And if, while following him, you ever feel a disapproving cluck rising inside your palate, as I sometimes do, don’t forget that inside most people you read about in history books in a child who fiercely resisted toilet training. Suppose the mess they leave is inseparable from their reach and grasp? Then our judgment depends on what they’re ambitious for—the saving glimmer of wanting something worthy.
Mike Randolph and his Hounds in 2017 after Randolph's 600th career win. Photo courtesy of Karl Schuettler.
Mike Randolph’s tenure at Duluth East ended not in victory or defeat. In fact, it came in a season in which the Hounds did not play a playoff game. It revealed itself not in one of those emotional roller coasters of hugs and tears on the ice after a big game, but in an odd whimper and a hushed-up meeting with school administrators. The caginess of the whole affair showed how high the stakes were, and how vicious the voices involved could be. Few people feel comfortable being the face of the defense when the sharks are circling, and few are willing to be the prosecution after the axe has come down.
Mike Randolph was one of the most intense coaches ever to stalk the bench of a hockey arena. The ability of players to adapt to that reality both made them and broke them. Some kids would skate through brick walls for him; some said he made their high school years a living hell. It was his show, his formula. His control over every aspect of the game allowed him to pull strings that others would not, and occasionally get more out of less than any other coach in Minnesota. He rewarded those who met his standard. Those who did etched themselves into the collective consciousness of several generations of kids passing through a school on the east side of Duluth, their coming-of-age rites of passage in packed arenas in Duluth and St. Paul come playoff time.
Over the years, I have worked hard, sometimes painfully hard, to offer a voice of detached neutrality when it comes to Mike Randolph. In part, that’s who I am, and also in part, it has served my purpose of staying on good terms with just about everyone around a sport that, for me, is a diversion and an escape, not the serious business of life beyond the rink. This position is at odds with many people I interact with, including both Randolph himself and many of the kids and parents involved in the game. Those lives overflow with devotion and passion in the pursuit of a singular goal. The ability to delight in that world and yet still pull oneself out of that cave and see beyond it is not a common gift.
In some ways, my side gig as a hockey commentator was always building until this moment. Never have I been more nervous to send out a Tweet as when I got the go-ahead to share the news of Randolph’s resignation with the world. On the next day, I felt a queasiness my sometimes-weighty day job has never given me when I got to be the fly on the wall at a meeting that supportive, current players asked for with their coach. It was raw and emotional: disbelieving kids, parents in search of a solution, and the grizzled coach pulling fewer punches than in his carefully crafted statement to the press a few days later. Randolph left the door open for a return if the political winds were to turn, but he knew the odds were not in his favor, and he told the gathered crowd as much. Some of the players tried to rally, but the reply one player received from a school board member showed exactly where that course would lead. There were still glimmers of Randolph’s old scheming, but he himself knew it was time to move on.
Later that evening, on a blissful summer night on the grounds of Glensheen, I stumbled upon a former East hockey parent. She extolled Randolph’s impact on her son’s life and shared the reprehensible and false things some detractors asked her to accuse him of to get him removed. A friend with her, meanwhile, had the exact opposite perspective: he lamented his son’s treatment in his time with the program and said he felt relief upon hearing the news of his resignation. The three of us hashed out a healthy conversation about what the man meant and where the program should go next. I am pleased that I have been able to have these conversations face-to-face with people over the past several years. (The grandstanding from anonymous social media or message board users is another story, and one I happily ignore.) The future of Duluth East hockey depends on them.
I got to know Mike some over the years. I wouldn’t call us intimates, but he was certainly willing to spill out his thoughts when he had the time, and he was bracingly honest when he did so. In those interactions, he was only ever gracious, and would offer unsolicited praise for players past and present, including some whose parents I knew to be critics. He had a lot of fun doing what he did. Whatever else Mike Randolph might be, he is a marvelous storyteller possessed of a vicious dry wit. To anyone who enjoys high school hockey, the chance to watch him scribble schemes on napkins and to pick his voluminous memory was a trip down a rabbit hole that was hard to escape. A series of long nights on the town during his last State Tournament at East will forever rank among my favorite high school hockey memories. (I hasten to note that Randolph was completely sober for these encounters, as he has been for many years; he was merely out to suck up the atmosphere of that special week in March.) Over those nights, I saw with my own eyes his ability to pre-script dramatic games, and I got some windows into just how viciously some people treated him. The comparatively drama-free and successful mid-to-late 2010s felt like a valediction to a long career, as a battle-scarred man found peace, received his due, and delighted in the relationships he was building with his players. But history is rarely that easy.
