It is time to look ahead to 2009.
There is probably nobody who is looking more forward to 2009 than University of Maine athletic director Blake James.
The 2007-2008 season was, perhaps, the worst in the history of the athletic program.
Excluding the track and field, cross country and swim teams, which usually compete in multi-team events, the 11 team sports programs compiled a record of 84-220-11.
Not one of those 11 teams even reached the .500 mark. Four were at least 15 games under .500.
Even the men’s hockey team, which had been to nine consecutive NCAA Tournaments, not only missed the NCAA tourney but it also missed the Hockey East tournament for the first time, excluding the year it was banned by the league for NCAA violations (1996-97).
Do you know how you know when an athletic program is struggling on the field, court or arena? When you receive an endless stream of press releases from the school highlighting the academic achievements of its student-athletes.
This is not to say those aren’t noteworthy accomplishments.
They certainly are.
But I will never forget the words of the late Dale Lick, president of the University of Maine, who once told me that he would love to have one of the best history programs in the country but said it was more important to have successful athletic teams because they attract more students.
National exposure is worth its weight in gold when it comes to recruiting students.
How many students attend Duke because of Coach K and the men’s basketball program? It’s the same with the University of North Carolina.
Everyone wants to be a part of the madness on basketball night at Duke and UNC.
The Maine men’s hockey team, with its 17 NCAA Tournament appearances, 11 Frozen Fours and two national championships over the last 21 years, has been a major recruiting tool for the institution, taking over from the baseball teams under John Winkin that went to five College World Series in the 1980s.
Frozen Four and College World Series games are shown on ESPN.
So far, 2008-2009 has shown a definite upturn.
Jack Cosgrove’s football team got the ball rolling with a six-game winning streak that propelled it into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since back-to-back quarterfinal appearances in 2001 and 2002. Maine went 8-5 after a 4-7 showing in ’07.
Four of the losses were to Football Championship Subdivision Tournament teams and the other was to Football Bowl Subdivision bowl team Iowa.
The fact the Colonial Athletic Association put four teams in the Final Eight and member Richmond won the title tells you it’s probably the best conference in the FCS.
Women’s volleyball had a dramatic turnaround, finishing 14-13 after going 4-23 in ’07. Field hockey was 6-11 but 3-2 in America East after going 5-11 (1-4 in AE) the previous year. Women’s soccer went 6-6-7, 3-3-3 (6-8-3, 4-4-1 in 2007), and men’s soccer was 5-10-2 (2-5-1 in AE) after 3-13-1 and 1-6-1 in ’07.
Men’s hockey is 10-6-2 after a 13-18-3 campaign a year ago, women’s hockey is 4-13-2 but has matched last year’s win total (4-27-3), and men’s basketball entered Tuesday night’s game with only two fewer wins (5-7) than last year (7-23).
The women’s basketball program, at 2-10 so far, is the only one that may not equal last year’s record (7-23).
Successful athletic teams at the University of Maine are important to the state and the turnaround was needed.