Interview: Dr. Robert Altenkirch

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We could have had all the support in the world to change the fate of our beloved hockey program, but only one man could make the decision: Dr. Robert Altenkirch. He signs his emails as “Bob”, and I can confirm that he reads his own emails. When I sent a message to set up our interview, he responded at 8:00 p.m. on a Monday night. That should tell you a lot about the man right there.

So what made Dr. Altenkirch reverse Chancellor Portera’s decision? “There was a lot of interest from external constituents, and a lot of interest from internal constituents as well.”

Obviously, deciding to keep the varsity program was just the first step on the road to stability. “Our focus was getting in a conference. We knew that we probably wouldn’t survive as the only independent among 59 teams. That left us with two options: the western with the WCHA, and the other was the Atlantic [Hockey Association].” Of the risk, he said, “We basically shot the dice. We focused on the western.”

UAH had been in this place before with the CCHA before it folded.  Just because the WCHA had nine teams didn’t necessarily mean that they’d take any old 10th team that came along. That said, there are hangups with taking any team to D-I these days — which is, in my eyes, a big mistake driven by football and basketball that hurts the other member sports. For the WCHA, expansion to 10 meant poaching from another conference, staying at nine schools, or picking UAH.

As such, UAH had some selling to do. “I think that we made the right arguments. Our research classification would be the highest in the conference. We bring a long tradition. It’s a nice place to visit — it’s no more difficult to get to Huntsville, Alabama than it is to get to Fairbanks, Alaska.”

As you might expect, travel was a big concern for the member schools.  The new WCHA has two teams in Alaska (Alaska and Alaska-Anchorage), one in Alabama, two in Minnesota (Minnesota State-Mankato and our hated rival, Bemidji State), one in Ohio (Bowling Green State), one in the Lower Peninsula of Michigan (Ferris State), and three in the UP (Michigan Tech, Northern Michigan, and Lake Superior State). To call the WCHA “far flung” would be an understatement.  However, the nature of travel gave us an advantage that we exploited.

“If you look at the schedule, ten teams works better than nine teams,” Altenkirch said. “Ten teams reduces the frequency of double trips to Alaska substantially. There is a cost savings involved.” To drive the point home, he developed a spreadsheet that showed how UAH would reduce those travel outlays — he even showed it to me in the UAH presentation to the WCHA. “The number of double-trips to Alaska in any given season is reduced by 22% with us in the league. One of those trips runs about $40,000, so if you can avoid that, you’re doing good.”

Athletics conferences are about academics as well as athletics.  The Big Ten started off as a conference of academic peers that wanted to play each other in varsity sports.  That also explains their judiciousness in expansion, as they do not want to dilute the brand.  UAH played that card in the pitch. “But before [making the travel arguments], we showed them that our hockey players are good students, too.” This fits right in with the GPA goals of all UAH student-athletes, who as a group hold a GPA in excess of 3.00, which is no mean feat at UAH.

UAH’s academic ability is well-known, but playing high-profile Division I opponents will help more prospective students and employers know that UAH is here for the challenge. UAH has a classification of “very high” research activity by the Carnegie Classification of Institutes of Higher Education, joining 16 other D-I hockey programs: Boston University, Brown University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Harvard University, Michigan State University, The Ohio State University, Pennsylvania State University, Princeton University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the University Connecticut, the University of Massachusetts, the University of Michigan, the University of Minnesota, the University of Notre Dame, and Yale University. The chances are that you’ve heard of most of all of those schools, often through their athletic exploits. UAH is one of 106 schools classified as “very high”, and 29% of those are D-I college hockey schools.

Asked if the CCIHE classification made a difference, Altenkirch said, “I think so. They always say that you’re judged by the company that you keep. It’s nice to be next to company that accomplishes something. Eighty to 85 percent of our total expenditures are on research.”

I asked Dr. Altenkirch where Athletics fits in the larger scope of the University’s mission. He said, “I think that Athletics is part of the overall student experience. It provides a little campus life and gets the community excited about the institution. It helps us recruit students. Not all of our student-athletes are on full scholarships. Many of them are paying customers, and to me, [athletics] is a good character builder. Those hockey players don’t do well in the classroom because they’re good hockey players. They do well in the classroom because they’re well-regimented.”

I then turned the discussion to UAH’s new head coach, Mike Corbett. Dr. Altenkirch is confident in what Coach Corbett will bring to the program. “He spent ten years at the Air Force Academy,” he said. “If they’re not the most successful program from winning percentage in the country in the past few years, they’re close. Obviously, they’re recruiting good students, and there’s discipline there. All those pieces fit for us.”

Of the University’s mid-term goals for the hockey program, he said, “I think that what you’ll see is a phenomenon where we’ll win the conference and play for something. Right now, we’re realistically at the bottom. I think that will change, because a lot of young men will look at things and say, ‘I could go to one of the top-ranked schools and might not get to play. But if I go to UAH, I’ll play.’ These things cycle. I’m looking for the team to win a lot more than they have these past few years. I think that the program within a five-year period will be at least at a .500 record.”

Is hockey a way that we remind that UAH exists? “I think that all of our teams are like that,” he said. “We build a sense of community. Let’s face it: there will be a lot more teams that come to a basketball game or a hockey match than will come to hear a highly-technical research lecture. It’s a connection with the community, especially the kids.”

What’s Dr. Altenkrich’s top priority for our fans? “The first is to come to the games. It’s not very attractive to an athletes to come to and empty house.”

Are you excited yet about hockey? The Bemidji State series is coming sooner than you think!

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