Early next week, the University of Maine will begin the hiring process for its next women’s basketball head coach.
With the program having languished for the last four seasons (24-94) under former Black Bears star Cindy Blodgett, UMaine must be able to find the person with the right combination of personality, experience, recruiting and coaching connections and basketball know-how to get the program turned around.
Athletic Director Steve Abbott believes UMaine presents an intriguing opportunity for a coach who wants to put his or her mark on a program.
The position will offer a salary comparable to most of those in the America East Conference — probably in the neighborhood of the $109,000 being paid to Blodgett during this, her fourth and final season in Orono. The women’s basketball budget also is competitive and larger than that of the UMaine men’s program.
“Our women’s basketball, it has a little better funding than most of our programs and, on a relative basis in the league, I think we do pretty well,” Abbott said.
The prospect of having a renovated Memorial Gymnasium, at a cost of some $15 million, in the next several years is another big draw.
“I think that is a huge factor when you’re talking about what kind of commitment the university is showing toward the basketball programs,” Abbott said. “That would provide a fantastic home court and really establish a home-court advantage for both of our teams.”
Abbott also pointed to the attractive campus, the friendly atmosphere in the region and the steadfast support of fans and financial backers as good selling points for prospective head coaches. UMaine’s distinction as the state’s only Division I athletic program and its statewide media coverage are other draws.
The new coach must embrace all of that, as well as the challenges of getting student-athletes to attend UMaine.
In terms of attributes, a charismatic personality is a trait that would help the rebuilding of the women’s basketball program.
“You need somebody who is going to bring the enthusiasm back to the program, somebody who can lift it up,” Abbott said. “You also need somebody who appreciates and respects the tradition of the program and has that drive and determination to return it to where it was.”
Abbott explained UMaine women’s basketball must be closely aligned with the state’s schoolgirl programs in order to foster an atmosphere of mutual cooperation and support.
“They kind of feed off each other,” he said.
What kinds of things should UMaine’s search committee be looking for? One America East head coach offered thoughts on keys to success at the Division I level.
The coach asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the situation involving UMaine and Blodgett’s dismissal.
The No. 1 quality on the list has nothing to do with implementing X’s and O’s.
“The first thing is communicating and managing people and being able to relate to people and being able to get them to buy into your passion and vision and what you’re about,” said the coach, who has several years of college coaching experience at more than one level.
That dynamic includes being able to delegate authority and recognize how each member of the coaching staff and the university support staff is entwined in the program’s mission.
A critical aspect of coaching at the Division I level is being able to recruit, whether it’s players or assistant coaches. A coach must have a well-developed list of coaching contacts who can help him or her find the best players who fit the program.
“You need to have recruiting ties, having built a lot of relationships at every place that you go,” the AE coach said. “You bring all those relationships with you, then when you need to find recruits or coaches, you can pick up the phone and call those people and they know what you’re about and what you can do and they’re willing to help.”
With such a network in place, tips on good players often arrive unsolicited, which helps improve the potential talent pool. If a player has a positive experience at that university, word gets back to the high school and AAU levels, which helps generate more prospects.
The AE coach said mutual trust is critical among coaches on a staff and has known each member of the staff in question for several years.
“I knew their strengths and they knew my strengths,” the coach said, “so I delegate tasks according to those strengths.”
A prospective Division I coach must be well-schooled in the game and be able to teach fundamentals and implement strategies in practice and during games.
The coach was adamant a Division I head coach must have significant previous Division I experience to be able to direct a competitive program at that level.
“I think I have a lot of mentors and people that I can call upon when I need help and when I feel like I don’t have all the answers. Those relationships and that network of people is integral.”
Abbott said even though UMaine supporters would love to find a coach who is committed to the long haul, the search committee can’t worry about that dynamic.
“That’s certainly your best-case scenario and that would be great if that happened,” Abbott said.
However, he pointed to the careers of former UMaine coaches Joanne Palombo-McCallie (eight seasons) and Sharon Versyp (five), who led the Black Bears to prominence in shorter stints.
“Those were two truly outstanding coaches who made a dramatic and lasting impact on the program, even though they were both there for a relatively short period of time,” Abbott said.
In the coming months, UMaine’s search committee must comb through what is expected to be a lengthy list of applicants to find the right person to get the program back on track.