The Legend of Ron Mason: A Tribute to a Spartan Great

When Ron Mason’s early Monday morning death took us all by surprise, it took this author a few days to let the impact of his passing sink in.

Simply put, Michigan State University lost a legendary figure.

Before there was Tom Izzo or Mark Dantonio, there was Ron Mason. During a time when football and basketball were nowhere near the ticket they are today, hockey at Munn Ice Arena was the gold standard at Michigan State.

In many ways, Mason’s program was the harbinger and inspiration for modern day Spartan basketball and football. 

Before there was Tom Izzo or Mark Dantonio, there was Ron Mason.”

Izzo has been the model of consistency for the men’s basketball team for over 20 years now. His program has won numerous championships, garnered national attention, and has produced top tier professional talent. Dantonio is on the same path as well, as he gets set for his 10th season in East Lansing with multiple Big Ten and bowl championships to his credit.

These successful programs are in many ways living embodiments of Mason’s hockey program of the ‘80s and ‘90s, and his influence on starting a culture of excellence at Michigan State cannot be under-emphasized.

Ron Mason was a coaching star in the college ranks before coming to MSU. He had won a NAIA championship with Lake Superior State in 1972. After six seasons with the Lakers, Mason spent six more with Bowling Green. In that span he turned the Falcons into a powerhouse, winning multiple Central Collegiate Hockey Association playoff and regular season championships.

Mason took a bit of a chance coming to East Lansing in 1979. At that time, the hockey program had fallen into disarray behind an aging Amo Bessone. Almost immediately, things changed at Munn, as Mason’s refusal to accept anything less than excellence won over the players who worked hard and drove out the ones that didn’t.

Mason soon had Michigan State going toe to toe with the powerhouse Falcons and quickly became the dominating force of the CCHA. Tom Anastos, one of Mason’s first recruits, remembered what it was like being a player under the legendary coach.

Mason’s refusal to accept anything less than excellence won over the players who worked hard and drove out the ones that didn’t.”

“I loved learning from his competitive spirit and his relentless commitment to excellence,” Anastos said in an MSU press release. “Being a part of the championship teams he created here at MSU was truly special and something I’ll have forever.”

In his 23 years at MSU, Mason guided the Spartans to 19 NCAA tournament appearances, seven Frozen Fours, and a national championship in 1986. In addition, he led MSU to 17 CCHA regular season and playoff championships.

For as much as Mason put a priority on winning, he put an even higher priority on building a lasting program and growing the game of hockey.

Michigan head coach Red Berenson, who is today one of the icons of the sport in the Midwest, looked to East Lansing as a model to resurrect the Wolverines’ storied program. The two coaches are on record as having a tremendous amount of respect for each other, and the “Ron vs. Red” games between the Spartans and Michigan during the ‘90s are regarded as some of the best games ever played between the two schools.

Of the countless players Mason put into the NHL, many of them have returned to East Lansing and the family atmosphere that permeates Munn Ice Arena.

Mason didn’t just make an impact on his players and fellow coaches; he left a lasting impression on all who filled the stands at Munn and followed MSU hockey.

“Ron was more than just a hockey coach, and he was second fiddle to no one,” said MSU academic advisor Jeremy Dewar, who grew up watching Mason and the Spartans in the 1990s.

“Ron had a favorite phrase, ‘Commitment to Excellence,’” said Dewar. “This meant excellence on the ice, of course, but more importantly, Ron made a commitment to raise young boys into great young men, to represent MSU with the highest class.”

Mason’s “commitment to excellence” made him both respected by his coaching peers and revered by his players and fans.

“I admired him as a coach and leader at that time and developed great respect for his commitment to success and student-athletes,” said MSU athletic director Mark Hollis.

“More importantly, Ron made a commitment to raise young boys into great young men, to represent MSU with the highest class.” –Jeremy Dewar, MSU academic advisor

While Mason retired from coaching in 2002 to become Michigan State’s athletic director, it could be argued that had he continued coaching he might have set records that would still be intact today.

Regardless, Mason enhanced his legacy at MSU in this administrative role. It was during this phase of his career that he began the process of bringing Michigan State’s athletic department into the modern era.

His two biggest accomplishments came near the end of his tenure. These were the 2007 national championship in hockey (achieved by his chosen replacement Rick Comley) and Mason’s instrumental role in the hiring of Mark Dantonio in 2006. Mason retired in 2008, surrendering his position to Hollis.

To MSU hockey fans, Mason represents the gold standard of what this program can and should achieve. No other coach reached the heights or touched so many as Mason did.

Many Spartan fans, alumni, and players have had memorable interactions with Coach Mason. For myself, I can only claim one small conversation with him. But it is one I will never forget.

It was during the intermission of a game between the Spartans and the University of New Hampshire. The date was Nov. 7, 2015. Mason was walking throughout the press box as he did on occasion. He stopped by to say hello to writer Neil Koepke, who I was standing next to at the moment. Koepke introduced me to the great man and soon we started talking hockey.

The conversation soon turned to the Spartans’ ailing power play, which was a major topic of conversation at that week’s press conference. After some X’s and O’s talk, Mason brought forward his words of wisdom.

“Sometimes the power play goes through droughts like that,” he said. “It just takes one or two goals to break it out again and start a streak.”

Almost prophetically, the Spartan power play came to life in the second period to give MSU a 3-2 lead. After that goal, the Spartans surged forward and never looked back, earning a 7-4 victory by night’s end.

I guess that was one of the great things about Mason: he knew exactly what to say and when to say it. On top of that, he had such a grasp of the game of hockey. No wonder he was so good!

Ron Mason was, and still is, a legend. His legacy at Michigan State, both on and off the ice, is forever frozen in the memories of the people he touched over the course of his life.

I think a quote from The Sandlot says it best.

“Heroes get remembered, but legends never die.”