Coaching changes unlikely

Posted March 19, 2009, at 11:58 p.m.

It’s been another rough winter for the University of Maine athletic department.

The marquee teams — men’s hockey and men’s and women’s basketball — went a combined 27-68-4, with both basketball teams losing America East tourney play-in games for the second straight year, and the hockey team fighting valiantly but coming up short in the Hockey East quarterfinals against Boston University.

Internet chat rooms, radio airwaves and anyplace else where anyone cares are filled with talk about who should be fired, who never should have been hired, and what else to do about the state’s flagging flagship athletic program.

Some movement already is under way.

Junior Mark Socoby, the first of several highly regarded in-state standouts who opted to stay home to try to lead the men’s basketball program to its first-ever conference title, will transfer rather than risk enduring one final season of team mediocrity.

Then comes news that athletic director Blake James is one of 15 candidates for the AD job at Florida Gulf Coast University.

Given that James has presided over an athletic program in Orono that began the week just 182-366-29 since the start of the 2007-08 season, this may be a timely pursuit of a warmer professional climate.

That he has just one year left on his contract at Maine perhaps lends a greater sense of urgency to the job search.

As for the winter sports coaches who some might consider on the hot seat, don’t expect changes any time soon.

Men’s basketball coach Ted Woodward has three years to go on his contract. Women’s basketball coach Cindy Blodgett and hockey coach Tim Whitehead each has two years left.

And who in these economic times is going to get away with buying out a six-figure contract for multiple years, then spend even more to hire a replacement?

Amid an atmosphere in which job security anywhere is tenuous no matter the level of individual competence, I’m not someone who’s going to suggest anyone be fired. Consider me superstitious.

But these coaches also are among the higher-paid public-sector employees in the state, so they’re not going to avoid constant scrutiny.

Whitehead was correct earlier in the week when he said his future would be determined by how well he — and by extension his hockey team — performs over the next two seasons. He is not alone.

Blodgett’s first two seasons essentially have been two first seasons due to the considerable roster turnover after her first year. She should get the chance to coach through a series of her own recruiting classes before judgement is made.

Woodward might be in the most jeopardy but for the length of his remaining contract.

Many Maine sports fans want to give him the benefit of the doubt for trying to develop his program around homegrown standouts such as Socoby, Gardiner’s Sean McNally and Auburn’s Troy Barnies after two decades of transfers and junior college players failed to bring a taste of March Madness to Orono.

But a 16-44 record over the last two years suggests more frustration than growth — a fact reinforced by Socoby’s decision to look elsewhere with just one year of eligibility left.

Maybe WZON was the prescient party when its radio relationship with the University of Maine sports world ended two years ago.

For the Curse of Stephen King seems to have haunted the Black Bears ever since.

eclark@bangordailynews.net

990-8045

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