It didn’t take University of Maine President Robert Kennedy long after naming Steve Abbott to be the interim athletic director last August to realize that Abbott would be a good permanent athletic director.
Abbott, who had served 12 years as the chief of staff for Sen. Susan Collins and had made an unsuccessful run for governor, made a positive impact from day one.
“The immediate reaction was overwhelmingly positive,” said Kennedy. “He had tremendous experience and he showed a lot of maturity in dealing with difficult issues in his first week on the job.”
So Kennedy offered him a two-year contract to continue on as the athletic director and Abbott accepted.
The announcement was made on Monday. Abbott will continue to receive the same pay, $140,000 per year.
“We talked about it for months,” said Kennedy. “I had initially brought it up not too long after naming him the interim AD. It was too obviously too early to put it on his radar screen. But I had already seen the pattern of his leadership and management skills. And he’s had great success as a fundraiser.”
When Abbott accepted the interim job, he said he had no intention of applying for the full-time position.
But Abbott said he has enjoyed the job as well as its challenges and that resulted in a change of heart. The appointment takes effect on June 1 and has to be approved by University of Maine System Chancellor Richard Pattenaude.
“I’m very excited. Bob Kennedy has been incredibly supportive and emphasized to me the importance of having stability within the department. That meant a lot to me,” said the 48-year-old Abbott, a former Orono High School football star and Harvard University football captain. “And I am deeply committed to the renovation of Alfond Arena, the Memorial Gym and the Field House. The more we work on them, the more excited I get about the potential they have.
“I love the opportunity to work with this institution and to work for the Black Bears. I love the school and the community,” he said.
He added, “When I took the interim job, Bob Kennedy told me told me to act like an athletic director not an interim athletic director. So this won’t be a huge change.”
Kennedy, who is stepping down at the end of June, said incoming president Paul Ferguson went along with the appointment and that it will enable Ferguson to have an easier transition since he won’t have to worry about filling the AD position.
Abbott grew up going to Maine games and has been a Black Bear fan his whole life.
He knows he will have his hands full but said his various experiences will be useful in dealing with the issues that will confront him.
“By being involved in politics and as a lawyer, that has prepared me for making tough decisions,” said Abbott.
Several of Maine’s teams underachieved this past season.
The women’s basketball team had a program-worst 4-25 record and has lost four straight America East play-in games involving the eighth and ninth-place teams.
The men’s basketball team has lost eight of its last nine games this season and has lost six straight AE playoff games; the men’s hockey team failed to make the NCAA Tournament for the fourth straight year after being eliminated in the league quarterfinals; the football team has made just one postseason appearance since 2002 and is coming off back-to-back losing seasons and the baseball team hasn’t made the NCAA tourney since 2006.
“Many of our teams had a tough year. We all have to do what we can to help these programs succeed,” said Abbott. “Our number one priority is always going to be the student-athletes but I also know how important it for our fans that our teams be successful.
“That means we all have to evaluate our performance. I know people look at the coaches but we, as administrators, must also share in the responsibilities as well. We need to provide our teams with everything they need to compete at a high level. A lot of them are in very tough conferences.
“I understand the frustration of the fans. But I also believe we all have to do our part and we need to secure the support of the fans,” he added.
Maine’s coaches were pleased with Abbott’s appointment.
“This is a great match for both the university and for Steve,” said Maine hockey coach Tim Whitehead. “It is a slam-dunk in my opinion.
“He grew up in Orono and he cares greatly about our university and the athletic department,” said Whitehead. “He’s very intelligent, an excellent fundraiser and a great people person. I think he’s going to do a great job.”
Maine football coach Jack Cosgrove said the university “couldn’’t have gotten a better guy.
“I’m excited. We’ve taken a firm step forward. I’m obviously a big fan of his,” he said. “I’ve got a real good sense of optimism. It means a lot to have a starting point and a leader in place.”
Cosgrove said Abbott will provide the type of leadership that has been missing for several years.
“It seems like we’ve been in flux for a long time,” said Cosgrove. “The previous AD (Blake James) didn’t want to be here long term. That state of mind isn’t good for anyone.”
Maine baseball coach Steve Trimper said Abbott has taken in a lot over the past several months.
“He was trying to get his bearings on what it took to work at the university. Now he’s ready to move forward and be our leader and we need that,” Trimper said.
“It’s important to have a great leader to get us all going in the same direction. When I woke up this morning (and heard about it), I breathed a sigh of relief,” he added.
“This is wonderful,” said Maine men’s basketball coach Ted Woodward. “He has incredible vision for our department and the school. He has done a great job.”
Former University of Maine athletic director Stu Haskell called Abbott a “very solid individual.
“I like Steve. He’s a very bright guy. I’m happy for him and pleased for the university. It was a good decision. I’m sure he’ll do a good job.”
Maine field hockey coach Josette Babineau said Abbott “has been extremely supportive of our program. I feel great about it. He has a lot of energy, motivation and drive and that will be good for us right now.”
Maine’s coaches have always been at a geographic disadvantage and there have been budgetary constraints leading to the elimination of the men’s soccer and women’s volleyball programs two years ago.
“I understand the challenges facing our coaches and teams,” said Abbott. “I’ve been going to Maine games my whole life. I think I bring a different perspective to the job because I know the importance of athletics to this university and the importance of maintaining the tradition established by people who came before us. I know how important the university is to the state.”
He said the facilities “desperately need to be upgraded” and the basketball teams need to have their own facility rather than sharing Alfond Arena with the hockey teams.
He also intends to “try to improve the fan experience.”
Abbott is a proponent of the university sharing their facilities with the community and said the football game between John Bapst of Bangor and Orono at Morse Field gave the players a lasting memory.
Kennedy agreed with Abbott in that upgrading the facilities should be the top priority.
“It’s very, very important to have first-rate facilities across the board,” said Kennedy.
“And the donors want to know that we have a long-range vision,” said Abbott, who added that his family has been “very supportive” and he isn’t sure if wife Amy, daughter Hannah and son Henry will move to Orono from Portland.
In addition to graduating from Harvard, Abbott also graduated from the University of Maine’s School of Law and studied sports management in the University of Massachusetts’ graduate program.
He was a practicing attorney before serving as Collins’ chief of staff.
Abbott is the son of former University of Maine professor, head football coach and athletic director Walt Abbott.