Any conversation about the greatest coach in Boston sports history begins and ends with Arnold “Red” Auerbach. Creating the greatest basketball dynasty in history, winning eight straight championships and drafting, developing and coaching the greatest defensive player of all time pretty much seals the deal.
But in between there’s plenty of room for further discussion and debate.
There’s Bill Belichick, Terry Francona, Doc Rivers, Claude Julien and Jack Parker. The accomplishments of all five are very much in the forefront of any discussion of coaching legacy in Boston.
Then there’s Jerry York.
I’m here to tell you that -- after Red Auerbach -- what the hockey coach has accomplished at his alma mater of Boston College stands behind only Red’s nine NBA titles in 10 years as the greatest coaching legacy in Boston sports history.
Sometime in the next two months or so, York, who turned 67 on July 25, will pass one-time rival Ron Mason for the most wins in college hockey history (Mason has 925). York is in his 41st season as a college head coach, 19th at Boston College.
In this day and age, what separates York and his 915 wins and .619 winning percentage from names like Bobby Knight, Jim Boeheim, Adolph Rupp, Jim Calhoun and even his crosstown rival and friend Jack Parker (878) is the practically spotless ethical and academic record York has established at The Heights.
York -- like he was on Thursday after practice -- has been on a treadmill of success not seen in Boston collegiate history. I waited for him to finish his workout before asking him to recount his rise up the coaching ladder and the principles he holds so close.
“I was fortunate to have a family, 10 children, a great place to grow up,” York said of his upbringing in Watertown and his days at Boston College High School. “I was just raised right. Those [values] are just instilled in me. It comes fairly easy to me. I don’t have to struggle with black and white issues. I know what’s right and what’s wrong."
How serious is he about this? Well, toward the end of our 30-minute chat in his office Thursday, York hands me a copy of the student newspaper. He informs me that he was so offended by the language coming from the UMass student section at their game last weekend that he wrote a letter to the editor. He wanted to make sure BC fans don’t reciprocate -- ever.
“Please don’t curse,” York wrote as part of his plea. “We travel to other arenas and hear things I never want to hear. Our hockey program belongs to BC. It belongs to the students, alums young and old, and fans alike.”
There was early inspiration for York ideals at BC, in the form of a conversation with BC president Father J. Donald Monan.
“I remember a conversation when I was first hired in June 1994. Had to be 11 o’clock at night and met with [then-athletic director] Chet Gladchuk and brought me to Father Monan’s office,” York told me. “Father Monan said he had a vision for what we wanted to accomplish. ‘I would like to see players come to BC and four years later, when they leave with a diploma in one hand and a [championship] ring on the other hand. I think that’s a reasonable assumption we can go after.’
“I thought to myself, what a great analysis. And those words have stuck with me ever since. I thought everything was in place. The facilities, the administration was fully supporting hockey and students were fully behind us. And win more national championships that had eluded us. Lenny [Ceglarski] was awfully close. I always thought we should be like Michigan and Denver and teams from the West.
“Fifty schools play. There always seemed to be that dozen schools that, ‘You have it this year, we’ll have it next year.’ We wanted to get in that group.”
Ironically, York was passed over by Boston College in 1972 when it chose another legendary coach in Ceglarski, who arrived from Clarkson.
“What’s funny is that then-athletic director William Flynn called me at 6 in the morning and told me, ‘Jerry, we’re going in another direction. You just don’t have the experience.’ I totally understood that. He was absolutely correct,” York recalled. “Two weeks later, the athletic director at Clarkson called and said, 'We’re not going to even have a search. You’re our guy.' "
York took over for Celgarski and coached seven years the Potsdam, N.Y., school. He moved on to Bowling Green, after Mason left for Michigan State. York won his first national title at the Ohio school in 1984.
What’s incredible is the good fortune of Boston College after passing over York twice more. BC promoted assistant Steve Cedorchuk in 1992. Then after two years in which the Eagles won a combined 24 games, the school selected former Bruins defenseman Mike Milbury, who took the job for 100 days before leaving.
That left another door open, and BC finally chose York.
“I didn’t think it was ever going to happen,” York said. “It’s funny because when I did come for the press conference and Bill Flynn was in the audience and came up to me and said, ‘Jerry, you have more experience now.’ ”
As is the case with every college coach, York has had his moments when he has had to lay down the law and take disciplinary action.
York prides himself on recruiting the right type of athlete for his program.
The story he told me on the eve of his first national championship with Boston College in 2001 sums up the ideal he’s looking for in every athlete he recruits.
“Brian Gionta was one of the Hobey Baker finalists and we had just beaten Michigan to face North Dakota in the championship,” York said. “It was the Friday before the national championship and I got the word from the committee that they were going with Ryan Miller as the winner. I had to tell Brian because it was the elephant in the room and break the news in our team meeting because everyone was wondering. I get up in front of the whole team, and he must’ve had the sense he didn’t win, because he gets up and says, ‘Coach, don’t worry about it. I just came for one trophy. That’s all I’m here for.’
“I thought, wow, you have your best player and he’s telling you and the team, ‘Hey, coach, don’t worry about the Hobey Baker.' For him to say that -- because so many kids are focused on [individual] honors.”
The Eagles went out and beat North Dakota in an epic 3-2 overtime contest, won when Krys Kolanos scored 4:43 into the first extra period.
As is the case with York’s career at BC, there was great symmetry in that title win.
BC, which finished the season with a record of 33-8-2, earned its first NCAA hockey crown in 52 years by beating the three schools that had eliminated the Eagles in the three previous Frozen Fours: Michigan (1998), Maine (1999) and North Dakota (2000).
