PITTSBURGH — The Tsongas Center in Lowell, Mass., was abuzz Tuesday morning as the legendary Bob Dylan ran through a sound check in preparation for a concert that night.
But Dylan wasn’t even close to being the biggest star in the building.
That honor belonged to the U-Mass-Lowell men’s hockey team, which had gathered to board a bus to Logan Airport for the trip the Frozen Four.
The River Hawks were given a police escort to Boston, and upon arrival, they found out the first officer on the JetBlue flight was a Lowell native, Joseph Miller, who gave a shout-out to the team on the intercom. Athletic director Dana Skinner joked that it may be a sign.
When the flight landed, there was a band playing, cheerleaders cheering, and the gate agent had a sign — the kind a limousine driver would hold — that read simply: “Hockey players.’’
Skinner and university chancellor Marty Meehan were wearing ear-to-ear grins along with their blue UMass-Lowell golf shirts and looked like kids in a candy store.
In sharp contrast to their demeanor was coach Norm Bazin, who showed a steely-eyed resolve. If he was aware of the pomp and circumstance, he didn’t let on.
Not that it came as any surprise. Bazin is famous for being laser-focused. It is fine for Meehan and Skinner to look like proud papas, but the coach knows a national championship cannot be won with distractions in the way.
Skinner, who has known Bazin since Bazin was a student-athlete at Lowell (1990-94), said there was no doubt in his mind that he was the right person to take over the reins two years ago.
The program was in disarray, having won just five games in 2010-11. The candidates were many and of high quality, but it became clear early on that Bazin wasn’t going to leave without making a strong case for himself.
“One of the things that came through when he came for his interview on campus was he thinks very strategically,’’ said Skinner. “Everybody was impressed by that.
“The chancellor was right. His comment when Norm walked out of his office was, ‘My God, how do I not hire that guy?’ He just had a terrific day here on campus.’’’
There was a great deal of pressure brought to bear by many alumni who wanted a UMass-Lowell graduate as coach. Bazin had both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from the institution. And not only did former players want Bazin hired, the staff at the school was on board as well.
“I can’t tell you, when the job opened up, how much support he was getting on campus,’’ said Skinner. “Not athletic people, faculty people and staff. He’s held in such high regard at every step.’’
Meehan, a very hands-on administrator who is involved in all the hiring at the school, said he isn’t always the easiest person to convince but he was sold on Bazin.
“As soon as Norm left my office, I turned to Dana and said, ‘That’s our coach,’ ’’ said Meehan. “It was as clear as could be. Norm has won every place he has been. He is a very high-character, high-integrity type of guy. I love everything about this coach. He’s steady all of the time.’’
Jon Hind, the athletic director at Hamilton, where Bazin coached before Lowell, had a similar experience when he brought Bazin into the fold there for the 2008-09 season. Coincidentally, that team had won just five games the previous season.
“We did two phases to our search,’’ said Hind. “We did an early search and we weren’t really happy where we ended up, so we closed the search for a while. Then we reopened the search.
“Norm surfaced through some conversations during the second round. He did his homework; Norm always does his homework. He is an easy person to be impressed by. He is calm but intense.
“He is always under complete control, which fascinates me. You can feel the focus and intensity coming from him. He knows exactly what he wants and how he’s going to go about it.
“When Dana called me, I told him he’d be crazy not to hire him. I said, ‘The guy is an absolute winner.’ It was painful to let him go, but I’m thrilled for his success.’’
In his three seasons at Hamilton, Bazin’s winning percentage started at .380 and then jumped to .615 and .640 in his final two years. At Lowell, his winning percentage in 2011-12 was .645 and this year it’s .725.
Senior captain Riley Wetmore, who went through the tough times in 2010-11, said Bazin brought a high level of accountability to Lowell.
“The biggest thing is he brought the culture back,’’ said Wetmore. “As soon as he came in, he commanded respect from everyone and just made sure everyone was going to be held responsible and accountable off the ice.
“I feel like in years past when I was here, there would be certain guys who wanted to go on and play after college and those guys would always be working hard in the gym. Then there are the other guys who want to go into the business world or go into different professions and they might not be ready to sacrifice what everyone else is.
“I feel like when he got here, [his attitude was] if you want to be here and be on this team, then you’re going to be held accountable, and there are no exceptions from the freshmen to the seniors. I feel like we’ve bought into that and the last two years have been tremendous.’’
‘In a good place’
Lowell faces Yale Thursday afternoon in the Frozen Four semifinals, followed by Quinnipiac-St. Cloud State. Much has been said about the Cinderella seasons the four teams have had, but Bazin said he doesn’t see it that way.
“I don’t feel like it’s a Cinderella story,’’ said Bazin. “Last year would’ve been. Last year, I felt like we were going on adrenaline the whole season. It was just one energy rush.
“This year, it’s been a little more systematic, a little more organized. Maybe that’s just because it’s my second year. I don’t feel the same Cinderella effect that I did last year. I feel that we’re in a good place going into it.’’
Although it is all good feelings now, Skinner was actually nervous when the River Hawks opened the season 4-7-1. When he approached Bazin, though, the coach said, “We’re fine.’’
The AD joked, “Can we be fine a little more quickly?’’
Bazin proved to be right, and his résumé only becomes more impressive with time. On Wednesday, he was named recipient of the Spencer Penrose Award as men’s Division 1 Coach of the Year. He has been the Hockey East Coach of the Year each of his two seasons at Lowell. Prior to that, he was NESCAC Coach of the Year two years in a row at Hamilton.
At Wednesday’s press conference at Consol Energy Center, Bazin expressed both gratitude and appreciation for the award but wants the focus to be the game against Yale. Slow and steady wins the race, and Bazin is happy to leave all the fanfare to others.
“This is, in my view, one of the great sports stories in the country,’’ said Skinner. “If you look at where we were three years ago, and what’s happened in two years, there aren’t many stories that are going to mirror that.
“Last year was the best turnaround by a first-year coach in Division 1 college hockey history, going from five wins to 24. We were expecting some good things would happen this year but it just goes on and on. It’s been a great run for the university.’’Nancy Marrapese-Burrell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.