Monday’s announcement that Steve Abbott will remain the University of Maine athletic director for at least two more years isn’t going to solve all the ills within Black Bear Nation.
But it’s a positive step for a program badly in need of something positive.
The thought that the process of hiring a permanent replacement for Blake James might not even begin until this fall, combined with the ongoing competitive struggles faced by nearly every UMaine team, left many followers frustrated with the apparent lack of urgency being given to addressing the rocky state of affairs within one of the university’s more visible departments.
But the agreement between outgoing UMaine president Robert A. Kennedy and Abbott for the 48-year-old son of former Black Bears football coach and AD Walt Abbott to maintain the reins of the program offers a modest sense of stability that certainly can’t hurt its immediate future.
Abbott has the chance to develop an immediate legacy if he is able to complete the ongoing fundraising campaign to upgrade Memorial Gymnasium, the Field House and Alfond Arena.
As an Orono native and Orono High School graduate, the longtime former chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Susan M. Collins also has a unique perspective on what University of Maine athletics mean to the state, and he’ll have the chance to use his leadership skills to begin rebuilding the UMaine athletic brand as well as the relationship between the athletic department and the Maine sports community at large.
Already he’s shown himself to be a good neighbor, making UMaine facilities more available to those beyond the campus limits, especially in times of need — particularly recently when the postponed Eastern Maine Class C high school basketball finals were moved from the Bangor Auditorium to Alfond Arena on basically 24 hours’ notice.
Those who prefer that one of Abbott’s first moves to be firing much of the UMaine coaching staff are likely to be unsatisfied.
Several of those coaches are working under multi-year contract extensions, and it would be a tough sell to seek to raise money for capital improvements while at the same time buying out coaches for hundreds of thousands of dollars and paying new coaches hundreds of thousands of dollars to take their place.
Those coaches who have guided UMaine teams to less-than-stellar finishes in recent years likely will get the chance to improve their job security at least through next year. By that time Abbott and incoming president Paul W. Ferguson will have a chance to collectively make their own assessments and determine what changes are needed to boost not only some of the marquee teams, but the Black Bear persona, gate receipts and alumni relations and the donations that come with them.
Some difficult decisions loom in that regard, to be sure.
Abbott may face another difficult decision in two years — whether or not to stay in the athletic director’s job.
Most of his professional life has been focused on politics, from working with Collins to his own unsuccessful run for the Maine Republican gubernatorial nomination last year. He may not have the political bug out of his system yet, and a contract that expires in 2013 is convenient if the former Harvard football standout envisions another run for higher office in 2014.
In the interim at least, Steve Abbott and the University of Maine athletic program make a good fit.