I’ve heard out many parents who did not like Randolph, and I have listened with ears wide open as others talked around me. Their critiques ran the gamut, from line combinations to mind games to some less savory rumors unrelated to hockey. (In 2021, as one of the few non-parents in the pandemic-limited arena, I heard little else.) When I also struggled to see the logic in some of Randolph’s tactical or personnel decisions, I tended to agree with them, and frankly, that was not an uncommon occurrence over the past two years. But it was also interesting to see how, once a parent developed an initial beef, perhaps one with some merit, all of the rest tended to follow. It was almost amusing how the same critiques in the same exact phrasing would filter their way down through the rumor mill from year to year. If Randolph was to be guilty of one thing, he was to be guilty of everything, a black and white world with little room for Greyhounds in between.
Randolph was no doubt hardened by the attacks upon him over his career. As will most anyone who is driven to win, he had an ego and was proud of what he had achieved. He surrounded himself with assistants who were full believers, almost exclusively ex-players who bought in to what he preached and sought to replicate it throughout the system. Loyalty, above all else, became central to the Duluth East program. Many people circle the wagons when under duress, and the strain only seemed to grow over recent seasons, the coaching staff set against a growing camp of bitter skeptics. At what point, I wondered in one late-night discussion with a hockey confidante, was the atmosphere around the program too toxic to endure without a change, whatever Randolph’s merits as a coach?
By 2021, it seemed like Randolph’s supporters felt they had to whisper their actual feelings to me in private lest anyone overhear something that went against this brewing narrative. Given the imbalance in what I was hearing, I was almost stunned when I saw the number of current players and parents who showed up to support the man wholeheartedly at the end. The media narrative since Randolph’s fall has likewise been mostly supportive of the coach. Figures large and small have lamented the power of parents to bring him down, and East players from down the years have blasted the softness and blindness of those who, in their minds, could not see Randolph’s tough love as the demanding standard that could illuminate the path to greatness. I don’t quite buy the argument that Randolph is someone whose style got left behind by the times; some very recent classes, including many of the current underclassmen, appeared to value his frank talk. I also know and respect some parents from much earlier years who still nurse hard feelings. Something much deeper and more fundamental was afoot.
The question throughout the drama has been whether Randolph’s purported sins should cost him his job. I have only been able to look at the evidence before me. At this point, it is little different from the same things I have been hearing for 15-odd years, supplemented by a few emails from past parents who saw in a new school district administration a fresh opportunity to take the man down. There were some rumblings about the booster club, but a district official, I am told, said there were no lingering issues there at a parents’ meeting after his resignation. Opacity denies us closure. The late-stage pandemic further removed any drama from the final act; I expect the school district is all too pleased its meetings are still on Zoom, depriving us of the board room drama that erupted last time around. At some point, the district will, hopefully, comply with the data requests made by the media regarding the complaints against Randolph, and we may learn from the source material if there is anything truly salacious within them. Until then, we are left in a cloud of doubt, sorting through stories that call him the most powerful influence on the lives of some and a source of misery for others, struggling to reconcile the fact that both can be true.
In the moments when hockey has seemed to overwhelm other commitments in my life, I’ve often stopped to wonder why I, a Duluth East alumnus who never skated for the program and the owner of a rich and satisfying life beyond hockey, became such a devoted follower of this sport at this level. The reason, I think, circles back to Mike Randolph: not necessarily to the man himself, but to the idea behind this sometimes brilliant, sometimes intimidating, sometimes flawed human. Life roughed up Randolph in his early years, a tale he told in his final statement: limited resources, his father’s stroke, the care he received from his own high school coach. He bypassed many other roads to wed himself to the little corner of the world that made him, a place where he saw an opportunity and pour out his soul for over three decades. He wrote himself into the lore of a Minnesota tradition and took none of it for granted, scrapping every step of the way, always demanding more.
Perhaps he erred along the way; perhaps his ambition at times took him too far. But the idea he stood for, that glimmer of the worthy pursuit: that lodged in the mind of more than a few teenage strivers in need of some discipline, some fuel for the drive.
Thanks for the memories, coach. The young men you formed include a few who never even played for you.