‘Best job in the world’: SUNY coach Meredith has been consistent face of Devils’ hockey
For the last 34 years, Jeff Meredith has served as the head coach for the SUNY Fredonia Blue Devils men’s hockey team. As he enters year 35, one might think he’d be approaching the end of his career.
You wouldn’t get that from talking to him though. In fact, he’d tell you the opposite. Meredith is not only still one of the best at his job, it’s also, according to him, the most fun he’s ever had while doing the job.
Hockey at SUNY Fredonia doesn’t really know life without Meredith. As Meredith enters year 35, the program enters its 36th year of even existing at all, meaning all the success, memories, and lessons that have been experienced, learned and taught have almost exclusively come from him.
When Meredith went to college at Monroe Community College, his original plan was to become a police officer. However, he realized once he began walking down that path that the harder side of life wasn’t really for him. Instead, he took a year off and thought about potentially becoming a gym teacher, for which he went to study at SUNY Brockport. While he subsequently decided being a teacher wasn’t exactly for him either, he did have more thoughts about becoming a coach, and specifically a coach for the game he had always liked: Hockey. That inspiration came from his college coach, E.J. McGuire.
“He made such an impression on me that I looked at him and I thought what an amazing job he has,” said Meredith. “Way back when I was in college, never in my wildest dreams did I think I could do something like that or have the opportunity to do that but I saw him as a great role model and that’s how I started to get thoughts in my mind.”
To become a coach, Meredith needed a master’s degree. With McGuire’s help, he began looking at options to become a grad assistant, and ended up getting an interview at Ohio State. While they had never had a grad assistant before, they allowed Meredith to pay his way through the first semester, which allowed him to be put on scholarship and get the rest of his education paid for.
Meredith returned to Brockport for a brief stint as an assistant before heading off to Hamilton College after meeting Phil Grady, who Meredith was able to learn under. It was because of Grady that Meredith got the opportunity at Fredonia in the first place.
“In Fredonia’s first year of hockey, Dr. (Everett) Phillips was chairman of Fredonia Athletics and Physical Education, and he wanted to learn more about hockey,” said Meredith. “One of his best friends was the Track and Field coach at Hamilton, and through him, Dr. Phillips talked to the hockey coaches to see if he could come and visit for a week, sitting in the office, learning, and watching practice. Here I was, a 27- or 28-year-old assistant, it was almost like a week-long interview.”
When that week was over, Meredith was asked by Dr. Phillips if he’d be interested in the head coaching position should it go full time. Those stars all aligned, and Meredith has remained for the last 35 years.
But coaching wasn’t always that easy for him. During his first three years at Hamilton, Meredith had to supplement full-time coaching with painting houses, substitute teaching, and several other things so he could support himself. Prior to his interview at Fredonia, he had one interview total over those first three years, and Meredith had almost gotten out of coaching entirely. That persistence and ability to hang on just a little bit longer is a lesson he still teaches to this day.
“I also got called to interview at Potsdam, Mercyhurst, and New England College,” said Meredith. “I turned that into a lesson. Don’t quit before the miracle happens. If you do more and hang in a little longer, you might see things breakthrough for you, and I was lucky enough that things did and when I saw Fredonia, it was a brand new program basically and I thought what a great opportunity to make your own mark on a blank slate and build a program.”
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Meredith said when he took over the program, he was young and dumb. Now living a dream come true, he was excited to put his own program together. And one of those steps is hiring assistants and other people around you. One of those people was Brian Dickinson.
Dickinson has been the head coach at SUNY Brockport for the last 27 years, and before that had the head coaching gig at Buffalo State. But well before that, Dickinson was an assistant of Meredith, and not only an assistant, his first assistant. And he got the job without knowing who Meredith even was.
“My coach at North Adams State asked me to come on as a student assistant,” said Dickinson. “He brought me to Florida to look for grad assistant openings. If you go down now, you’d be lucky to see one job but back then I talked to a dozen coaches from D1 to D3. I was waiting for a shuttle to take me to the airport, and a common friend introduced me to Jeff and let him know I was looking for a job. I gave him my resume and I chatted with him when I got back home. If the shuttle showed up 20 minutes earlier, I never would have met him.”
Dickinson spent five years as Meredith’s assistant, and was a big part of the group that Meredith calls the founders of the program, pretty much all of whom Meredith is still close with, including Dickinson. Despite the fact that they’ve been rivals for over 30 years, the two remain close to this day. Two of Meredith’s sons went to play hockey at Brockport under Dickinson, and in turn, Dickinson’s daughter went to Fredonia, where she would get the coffee for the two coaches whenever Brockport was in town.
“There is a lot of closeness between us, and the time we get to the rink before the game starts is a special time and those are days I look forward to because I get to sit and chat with him for 45 minutes before the game to get caught up on life,” said Dickinson. “We’re close. That’s a feature we have. And I always love the two games with Jeff. We know what the games are going to be like. They’re always very competitive games.”
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The founders of the program brought a lot of early success. While the first year was spent making sure the program found footing, solid ground was cemented quickly.
“The first year we won five games,” said Meredith. “The second year we won 17. We were on our way.”
The program continued its meteoric rise. In 1993, in 1993-94 and ’94-95, the Blue Devils made back-to-back Division III Final Fours, playing in the National Championship game in 1995. The only game they lost in 1993 was in the Final Four to the University of Wisconsin. It was that first year as well that Meredith won his second of three SUNYAC Coach of the Year Awards, the first of which came in 1990-91. His most recent selection for that award came in 2017-18.
