It’s the winter of 2003 and Mark Strobel is on a recruiting trip throughout British Columbia. An assistant coach at the University of Nebraska Omaha at the time, his phone rings with a call from his wife back in Omaha.
“My wife called me and said she saw Mike pull up in his car and shovel our driveway because he knew she was home alone,” Strobel said. “She looked out the window and saw him shoveling the driveway by himself while I was out recruiting for him and our staff and nobody asked him to do that.
“He was more worried about her being able to get out of the house and I remember her telling me on that call that you work for the greatest guy in the world, and I said I know I do. To me, that’s what leaders do and it’s a true testament to the person he is.”
That Mike she spoke of is Mike Kemp, the first head coach in Omaha’s program history and now the current interim athletic director at the school. As the puck dropped on the 25th season of Maverick hockey this past weekend against Lake Superior State, Kemp has had his fingerprints on the program every step of the way.
However, it’s bigger than hockey with him.
“When I first met Mike I was a young kid being recruited to Wisconsin in 1990 and I immediately saw the class, the respect for the job, the trust and I saw the ability to connect with someone not only as a hockey player, but as a human being,” Strobel said.
“He wanted you to be a better human and do the little things right. Hold doors for women, be a family man, be respectful to your teachers and the staff around the rink and just have class like he did. I certainly picked up on that and I’m forever in debt to him for everything he taught me.”
Strobel played for Kemp from 1991-95 and was an assistant in Omaha from 2002-04. He’s one of several people around college hockey who falls from Kemp’s coaching tree and has been impacted by the Duluth native.
Kemp began coaching at the age of 23. He led the club team at UNO during the 1975-76 season before becoming an assistant at Gustavus Adolphus College, a small school in St. Peter, Minnesota. He spent five seasons at his alma mater before heading to Wisconsin for one season. He spent the following year at Illinois-Chicago and then returned to Madison for 13 more seasons before taking the Omaha job.
“I never intended on coaching, but I’ve always been a people’s person,” Kemp said. “It was always that intense connection that you have when you’re coaching athletes that you don’t get in any other walk of life. That always gave me the feeling that I was part of something bigger and I could impact people beyond hockey, and I always loved that.”
He’s the epitome of the Omaha program and his coaching career is the epitome of any success story. He started out making $6,000 a year as an assistant at Gustavus. In order to maximize the contract, the school put him in charge of a dormitory with over 200 students, had him run and manage the ice arena and he also taught physical education.
He even became the head women’s golf coach his final year at Gustavus. All of those organizational and multi-tasking skills followed him to Wisconsin, especially during his first three years in Madison. Kemp started as a half-time assistant and spent the rest of his time as the executive director of the booster club.
“I was the writer, the editor and the publisher for the game program and had to make sure those got sold,” Kemp said with a laugh. “I still remember — It was 60 pages and we had 12 pages that changed on a weekly basis. I also had to write our newsletter every week and get that printed and sent out, plus I had to manage the memberships and any of the events the blue line club put on.
“So when I moved into the head coaching job at UNO one of the first things I did was start up our blue line club.”
If there’s one thing all of the different hats he’s worn have taught him, it’s how to delegate and the importance of organization. It still helps him today.
Fast forward to this fall and Kemp sits at his desk inside Sapp Fieldhouse in the middle of UNO’s campus. When he was named head coach on July 1, 1996, his office in the same building was much smaller and all it had was a desk and a phone.
Kemp now occupies the office that belonged to Trev Alberts for the previous 12 years, albeit he’s still not sure how long for. He’s got a to-do list around Baxter Arena, the athletic department at UNO and a full slate of fall sports to manage. In addition to his day-to-day responsibilities, he’s busy planning a reunion for the 1976-77 Gustavus hockey team that lost in the national championship game.
Stacks of paper sit across his desk for both the NCHC and the NCAA as he also serves as the chair of the NCAA Men’s Ice Hockey Committee. To top it all off, his phone rings with an incoming call from NCHC Commissioner Josh Fenton. It’s a sign of the times for Kemp.
It’d be easy to get overwhelmed in the position, but that’s not the case. For those who have been closest to him over the years, it’s something he flourishes with.
“There is nobody in the world that you would want representing your organization, your city, your school or your team for that matter other than Mike Kemp,” Strobel said. “He’s sharp, he’s detail-oriented, he knows how to delegate and nobody has a better ability to manage multiple tasks and stay organized than he does.
“He’ll also make the right decision all of the time because that’s how he lives his life. Many people in this industry will compromise their values for the short-term game, but Mike has never been that way.”
For Alberts, the thing he cherishes the most from their time together is that quality person he saw on a daily basis. Especially as a young A.D. at the time, having Kemp by his side was a huge blessing.
“He’s a true man of integrity and character, and he’s a great relationship person,” Alberts said. “I can honestly tell you I haven’t met a single person that didn’t like Mike Kemp. Because of that ability, we always sent Mike out on projects. Nobody doesn’t like him — the promoters love him, he builds relationships and nobody cares about this program more than him.”
Alberts said he asked for Kemp’s input on every decision that was made over his tenure. Whether it involved the arena, the two coaching searches or anything else around the program Kemp started.
