The UW Athletic Department reported sad news yesterday:
The Wisconsin Department of Athletics is saddened to learn that Jeff Sauer, UW’s men’s hockey coach from 1982 to 2002, has passed away at the age of 73.
Sauer led the Badgers to 489 victories, the most victories for a UW coach in any sport. He guided Wisconsin to the 1983 and 1990 NCAA titles. In addition, the Badgers won WCHA regular-season titles in 1990 and 2000 and WCHA playoff crowns in 1983, 1988, 1990, 1995 and 1998.
“Our entire athletic department family is saddened to hear of the passing of Coach Sauer,” Director of Athletics Barry Alvarez said. “Jeff was a hockey man through and through. He had a passion for the sport and for coaching, and his imprint on the game will be felt forever through the lives he touched. Our hockey programs at Wisconsin benefitted greatly from Jeff’s influence. I want to extend the condolences of Wisconsin Athletics to Jeff’s family, friends, colleagues and former players.”
“Coach Sauer’s record speaks for itself, but he’s just done so much besides coaching hockey,” UW men’s hockey coach Tony Granato said. “That is the part I will miss most about him. He was about caring for people and sharing. I watched him volunteer endlessly for both the U.S. Sled Hockey and Hearing Impaired teams and watched him do anything that was asked of him for any special situation that was needed.
“He was just a great person and anyone that has had the pleasure of knowing him, playing for him or that was touched by what he gave us was just so lucky to have him as a coach and friend.”
“It’s a tough day, certainly for the people that were close to Jeff and knew him,” UW women’s hockey coach Mark Johnson said. “He was a great man and a tremendous ambassador for the game of hockey.
“I’ve known him since I was seven or eight and he has had an impact on my career, whether as a young player, a college player or coach. He was the one in 1980 that convinced my dad, after their Friday night game between Wisconsin and Colorado College, that my dad should fly out to Lake Placid that Saturday to watch our gold medal game. Obviously Jeff and my dad were extremely close, my dad coached him when he was at Colorado College and he was an assistant coach for my dad. They both loved baseball and both got involved in hockey and had a passion for the game.
“He’s going to be missed for a lot of reasons. He was great for the sport, he ran a great program at Colorado College for 11 years and he took over for my dad here in the early 1980s and did an outstanding job for 20 years, winning a couple of national championships. I coached with him here for six years and I played under him with different national teams.
“Jeff was also instrumental in the foundation of our women’s hockey program as he was a great friend to the program, especially in the early years. He has impacted my life in a lot of different ways and I want make sure people are praying and their thoughts are with Jamie and the rest of his family. I’m sure they are stunned by his passing and it is a sad day for the hockey community, especially for the people that were close to him.”
Andrew Baggot chronicles Sauer’s accomplishments:
One: Sauer succeeded an icon and found a way to create his own championship legacy.
Bob Johnson was that legend. He built the Badgers into a perennial powerhouse, winning three NCAA titles from 1973 to ’81 before Sauer took over in 1982 and produced two national championship-winners of his own.
Two: Sauer left the college game as a coach in 2003, but instead of easing into retirement, he took his generosity and love of hockey to the disabled and excelled on an international stage.
In addition to coaching Team USA in the Deaflympics, he led the American sled hockey team to two Paralympic gold medals.
Three: Sauer nurtured a coaching tree that has some prominent local branches.
One of Sauer’s former assistant coaches, Mark Johnson, oversees the four-time NCAA champion women’s hockey team at Wisconsin. On the other UW bench is first-year head coach Tony Granato and associate head coaches Don Granato and Mark Osiecki, all of whom played for Sauer and the Badgers.
When the new staff was unveiled last March, Sauer was included in the welcoming video and beamed throughout.
“You could see how proud he was,” Tony Granato said.
The roles were reversed last September when Sauer was inducted in the Wisconsin Athletics Hall of Fame as a host of former players looked on.
“The day resonates with me just because I was able to get there,” said Rob Andringa, whose grew up in Madison and played four years for Sauer.
“It was such a great feeling to see him,” Osiecki said.
Osiecki and Tony Granato had lunch with Sauer in late autumn and the three men spoke enthusiastically about the future. Granato made sure Sauer knew he was welcome to visit the Kohl Center offices or practice any time.
Many colleagues and confidants were stunned by the news of Sauer’s death and its cause, pancreatic cancer. He attended a UW game against Michigan State in early January, but was hospitalized not long after that. …
Sauer was born in Fort Atkinson, graduated from Colorado College in 1965 and spent 31 seasons coaching college hockey at his alma mater and Wisconsin.
He amassed 655 career wins, which ranks among the top 10 all-time, and a program-best 489 victories with the Badgers from 1982 to 2003.
Osiecki said his enduring lesson from Sauer was about psychology.