Part of those Final Four trips were Brad Preston, who played all four years of hockey under Meredith, and was even team captain his last two years. He was a freshman on the ’93-94 team, and experienced both immense highs and some lows under Meredith in his last couple years, but had nothing but praise for Meredith’s style of coaching.
“He’s super competitive,” said Preston. “He instilled work ethic in everyone, regardless of if you were the top center or a guy scratching and clawing to get into the lineup. He demanded accountability to get your spots.”
Preston and Dickinson are two of the many over the years who Meredith is still close with, along with Dickinson. That group still gets together regularly, as Meredith is big on treating his alumni as well as the current players. In fact, that was always Meredith’s goal, is to keep the Fredonia family alive.
“We want to have the most positive experience that when people graduate and leave, we want them thinking about when they can get back and how they can stay connected,” Meredith said. “The unique thing is how strongly connected our alumni are.”
Meredith recently had a couple members of those Final Four teams on campus, including Preston himself. They brought their kids youth hockey teams to Fredonia to play a few games, and Meredith had a few of his current players meet with the kids and parents, putting on a presentation about academics and life skills.
“The work he does with alumni and the effort he puts into getting guys back year after year is incredible,” said Preston. “He put a lot of effort this year into getting people back. He’s grown as a person and coach and spending last weekend with him as father and having him come to our game and watch our guys play and organize his guys to talk to 14-year-old boys. He cares a lot for his guys and guys there before. It’s a testament to him he’s held the post for that long.”
And as part of growing as a person, Meredith’s coaching style has had to adapt over the years as well, as staying stagnant for over 30 years in a profession like coaching is effectively a death sentence. Preston said that Meredith used to have a more authoritarian style, making people earn their jerseys and using tactics that would likely not work in today’s environment. But this is something Meredith grew to understand overtime, and his style has changed from authoritarian to become more collaborative.
“Coaching has changed so much,” said Meredith. “It’s more inclusive. You get everybody’s thoughts on the direction you want to go. The old days of the coach on the mountain sending down the decree, that’s 20 years ago. Today it’s’ more putting heads together and seeing what you can come up with as a group and more often than not, the guys come up with the same thing you would’ve come up with anyway, so why not have them really involved with the process? That way it’s their idea, which creates so much more buy in.”
“I’m not saying one is better than the other,” Meredith continued. “But I like this a lot more. It’s more fun because everyone is invested. That’s the only thing that’s important is what’s best for the team. There’s a quote I use often. You can’t control your team until you’re willing to give up control of your team, and giving up control is letting the players chart the direction you’re going to go, they’ll take it where you want and further.”
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Recently, Meredith was talking to a recruit’s dad, who asked him the obvious question of how much longer he was going to coach. Now 63 years old, Meredith knows he’s going to get that question a lot. But his answer is going to remain the same.
“I have the best job in the world,” said Meredith. “I am having more fun now than at any time in my career. I love the guys we have; I love recruiting and helping kids get to the next point. I love staying in touch with alums, and as coaches we’re on 10-month contracts. I have summers off. My wife Joanne is a teacher and she has summers off. I have a two-month mini retirement every year, and I end up getting bored during that so I have no intention of retiring. I am loving it, and as long as I am, and we can have success, I’ll keep doing it.”
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Meredith has left a legacy at Fredonia, and while the history is still being written, what’s already in the ledger is impressive as is. Meredith notched his 400th career coaching win December 2, 2017, and currently sits 37th all time on the coaching wins list, and is 12th among active coaches. His 35 years also make him the longest tenured coach in the SUNYAC. During his tenure, his teams made post-season appearances in 19 out of the last 21 years, won three SUNYAC titles, made two NCAA Final Four appearances and the NCAA tournament again in 2007. In 2014, he was the recipient of the Fredonia State President’s Award for Excellence, and was also recognized by the American Cancer Society with the 2013 Coach of the Year Award, given to coaches across the American Cancer Society Eastern Division who make a difference in the fight against cancer through exceptional community leadership and excellence.
Meredith’s coaching tree is also quite large, In addition to Dickinson, the tree includes Buffalo State Athletic Director Jim Fowler, UMass-Dartmouth Coach Erik Noack, the Director of Minor League Affiliates for the Montreal Canadiens, Nick Carrire, and countless others who have gone on to work at several levels of hockey. All of this together is a legacy that Dickinson hopes to come close to meeting when he’s all said and done.
“All I’m trying to do is leave a legacy at Brockport like he has left at Fredonia,” said Dickinson. “He’s not slowing down. He’s as motivated to be successful there today as we were in fall of ’88. He’s such a well organized, driven person. It’s fun to want to emulate. I hope when it’s all said and done, I can be half as successful as he is.”
Meredith himself also gave praise to his wife, Joanne, who “has had to share” him for several years, and had to go above and beyond coordinating the three schedules of their sons, Matthew, Ryan, and Michael.
“She’s been a great partner here and I wouldn’t have been able to do any of this without her support,” said Meredith. “I always talk to her and she always gives good feedback and perspective. I’m so fortunate in so many areas in my life.”
Meredith’s 35th season at the helm of Fredonia Blue Devils hockey will see the puck drop as the regular season begins on Friday in Angola, Ind., against Trine College. Their first regular season game at Steele Hall is on Friday, Nov. 4 against the Buffalo State Bengals.