“When I met Mike in 2009, I didn’t know anything about hockey, so I’ll be really honest and tell you when we made a coaching change in 2009, I leaned on him a lot and I trusted him,” he said. “I knew that Mike was a man of integrity and character and that was really important to me because I wanted to surround myself with people that really cared, did the right things and were here for the right reasons. Clearly Mike was that way.”
When asked how long he plans to follow his predecessor, Kemp smiles and responds that he’ll stay as long as he’s needed. At 68 years old, he still feels young at heart, but he doesn’t know what the future holds. To be completely honest, Kemp would’ve never imagined he’d still be here to begin with.
“Did I ever expect to be here this long? No,” Kemp said. “But in reality, when I initially considered coming back to Omaha I believed the community was ripe for this and with the right support from the university, we could do it. Frankly, a lot of the recent credit also goes to Trev. When he came here with his vision of elevating the entire athletic department to Division I, we don’t get where we are today without that.
“And personally, not many guys have the opportunity to still be directly involved with the day-to-day aspects of a program they started when they’re done coaching. I’ve had the ability and the true privilege to be here and oversee every step of the program since its inception, so I feel very fortunate.”
Fortunate is how the players that were able to have called him their coach over the years feel too.
“Kemper was part of all of our lives as a coach, a recruiter and as a mentor,” said current Wisconsin head coach Tony Granato. “When you think back to the days of playing for Mike, you think of his smile, his enthusiasm for life and people and he was just such a positive influence on all of us.
“Lots of time as a coach you don’t feel like you have the opportunity to develop a long-term relationship or friendship with your players and that’s the opposite with Kemper. It just felt like from the first day you met him that he was going to be your buddy for a long time and that’s pretty special. I think everybody feels the same way about him.”
Granato, a two-time All-American, went on to play 13 NHL seasons and 773 games. He played for Kemp from 1983-86 at Wisconsin, but Kemp actually tried to recruit Granato to UIC before he returned to Wisconsin. The relationship has only grown.
One of Kemp’s daughters, Sarah, lived with the Granato family in Pittsburgh for a period of time while Tony was an assistant for the Penguins. Granato’s niece, Mandi, is also currently a member of the Omaha women’s golf team. A big part of the latter is because of the trust and respect the family has for Kemp.
Granato is one of three members of the current Wisconsin staff who played under Kemp’s tutelage, the others being Strobel and Mark Osiecki, but his lasting impact went beyond the trio.
“Coach Sauer ran the forwards for us and Kemper ran the D, but I just remember he was always accessible for us and treated us with respect no matter who you were,” said Brian Rafalski, one of the top defenseman Kemp coached in Madison. “Especially as a younger player, it made playing for him easy.”
When asked to describe his former coach, the 11-year NHLer used the words fair, honest, intelligent and a true leader. Rafalski said he was all you could ask for in a coach and funny enough, he still uses a skating drill he calls the Kemper Cross while coaching in Austria today.
Once Kemp made the move to Omaha, that lasting impact on his players continued.
“Kemper was always a person of high integrity,” said former Omaha goaltender Dan Ellis. “He demanded excellence off the ice as much as on the ice, he’s a good communicator and he wanted us to hold ourselves to a high standard because that’s how he did everything. He always preached doing things the right way and he lived what he preached.”
Ellis said Omaha was the only team that really recruited him and he’s forever grateful to Kemp and his staff. When you mention ‘Kemper’ to the program’s second-winningest goaltender, the first word that comes to mind is character.
It’s a common sentiment amongst the early Mavericks.
“You can tell when an individual is trying to put on a show,” said former Omaha forward David Brisson. “A lot of times people will try to give off a good first impression and have a hard time living up to it, but with Kemper what you see is what you get. He’s always been the same man of character, integrity and a man of his word.”
Brisson, who played in Omaha from 1993-2003, didn’t know much about Omaha or the program before coming here. His first impression of his eventual head coach was he was a great communicator. He said Kemp might not have been the biggest person in stature, but he made up for it with his heart and passion for the sport, school and the city.
It’s the main reason he and several other former teammates still call Omaha home.
“He believed in the program since day one,” Brisson said. “When he shared his dream and his passion with recruits, we all bought into it. Not only was he good at sharing his vision for the hockey program, he was great at selling his vision for the Omaha community. There are about 40 of us that stayed in town after our hockey careers and many more that come back in the summer and that’s all because Kemper emphasized the importance of caring and investing in the community.”
Former players aren’t just living in the community though, one of them is currently leading the program Kemp built while another serves as the associate head coach. Several others have been involved in recent years too.
“Mike Kemp is Omaha hockey and without him, I’m not here,” said Omaha head coach Mike Gabinet. “He’s one of the biggest reasons I’m back coaching here. He was instrumental in getting me here to be an assistant and I was fortunate enough to get named head coach as well.”
A relatively young coach still, Gabinet leans on and periodically picks his former coach’s brain for advice. It’s something he’s grateful for but also doesn’t take for granted.
