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Inside Mike Cavanaugh’s decision to stay at UConn

Despite legitimate interest from Boston College, Cavanaugh never seriously considering leaving UConn.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

UConn men’s hockey coach Mike Cavanaugh stood along the third base line of Elliott Ballpark in Storrs as the Huskies’ baseball team took on Yale Wednesday afternoon. He donned a Hook C hat and closely followed the action on the field. When a UConn player hit a ball up the line, he yelled at it to stay fair.

As Cavanaugh prepares for his 10th season in Storrs this fall, he’s not just someone who coaches at UConn. He’s a UConn coach through and through. He knows the school’s history of success in basketball as well as soccer, field hockey and baseball — and wants his program to reach that same standard.

Cavanaugh is getting closer to that goal. He guided the Huskies into their Hockey East Era and has turned the program into a consistent contender in one of the toughest conferences in the nation. This past year, they went on a run to the Hockey East championship game before falling in overtime.

Now, Cavanaugh is set to continue the build at UConn for the foreseeable future. Last Thursday, the coach put out a statement that declared his commitment to the Huskies’ program, ending all speculation about his future in Storrs. For 10 days prior, rumors swirled that he was a top candidate to be Boston College’s next head coach.

While there was plenty of speculation — as well as inaccurate reports — there was some truth to it to the matter. Cavanaugh did talk with BC about the position but never seriously considered leaving UConn.

“My heart was here,” he said on Wednesday.

Cavanaugh spent 18 years on the bench at Boston College as an assistant to Jerry York and played a part in four national championships and 15 Hockey East titles. So when the legendary head coach retired a few weeks ago, Cavanaugh’s name was naturally one of the first mentioned as a possible replacement.

It didn’t take long for Boston College to reach out and even though the coach was plenty happy at UConn, he felt obligated to meet with the school. After all, Cavanaugh spent nearly two decades there and had too much respect for people he used to work with in the athletic department to not at least hear what they had to say. So he sat down with Boston College once and while no formal offer was made, it made its interest clear.

Unfortunately for the Eagles, the feeling was one-sided. To the dismay of Boston College’s administration, Cavanaugh soon pulled his name out of consideration.

The coach was at Chestnut Hill a few weeks prior to York’s retirement, though that had nothing to do with the Eagles’ coaching search. He just happened to be in the area and planned on getting lunch with an old friend from his BC days. At the time, UConn had been struggling to find a space to put skates in the locker room of the school’s new arena, so Cavanaugh checked out Boston College’s setup and also looked at its shooting area. He never spoke to anyone in the school’s administration while he was there.

During the entire process, Cavanaugh only had that one meeting about the vacant position at The Heights. It never went any further than that.

So why did Cavanaugh turn down a chance to potentially take over at one of the most prestigious programs on the east coast to stay at UConn?

It starts with loyalty.

If Cavanaugh didn’t get hired in the summer of 2013 to guide the Huskies from Atlantic Hockey to Hockey East, he planned to leave the coaching business completely. UConn is the only place that gave him a shot to be a head coach and he remains grateful for it. Through Cavanaugh’s nine years in Storrs, the school — and the people that run it — have never given him any reason to want to leave, either.

The athletic department has also shown a commitment to both the program and Cavanaugh himself. Last May, it broke ground on a new, on-campus hockey arena that’s set to open within the next year. That same month, UConn also gave Cavanaugh a five year, $1.9 million contract extension and came back with a new deal as BC’s interest heated up.

But most of all, Cavanaugh couldn’t leave the program he’s built from scratch. While the school has fielded a varsity hockey team since 1960, there are few similarities between the current version of the Huskies and those from both the Atlantic Hockey and Division III Eras (1960-1998).

When Cavanaugh arrived, UConn didn’t offer hockey scholarships and it played its home games in the barebones Freitas Ice Forum. Since then, the Huskies have finished fifth or better in four of the last five seasons, have been ranked each of the last two years and came one goal away from winning their first Hockey East championship and reaching their first NCAA Tournament in March.

After coming tantalizingly close to the program’s first real breakthrough, Cavanaugh has unfinished business to attend to.

If Boston College came calling a few years ago, Cavanaugh might’ve felt differently. But now that his family is getting older, the new rink is going up and he’s become more established at UConn, he didn’t want to leave it all behind. Cavanaugh still has plenty of love for his home of 18 years — he met his wife at Chestnut Hill and their two kids were baptized on the campus — but that chapter of his time at BC has ended. He’s not ready to start a new one.

“I want to continue to write this chapter at UConn,” he said.