The loss to Michigan was particularly hard to take. That was the Frozen Four held in Boston at the building then known as the FleetCenter. BC was favored on the same ice on which it had won the Hockey East title.
“That loss in Boston [in 1998] was really heartbreaking,” York recalled. “We had been so very close so often in the years leading up to the [title], that’s what made that really sweet.”
Boston University’s championship in 1995 broke a nine-year title drought for Boston fans. But BC’s 2001 championship would kick off a run never before seen in the city’s legendary sports history.
Starting with the Eagles' title on April 4, 2001, the Patriots won their first Super Bowl 10 months later in New Orleans. The Pats would win twice more in the next three years. The Red Sox ended their World Series drought in epic fashion in 2004 and added another title in ’07. The Celtics won it all in ’08 and the Bruins won their title in 2011.
Which brings us to the powerful respect all of the above coaches have for York.
Say the name Jerry York to Belichick, Francona, Rivers and Julien, and they all bubble over with praise. All have met York at one time or another. Like on Aug. 25, 2011, when Belichick brought York into Foxboro for training camp on the same day his friend Jon Bon Jovi was on the field.
“Pretty big day for us yesterday to have a guy who’s sold 120 million records and Jerry York out there that’s won whatever it is, 800 or 900-however many games, a lot more than I’ve won, I’ll tell you that,” Belichick said.
Raved York on Thursday: “On a multifaceted level, I can watch [Belichick] handle players, handle media, and the thing is when he’s talking to our players, the two or three times he’s been over here, his personality is incredible. He lights up the whole room. I know in the press box he has a certain persona and he’s not going to vary that. But I just like how he handles expectations. I’ve read a number of books about him. I thought the TV show, ‘A Football Life’ was outstanding. Just the way he carries himself, I can learn a lot from him.”
That tradition continues. On Thursday at Celtics practice, Rivers had York stop by the Waltham practice facility and observe.
“It doesn’t matter,” York said. “The carryover from Red Sox to Bruins, and Bruins specifically, is incredible. And then just watching the Celtics, the intensity with [Kevin] Garnett 15 minutes into practice, watching film, and he’s just locked in. Talked to my players about that. Here’s a veteran who’s been through so many wars and he’s still working. And [Paul] Pierce is the same way. They are just locked in.
“There’s probably not one thing I don’t learn from those people. I watch their practices, the game, and their demeanor on the bench. I watch Doc Rivers. I think his communication skills with the players are incredible. Garnett comes up to him [Thursday] during a drill and says, 'Where do you want me, coach? I’ll do whatever you want.'
“That type of [respect] from player to coach, we’re in this together. We’re not going to battle [each other].”
Which brings us to perhaps the most important lesson of all. Wins are best achieved when you don’t count them. I tried every possible way to get York to elaborate on what 925 wins would mean.
“We kid about it a little with Bill and myself, and Terry when he was in here one time,” York said. “We’re not really involved in [counting]. My daughter is always counting W's. But we’re more in the present, next period, next shift. I don’t wake up each morning and think, ‘I got another win.’ It’s not part of my fabric.
“I see that in Doc. I see that in Bill. I saw that in Terry when he was here because I knew him fairly well. I don’t think you survive in this business if you’re focused on, 'Gee, what can I [accomplish]?' If I’m telling players when they’re going out the door that we’re going to chase [championship] trophies and not All-American and Hobey Baker awards, I’ve got to be the same way. People might have a hard time believing that, but the [record wins] are not a factor.”
But 925 will come. And when it does, what else is left to accomplish? How long can York see himself doing this?
“I like it,” York said. “It comes up in recruiting all the time: ‘How long are you going to do it, coach?’ Hey, I’m healthy, I’m in good shape. I love what I do. I have no intention of sailing off and seeing the world. I like what I do.”
And now he’ll be working with Brad Bates, who comes to BC from another hockey school, Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, a school York beat in the 2010 national semifinals on his way to the championship.
“This is the seventh athletic director I’ve worked for, and I get along with all of them,” York said. “Brad and I started off right off the bat in a good relationship.”
Truth be told, York gets along with everybody in every walk of life. It's a trait he says he gets from his father, Robert, who was a old-style doctor who made house calls.
“My dad was a great role model who I am like the most,” York said. “He was a family doctor and worked at St. Elizabeth’s for years.”
The Eagles have since added titles in ’08, ’10 and just last April when they won their fifth NCAA crown, beating Minnesota and Ferris State by a combined 10-2 score.
When York took over in 1994, BC had one national title in its trophy case. The Eagles now have five, matching the number of the crosstown Terriers, once thought to be the dominant hockey program in town.
Now it’s York who will be revered. How would he like to characterize his legacy?
“As someone who carried on the legacy of BC, because I have a great respect for the people who came before me, and hopefully for many more years,” he said.
With the NHL on an indefinite leave of absence, now, would be a great time to start paying attention to one of the greatest coaching legacies ever to grace the Boston sports landscape.
With York on the edge of history, we thought it a good time to get your opinion on the greatest coach in Boston history? The answers -- which shouldn’t surprise -- are here in the Trags Bag.
@LarryBird33 Easy, Red, because of the rings and the fact that he didn't have ANY assistant coaches for the majority of his career
@CGLoyalist Gotta be Red Auerbach for me. Why? Becuz he IS the #Celtics.
@Farmstrong27 Doc Rivers. Grew up watching him play and love his temperament.
@KeithGormley Red. The numbers speak for themselves.
@Sportsgal1972 Red!!!! Go to the Garden and look up. That's why.
@CJP8286 Tito!! Look what he did 4 Red Sox nation... 2004 and 2007 World Series champs!! Love him!!
@kcarts I can tell you Pitino is my least favorite. Set C's back a decade.
@jboston19 Red. Won often with style.