ORONO, Maine — Steve Abbott spent his youth scurrying up and down on the sidelines at the former Alumni Field during University of Maine football games and playing with his brother Scott in the Memorial Gym/field house complex.
On Friday, the eldest son of former Black Bears coach Walter Abbott was back in his old stomping grounds — to accept the job as UMaine’s interim director of athletics.
Steve Abbott, a former Orono High School football star who captained the team at Harvard College and later worked as an attorney and political staffer, was appointed to the post Friday by UMaine President Robert Kennedy during a press conference at the Alfond Family Lounge.
“To me it really came down to this: I was looking for someone with leadership skills and a great commitment to guide Black Bear athletics through the upcoming season,” Kennedy said.
“I wanted a person of impeccable integrity, a record of personal and professional accomplishment and someone who appreciates what education is all about, especially here at the University of Maine.”
Abbott, 48, takes over for Blake James, who leaves UMaine next month to become the senior associate athletic director for external affairs at the University of Miami. UMaine spokesman Joe Carr said Abbott’s salary is $140,000.
“For me this is a homecoming. I grew up in Orono with a family that has deep ties to this institution,” said Abbott, who begins work Sept. 6.
“For me this is just a wonderful opportunity because I believe so deeply in the value of this school and the importance that it has in this state,” he added. “I also believe deeply in the value of athletics. Athletics is so key to a successful, functioning, major university and it’s going to be extremely important that, in this interim period, that the athletic de-partment continue to grow, continue to excel, continue to move forward.”
The Abbott name has been a part of UMaine athletics for a half-century. Walt Abbott served two stints as interim AD (1991-92, 1994-95).
He was a physical education instructor at UMaine for 50 years prior to his retirement this year and was the Bears’ football coach from 1967-75.
“He’s given me some great input in terms of how to ap-proach the job, the importance of working with the coaches, trying to provide opportunities for the coaches,” said Steve Abbott, who in June failed in his bid to win the Republican nomination for governor.
While most UMaine coaches know only a little about their new boss, head football coach Jack Cosgrove literally watched Abbott grow up. Cosgrove, who played for Walt Abbott, gave the son a ringing endorsement.
“I’m ecstatic. I couldn’t be happier,” said Cosgrove, who complimented Kennedy for identifying and hiring Abbott.
“I think he’s going to be committed to the University of Maine and to our vision. He’s going to have the courage to make decisions and, most importantly, the communications skills to move our department forward.”
Cosgrove cherishes a photograph from playing days that shows him running for a touchdown and a young Steve Abbott running down the sideline, holding a football, his hand in the air in celebration.
Abbott’s appointment is subject to formal approval by University of Maine System Chancellor Richard Pattenaude and the Board of Trustees.
“I think he’s a wonderful choice. Steve has a great repu-tation around here,” said men’s basketball coach Ted Woodward. “He has a great passion for the University of Maine.”
Abbott admitted he was sur-prised to receive a call last week from Kennedy. He explained he will not seek the permanent position and instead wants to help lay more groundwork for his successor.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do next, but I’m looking at it as an interim position. I’m not going to apply when they start the search,” Abbott said.
Baseball coach Steve Trimper said Abbott’s competitive experience, both on and off the field, have helped develop his character and skill.
“It’s a perfect choice for us in this pivotal time,” Trimper said. “He’s been in some big-time situations. I think he’s jumping into a great year and will build on the momentum Blake has built in the last few years.”
Among the key issues facing Abbott is the continued fund-raising for the renovation of Memorial Gym and significant improvements at Alfond Arena.
“To me, a priority is going to be the renovation of Memorial Gym,” Abbott said of the proposed $12 million-plus project. “I think that’s got to be a priority. It’s going to help all our athletics programs and it’s go-ing to be great for the univer-sity, great for eastern Maine and the whole state.”
Cosgrove and men’s hockey head coach Tim Whitehead agreed Abbott has the connections and savvy to work with those who have the means to bring both projects to fruition.
“He has relationships with the donors and the alumni from this program,” Cosgrove said. “That’s a big issue right away because we’ve got some momentum going there and we want that to continue to grow.”
Whitehead admits having previously gained an appreciation for Abbott, and his politics.
“My wife [Dena] and I actually were supporters of his for governor,” Whitehead said. “He’s a tremendous person and a great leader and a tremendous fit for our athletic pro-gram.”
Prior to running for the Re-publican gubernatorial nomination earlier this year, he served as the chief of staff for Sen. Susan Collins for 12 years.
Kennedy said Abbott’s lack of experience in athletic administration was not an issue be-cause of his extensive back-ground in law and politics.
“It really is a combination of many, many different factors that I think will put Steve in very good stead for this position,” Kennedy said. “I’m very relaxed about it and confident that Steve will give great leadership to our Black Bear athletic program.”
Abbott is a 1987 graduate of Harvard, where he earned an undergraduate degree in his-tory and played football. He graduated from the University of Maine School of Law in 1991 and worked as an attorney at Pierce Atwood in Portland.
He also studied sport management at the University of Massachusetts but joined Collins’ staff in 1997.
Abbott was a three-sport standout at Orono and played on a football team that went undefeated in his four seasons.
He lives in Portland with his wife Amy and their children Hannah, 10, and Henry, 6.
“Amy and I are very familiar with how to work out those difficult logistics and I’m sure it will work out here as well,” he said. “Having my parents here in town really makes it easy.”