Jeff Sauer came with Bob Johnson to Madison in 1966 after concluding his playing career at Colorado College. When Sauer and Johnson got to the University of Wisconsin, the program was largely irrelevant.
Before there were sold-out arenas, national championships, and any mention of “Badger Bob”, it was a coach and his assistant attempting to build a national power on The Isthmus. In fact, the program was in its third year after taking a 30-year hiatus.
The two got to work immediately. The Badgers finished no less than six over .500 in each of the duo’s first five seasons. Sauer was the right-hand man for the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance and Frozen Four in 1970. But then, his alma mater came calling.
The Tigers needed a head coach, and Sauer answered that call, returning to Colorado Springs. Sauer struggled at CC, only qualifying for one NCAA Tournament and having two seasons over .500 out of ten. But when his coach, Bob Johnson, traded Madison for the NHL in 1982, Wisconsin athletic director Elroy Hirsch called on Sauer to return.
In his first season, Sauer led the Badgers to a national title, the program’s fourth. During the tournament, the Cardinal and White outscored their opponents 21-5. That team was stocked with Badger legends like Marc Behrend, Patrick Flatley, Bruce Driver and Chris Chelios.
After that, the Badgers qualified for NCAA Tournaments every year between 1988 and 1995, 1998, 2000 and 2001. Sauer-led teams won WCHA regular season titles in 1990 and 2000. They also won conference tournament titles in 1988, 1990, 1995, and 1998. Wisconsin played in two additional Frozen Fours under Sauer in 1990 and 1992. The Badgers lost a highly controversial title game against Lake Superior State in ’92 but won the whole thing in ’90.
That 1990 team will forever be one of the best in school history. They were the only Wisconsin team to sweep the NCAA title, WCHA regular season title and the WCHA conference tournament title in the same season. That team was also memorable for what the players did after that national championship season. Several went on to play professionally, broadcast for college hockey, and coach college hockey. Two of those guys, Mark Osiecki and Don Granato, are current Badger assistants. Team captain Steve Rohlick is currently the head coach for the top-10-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes. The Trio of Barry Richter, Rob Andringa and Tom Sagissor also all spent time in the booth covering the Badgers.
Sauer had many strong teams that didn’t win national championships, especially the 2000 team that featured Dany Heatley, Steve Reinprecht and Brad Winchester. Unfortunately, at the University of Wisconsin, the teams that are remembered forever hang banners. Sauer did that a couple of times. That mindset –of NCAA Championships being the end-all-be-all is a mindset he helped instill many years ago.
In all, Jeff Sauer won close to 500 games, two national championships and several more conference championships for the Cardinal and White. He ended his coaching career and life leading the USA sled hockey team to two Paralympic gold medals. A winning end to a successful coaching career in hockey that spanned five decades. For his role in building Wisconsin Hockey into a power under Johnson then winning two championships of his own, Sauer will never be forgotten in Wisconsin. But for his 50-year service to the game of hockey, his name will never be forgotten across the entire sport. Jeffery Sauer died Thursday at age 73.