“The one thing with Coach Kemp is he genuinely cares how the program does,” Gabinet said. “He’s passionate about it, he wants us to have success and he wants to help in any way he can. It’s one thing to say you support the program, but it’s another thing to actually live it and do it, so we’re very fortunate to have him around.”
From Kemp’s perspective, seeing his former players go on to have success is what makes it all worth it.
“It’s gratifying to see it come full-circle,” Kemp said. “I sit down now and turn on the TV and see three guys I coached as players at Wisconsin behind the bench there now. Or I turn on an Ohio State game and Steve Rohlick is their head coach. He’s a kid I recruited at Wisconsin, coached through four years of college and had him on our first staff here at UNO.
“Plus David Quinn, all the former players here, and all the guys that are out in the business world. To see them be successful and doing great things in life, you can’t describe it.”
On an administrative level, he’s made his impact felt too – both within and outside of Omaha.
Kemp was named the first-ever recipient of the NCHC Commissioner’s Award as his true colors were on full display last December during the NCHC Pod.
“People don’t understand and may never understand the amount of energy, time, effort and work that went into the front end of the Pod over the month leading up to Dec. 1,” Fenton said. “Mike Kemp was the leader from day one at the University of Nebraska at Omaha though. He was the guy I went to with everything to operationalize the plan.
“Certainly he had people assisting and helping in different areas, but my first call was always to Mike. I’ve said this a lot over the past year, but I’ll continue to say this forever. There is no doubt in my mind that Pod doesn’t happen without Mike Kemp.”
Fenton and Kemp spent three weeks sitting side-by-side in Baxter Arena planning, evaluating the event and watching hockey in an experience that Fenton said he’ll cherish forever.
“The fun thing for me was just sitting there in a very informal sense and listening to him dissect and talk about the game itself,” he said. “Normally Mike and I will go to hockey games in a suit and tie, but we were sitting there on some nights for the third game of the day wearing hooded sweatshirts or jackets and casually sitting there watching hockey.
“That was really, really fun for me. I’m sure he didn’t think much of it because he’s talked hockey his entire life, but that was a really enjoyable time for me and I have so much respect for him as a coach and a person.”
He’s garnered the respect of his opponents and colleagues over the years too.
“The one thing I found out about Mike right away was what a competitor he was,” said former Michigan head coach Red Berenson. “There was no doubt he was a real firecracker as a young assistant coach and then when he took over Omaha he had the energy and will to show his players what it was going to take to be successful. He always did things the right way too.
“His teams might’ve been a little weaker on paper, but it never showed out on the ice. We had some great series with Omaha over the years and they always felt physical, fast and it had the elements of a playoff game whenever you played them because of Mike.”
Whether it was on the golf course, at the Frozen Four or their interactions at CCHA meetings, Berenson was always impressed by the Omaha head coach.
“You don’t have to look around the corner or wonder what you’re getting in Mike Kemp,” he said. “He’s going to show up, he’s going to be ready and he’s going to have his troops ready. If he would’ve been in the army he would’ve been an officer or even a general, so when you talk about him being an A.D. it’s a no-brainer from my relationship with Mike.”
For those who know Kemp, it truly is a no-brainer he now finds himself in this position he’s currently in. Kemp said there are too many people who have impacted him over the years to name them off, but he wouldn’t be in the position he’s in today without one specific person.
His wife, Julie.
“I spent 20 years as an assistant coach, 14 of those as an associate at Wisconsin, and there was a time in the mid-1990s where I was a finalist for two different jobs,” Kemp said. “I thought I had both of them locked down, and I lost both of them. At that point I had my mind made up that I was going to get out of coaching and it was the strength of my wife that kept me going.
“She said ‘we as a family have put up with this lifestyle long enough’ and it’s way harder on the family. They’re the ones who live the ups and downs without being able to influence it, so they suffer. She told me ‘I have been through this with you, you’re not quitting now, you’re going to get to the top.’ It was because of that I stuck with it, and one year later I got the job in Omaha.”
When the athletic department needed a new leader this summer, the same person who supported his decision to initially make the move to Omaha was there once again.
“When this whole thing came about this summer, we were up at our lake house in Wisconsin,” Kemp said. “I had kind of gotten to the point with the search for an athletic director in Lincoln where if it would’ve been Trev, it would’ve happened by now, so I hadn’t really thought much more about it. I was tearing a ceiling out of one of our guest cottages and I took a break and got a call from Trev when I was standing in the kitchen. He told me what happened and that I better get back to Omaha so we could have a meeting with the staff and tell them what was happening.
“I went outside and she (Julie) was sitting on the deck reading and when we started talking, everything that’s happened career-wise in our marriage hit me,” an emotional Kemp said. “When you get into coaching the critical thing is you have to have a wife who understands the demands, the time commitment, the pressure and that’s why a lot of marriages don’t last in coaching. Some people find that it’s harder than they expected, but she’s been there every step of the way and lived through it with me. She said if you want to do it, go for it and she’s going to support my decision. I wouldn’t even be sitting in this chair if it wasn’t for her.”
No matter how long he holds the A.D. title and sits in that chair, there’s one title he’ll never lose — Maverick.