Jeff Jackson stepped into a hairy situation when he arrived in South Bend, Ind., three years ago to try to turn Notre Dame's invisible college hockey program into a national power.
And not just because he was inheriting a rag-tag team that had won just five games in 2004-05.
"I remember he walked into the locker room and handed me a Great Clips card," said the formerly shaggy Mark Van Guilder, a captain who now sports a 'do that's cropped short on the sides with a little tussle on top.
"He didn't have to say a word. He was all discipline from the very beginning. That's what changed everything. He brought that confidence with him. He's a winner and we were willing to follow him wherever he was going to take us."
Starting with the barber shop.
Despite the loss of top scorer Erik Condra to a knee injury last month, Jackson has guided the neatly groomed Fighting Irish (27-15-4) to their first national title game just three years after taking over the moribund program.
They'll face Boston College (24-11-8) on Saturday night at the Pepsi Center. The Eagles (24-11-8) are making their third straight appearance in the title game. They lost to Wisconsin in 2006 and Michigan State last year.
When Jackson, 53, took over at Notre Dame, he brought 20 years' of experience in college, amateur and pro hockey with him, along with rings from two national championships that he won at Lake Superior State in the 1990s.
With students still wondering if hockey was a Division I sport at Notre Dame, Jackson started to change the culture on campus by guiding the Fighting Irish to a 10-10-3 finish after a slow start to his first season.
Last season, Notre Dame vaulted to a 32-7-3 record, the best in the program's 40-year history, one which included the school's first regular-season and conference tournament titles.
This year, the Irish surged at the right time, becoming the first No. 4 seed to beat a No. 1 seed when they upended New Hampshire in the West Regional in Colorado Springs two weeks ago.
That was but a prelude to their stunning 5-4 overtime thumping of top-ranked Michigan, the tournament's No. 1 overall seed, on the semifinals Thursday night.
"I've always thought that Notre Dame could be a great, great college hockey program," Jackson said Friday.
There's the built-in rich rivalries thanks to football and smart recruits passing Notre Dame's notoriously tough admission standards.
Under Jackson, who is 6-1 at the Frozen Four, Notre Dame built the turnaround on disciplined play, strong recruiting, outstanding special teams, excellent puck management and a stifling defense.
"We always had the pieces," senior forward Evan Rankin said. "But I think when Coach Jackson got here, he put everything together. ... I knew right away he expected a lot. I don't care if you're going to be a fourth line grinder or first line top forward. He let us know he was going to expect the best."
It all began with the little things.
"We had the hair going. He changed all that. We became clean-shaven except for the playoffs," said Van Guilder, who began sporting a well-groomed goatee in the postseason. "He went over his rules and how he did things. It centered around discipline and how the program was going to be. It was his way or take a hike."
It's not like the Irish were a bunch of Hanson brothers from "Slapshot," but they were scruffy.
"A lot of guys had long hair and beards," senior defenseman Brock Sheahan recalled. "It was after the long season the year before. We were a team that had won five games and I remember him telling us that Notre Dame was a sleeping giant and a place he could make into a top notch hockey program. From his track record it was easily something we could buy into."
So, off to get haircuts.
"Having a coaching change always shakes a team up. It was a nervous time for guys, but at the same time it was an exciting time of anticipating that things would be turned around," Sheahan said. "It was cool to hear a guy who had such a vision. He made you believe in him."
The Fighting Irish will once again be the underdogs Saturday night. The Eagles, who are led by junior forward Nathan Gerbe and freshman goalie John Muse, have won two championships, in 1949 and 2001, and this is their third straight trip to the title game.
"We laugh. We don't get Christmas off, we don't get Thanksgiving, Easter or spring break off," B.C. forward Andrew Orpik said. "I know when I look back five years ago it's not going to matter if I went to Cancun. These memories will last a lot longer."
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