“Allowing personalities to come out,” he said. “That’s one of the things he did well.
“We always talked about him being a conductor of the orchestra. Knowing what you had in the locker room and never really constricting it so much and let the personalities come out. His teams played to that.”
Osiecki spoke from Minneapolis, where he got the news while having breakfast with his father, Tom. It turns out that Sauer and Tom Osiecki played on the same Twin Cities-based bantam team growing up.
With Sauer behind the bench, Wisconsin won an NCAA title in 1983, but many refused to give him due credit because the roster was comprised of Johnson’s players.
The critics were silent in 1990 when the Badgers swept the Western Collegiate Hockey Association regular-season and playoff crowns on the way to claiming the national championship.
Andringa, Osiecki and Don Granato played on that team. Andringa and Osiecki were defensive partners when UW hammered Colgate 7-3 in the NCAA title game at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. Andringa and Granato were co-captains the following season.
Andringa recounted how emotional Sauer became in the winning dressing room.
“We did this together,” Sauer told them. “You guys deserve this. You are like sons to me.”
Andringa said Sauer was one of those coaches who appeared on the fringe of team pictures, not out front.
“He love being a part of what is special about being on a team and in the locker room,” Andringa said. “That closeness.”
Andringa said one of Sauer’s greatest strengths was “the way he allowed us to be the 20-year-old kid who could make a mistake. He could laugh and joke about a prank.
“He was so good at being in the moment.”
Following an icon like “Badger” Bob Johnson isn’t easy.
“You look at history and I don’t care what sport you pick, there’s not too many people who can succeed after a legend,” Andringa said of Sauer. “He was able to do that.”
Mark Johnson, Bob’s son, was an assistant under Sauer from 1996 to 2002.
“He was a great man and a tremendous ambassador for the game of hockey,” Johnson said. “He’s going to be missed for a lot of reasons.”
Paul Braun was the long-time radio and TV voice of the program. Not long after getting the dreadful news about Sauer he was sifting through hundreds of cassette tapes from UW games long ago, many featuring his good friend and fellow golf aficionado.
“He was one of the classiest people I’ve ever met in my life,” Braun said of Sauer. “A guy who had impeccable integrity.
“What I liked about him was that he was just Jeff. He was the same all the time.”
At one time, Joel Maturi, a former high school basketball coach, was the UW Athletic Department administrator in charge of overseeing men’s hockey. He remembers Sauer ribbing him good-naturedly about his suspect background, but being a patient teacher.
Maturi went on to serve as athletic director at Miami (Ohio), Denver and Minnesota, all hockey-centric schools.
“I owe my career to Jeff Sauer,” Maturi said. “Every place I went from there was because of hockey and because of what I learned from Jeff.”
After his college coaching career ended, Sauer lent his wisdom to WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod, USA Hockey – with former UW player Jim Johannson in a supervisory role – and wound up serving as a mentor to a host of coaches, players and officials at all levels.
Tony Granato said that selfless love of the game is Sauer’s enduring legacy.
“That’s an incredible man,” he said. “After all he had done for so many kids in our program, players and people that he touched, to say, ‘You know what? I have more to give.’
“That’s what makes Jeff Sauer remarkable. It’s the stuff he did for people, period.
“You’re so thankful you had him in your life, but you also wish he could be around here every day to watch and still be a part of it.”
There are certain people (and they know who they are) who never gave Sauer much credit because he didn’t match Johnson’s accomplishments at UW. Well, who could? That’s like saying that Johnson wasn’t as good a coach as Herb Brooks because Johnson only won three NCAA titles and didn’t win Olympic gold.
I had a couple of encounters with Sauer when I was a UW student. I interviewed him once about the crazy possibility of an on-campus arena, which a dozen years (and a $25 million contribution) later became the Kohl Center. Then I interviewed him as a sports intern for a Madison TV station. He was helpful and friendly in both cases.
Being in the UW Band gave me a view of his work during games. He wasn’t a screamer, at least during games. He seemed to be the same whether the Badgers were up or down, which is less entertaining to watch than the screamers, but probably more effective. He also would occasionally crack a smile at some of the Band’s wittier observations about the game.
Unfortunately I was a victim of bad timing in that Sauer won his first national championship the year before I became a UW student, and won his second two years after I graduated. (However, I made the trip to Detroit to see the Badgers brush off Colgate.)
The 1990 Badgers accomplished what only one other UW team did — sweep the WCHA regular-season and tournament championship and the NCAA title.
I also saw him last May, when he spoke to a group of 12-season high school athletes, who played sports in every season in their high school years. He spoke to the students about lessons you learn from sports and what you get from sports (which is less about the accomplishments and more about how you get there). I told him I was a student when Sauer had the only successful major sports program (i.e. program that brought in revenue) at UW.
He was a great ambassador for hockey and for UW.