Tony Granato photo (copy)

New Wisconsin men's hockey coach Tony Granato is 15 credits shy of a bachelor's degree in human development and family studies.

PHOTO BY ASSOCIATED PRESS

Tony Granato said he always wanted to finish the college studies that were interrupted by a long professional hockey career, but with kids and family obligations, it never happened.

He now has a compelling reason to pick back up at the University of Wisconsin-Madison: His new job depends on it.

Granato, hired in March as the Badgers' men's hockey coach, is 15 credits shy of a bachelor's degree in human development and family studies. The coaching position required a degree or the ability to obtain one within 12 months.

So there was Granato last week, fitting right in as a college student on campus, backpack around one shoulder and cell phone to his ear. He's taking two courses in summer sessions and has a plan to complete the rest before next May.

"When the whole thing came about, that's the first thing I thought of. I said, 'OK, I can get my degree,'" Granato said. "And I knew I was relatively close. This put icing on the cake on why this job was so much fun and so important to me."

Granato played for the Badgers from 1983 to 1987, but following the hockey season in his final three years he traveled overseas to play for the United States in the World Championships.

He said that he dropped down to a six-credit workload in the spring semester in two of those years to allow for the travel and stayed NCAA-eligible by taking summer courses. But he got off track to complete a four-year degree in what then was known as child and family studies.

When he continued playing hockey in the Olympics and the minor leagues, and then started a 13-season National Hockey League career that preceded coaching in the pros, he said there wasn't time to finish his studies.

"In the back of my mind I always wanted to have the opportunity to go back if the right situation presented itself, and this is the right situation," Granato said. "I was really excited that this is part of the deal, that I have to finish."

Granato, 51, took over the Wisconsin hockey program after Mike Eaves was fired in March following a second straight losing season. The Badgers won only 12 of 70 games in the past two seasons, and attendance for games at the Kohl Center slipped significantly.

The program, however, has been getting a fair share of promotion in recent weeks, some of it paid and some organic. Commercials featuring the new Badgers coaching staff have aired on Wisconsin TV stations.

And former Badgers player Joe Pavelski of the San Jose Sharks is the leading goal-scorer in the NHL playoffs. His team's series against the St. Louis Blues, who had former UW goaltender Brian Elliott, drew a number of mentions of the Wisconsin program on TV broadcasts.

Pavelski would be the first former Badgers player to captain a Stanley Cup champion if the Sharks beat the Pittsburgh Penguins in the championship series that starts Monday. Wisconsin is guaranteed to have a former player win the Cup this season because defenseman Justin Schultz plays for Pittsburgh.

Granato, who left an assistant coaching job with the NHL's Detroit Red Wings to sign a five-year contract with the Badgers that will pay him $500,000 in the first year, said he senses a renewed excitement for the Wisconsin hockey program.

"We can't expect 15,000 (fans) on opening night," he said. "But what we can expect is a team that's going to perform hard, that's going to be exciting to watch. And people that are there are going to tell people. There's going to be a buzz.

"The players want it. They didn't come here to play in front of the (number of) fans that they did. They didn't come here to win four games one year and eight the next year. They came here to win and they came here to be part of something that they could be proud of. So we've got a lot of things going our way right now and I think we've just got to keep the momentum going."

Along the way, Granato knows he has to hit the books.

On Thursday, he had his first test in the Music 305 (Roots of Rock & Roll) course taught by Michael Leckrone, who was one of the people to greet him at his introductory news conference at the Kohl Center in March.

"I think I did OK," Granato said. "I wouldn't say I aced it."

It used to be fairly common for college hockey head coaches to not have a degree, said American Hockey Coaches Association executive director Joe Bertagna.

But schools have started to require their coaches to have attained the education level that their athletes are working toward.

Many players who left school before completing their degree have later returned to school to finish up, Bertagna said. And now you can add a coach to the list.

"I don't think it's a big deal for us when you realize the primary reason people don't have a degree is they had a great opportunity to go play pro," he said.

Not only is Granato on the clock to get his degree in the 12-month window allowed in the job posting, he said he's racing his daughter to graduate.

His sons Nicholas, Dominic and Michael already have college degrees. His daughter Gabriella is a senior at the University of Colorado Boulder who's also on track to graduate next spring.

Tony Granato said he'd love to see his daughter graduate and for her to see him do the same.

"Education's always been a priority on making sure that's important to them," he said. "It is. They've done a great job. They've been great students. They've all done really well. I want to do it. Because I've been preaching it to them and they stepped up and got it done, I'm going to step up and get it done right here too and be able to join them as a college graduate."

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