
It’s alleged Pearson forced Mann to leave the program for serving as the “ringleader” of players who brought upon concerns that could get him fired.
“These accounts reveal a widespread assumption within the hockey program that (Pearson) linked (Shields) to issues surrounding the treatment of student athletes and in particular (Pearson’s) conflict with Mr. Mann,” the report said. “And, as noted above, (Pearson) appeared to view the concerns being raised by Mr. Mann as a serious threat to his position as head coach.
“At the very least, the evidence is clear that Mr. Mann believed that his status with the hockey program was in serious jeopardy because of friction with (Pearson).”
Pearson was Manuel’s first head-coaching hire after taking over as athletic director.
“I try to bring the best people to lead our programs that I can,” Manuel said during the news conference in 2017 to introduce Pearson as head coach. “I want great coaches who are great people, who are going to be great citizens of this university and this department and the community.”
Pearson was a Michigan assistant coach for 23 seasons — from 1988-1999 and associate head coach from 1999-2011 — under Red Berenson before taking over as Michigan Tech head coach for six seasons. He led Michigan Tech to two NCAA Tournament appearances.