During his legendary coaching career he won 924 games. It’s a staggering number, no doubt, but not one that Ron Mason thinks too much about.
“I don’t care how many you win, you have to win the next one to be successful,” he says.
It’s sort of refreshing to hear that nearly 12 years since he last coached a game, his coach speak is still in midseason form.
Mason is best known for his time at Michigan State. He spent 23 seasons as head coach of the Spartans and five and a half years as Michigan State’s athletic director.
What often gets lost in all of that is Mason’s time at Bowling Green and Lake Superior and how responsible he is for the growth of hockey at each school.
For his accomplishments at all three schools, he was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame on Dec. 2.
Mason was one of the founding coaches of the CCHA. The birth of the conference gave Midwest schools an opportunity to reach the NCAA Tournament at a time the field was dominated by WCHA and ECAC teams. Lake and Bowling Green were both huge beneficiaries; both have made multiple NCAA Tournament appearances and have won national championships.
He left Lake after the 1972-73 season, its first in the CCHA, for what he considered to be greener pastures at Bowling Green.
“We were a smaller school [at Lake], but we had a great team up there; we were better than Bowling Green,” Mason said “But I thought the future at Bowling Green was better, they had a new rink at the time, a lot of enthusiasm, a bigger school. I though the recruiting area would open up a little more down in southern Ontario and Detroit, so that’s why I made the move.”
He was at Bowling Green for six years and made an instant mark. He won 160 and a posted a .711 winning percent, the best in school history. In 1977, his Falcons were the first time outside of the WCHA and ECAC to qualify for the NCAA Tournament.
In the two seasons following the NCAA Tournament berth, Mason’s Falcons won 68 games, including a then-record 37 in 1978-79, and won the CCHA Tournament each year.
“I had good players. George McPhee, Ken Morrow, Mark Wells, these are kids that never even came to college in those days and they were super players,” Mason said. “You can’t win without good talent. It’s as simple as that. I saw it all the time; if you’re going to be successful you have to at least work as hard as the other team or out work them. You have to have equal amount of talent or more, and you have to execute and get it done and then you have success. But if you don’t have talent or work ethic you struggle to win games.”
That 1978-79 season was the pinnacle of his success at Bowling Green, but his team was bounced by eventual National Champion Minnesota in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Just like he had done six years earlier, Mason left the school for the greener pastures at Michigan State. But he left Bowling Green in a much better place than he found it.
“What I left behind and took over were two different things,” Mason said. “I knew, eventually, the move to Michigan State would pay off. It gave me more opportunities to do more things, which we did.”
The genesis of his work came full-circle five years after Mason left. Led by Jerry York, the Falcons defeated Minnesota-Duluth to win the 1984 National Title.
“That was great, I was happy for [York], for the program and everyone else,” Mason said. “I was at the game and it was one of the most unbelievable games ever. But I was as happy as anybody because I really felt a part of that Bowling Green program.”
While credit for that win has to go to York, a fine coach in his own right, and the players on the ice that night, it’s pretty evident it would have never been possible if not for Mason.
He continued building the program that Jack Vivian started, making Bowling Green an attractive destination for high-end talent in the late 70s and early 80s. His work in getting the CCHA off the ground made it a reality for teams from the Midwest to get into the NCCA Tournament.
“We were the first team to ever go to the NCAA Tournament outside of the ECAC and the WCHA. That was a breakthrough thing. That was so much for our league to get there.”
And his work with the Falcons helped pave the way for another coaching legend in Jerry York. Last December, York recorded his 925 career win, surpassing Mason’s record.
“I was happy for him. He’s such a good guy and such a good coach,” Mason said. “When I was at Michigan State everyone was saying, ‘you can’t take that job, you have to win 1,000 games,’ and this and that. I said no I don’t, all I’m focused on is winning the next game. It’s the next game that’s important.”
As always, spoken like a true coach.