BANGOR, Maine — Betrayed.
That is how Cindy Blodgett feels about being fired Tuesday as the head women’s basketball coach at the University of Maine.
Blodgett made her first public comments about the dismissal Thursday afternoon during a 38-minute press conference held at Paddy Murphy’s in downtown Bangor.
Wearing a white pantsuit over a floral blouse, the 35-year-old Blodgett fielded questions from a large gathering of media as a handful of loyal boosters and a few of her friends looked on.
Blodgett expressed regret at not having the opportunity to finish the job for which she was first hired in 2007. In September, she received a two-year contract extension negotiated by UMaine Athletic Director Blake James before he left to take a position at the University of Miami.
“I envisioned the two-year extension being honored,” said Blodgett, whose teams compiled a 24-94 record in four seasons.
“Four years ago when I was offered this job and took it, it wasn’t about me, it was about building a program,” said Blodgett, who inherited a struggling team with few standouts.
“Part of it is, you have to recruit good people to buy into what you want to accomplish as a program and you have to re-create the culture,” she said. “We were in the process of that. Wins would come as a byproduct once that culture was built. What I do feel unfortunate about is we will not be able to see our first recruiting class graduate. Obviously, that’s where the lack of commitment [from the university] came in terms of allowing us to see through our actual building process.”
Blodgett challenged the handling of her dismissal by new Athletic Director Steve Abbott, who was hired Monday for a two-year term after nearly seven months in an interim capacity. She questioned his leadership ability, pointing to his first major move as evidence.
Blodgett said she met with Abbott last Friday, at which time he asked for her resignation. She said he pointed to a perceived rift between her and team members.
“That goes against everything I have tried to instill in the players,” she said. “You don’t give up, you don’t stop fighting, and I was not going to send the players and this state and the University of Maine that message that I was walking away.”
When Abbott announced Blodgett’s firing Tuesday, he listed the primary reason for his decision as UMaine’s poor win-loss record. He said the program had not shown any discernible progress in the wake of the worst season in program history (4-25).
Abbott on Thursday said that was the most glaring reason, but not the only one.
“When you make a decision like this, you need to consider all factors and you need to look into everything,” Abbott said, “but in this situation the overriding and overwhelming factor was the performance of the team on the court. Cindy worked extremely hard, was extremely dedicated; nobody could have worked harder. The fact is, over the last four years, her team’s record has gotten worse, not better, and I felt like we needed to make a change.”
Blodgett, who handled the press conference by herself, said while she questions Abbott’s decision, she is not planning legal action against the university.
“It’s never been about that for me. That’s not on my radar,” Blodgett said.
Three days before Blodgett and Abbott met, on March 22, UMaine announced the impending transfers of two scholarship players — sophomore Katelyn Vanderhoff and freshman Jaymie Druding.
Greer Babbe, a freshman walk-on from Nebraska, also intends to transfer, according to a team member.
Abbott didn’t address the development specifically, but tried to put everything in perspective.
“As an administrator, my responsibility is to make decisions that are based on the best interests of our student-athletes, our athletic department and our university,” Abbott said. “I truly enjoyed working with Cindy, I like Cindy, but I can’t allow that to be the basis of my decision. I have to base it on what’s best for the institution.”
Blodgett dismissed the transfers — three of 13 (23 percent) scholarship players she signed have departed — as normal Division I turnover.
UMaine’s nine remaining players rushed to Blodgett’s defense after Tuesday’s announcement, contacting the BDN to request their opinions be heard. They came out in full support of Blodgett.
“I think it became apparent where my players were in relation to that,” Blodgett said, “and for that I’m deeply, deeply humbled by their support with the entire team.”
Blodgett was emphatic the program was poised to demonstrate its progress soon. She pointed to the commitment of the returning players, along with a promising incoming class of recruits, as the reasons for her confidence.
Blodgett said she told Abbott in a meeting earlier last month that she would step down after the 2011-12 season if things didn’t improve.
“I told him point blank that if he and I were having this same conversation a year from now, you wouldn’t have to push me out, I’ll gladly walk away,” she said.
She pointed out that key injuries to All-America East forward Samantha Wheeler (concussion) and redshirt freshman guard Rachele Burns of Gorham (knee) helped prevent the Bears from winning 12-15 games last season.
“Perhaps I was naive in my thought process in thinking that the place that I had helped build as a player would also be willing to commit to not only myself but to the program that we were trying to build,” Blodgett said.
As stipulated in her work agreement, Blodgett will receive one year’s salary ($109,772) for having her contract terminated by the university. According to UMaine spokesman Joe Carr, the buyout came from UMaine’s annual fund — privately raised money available to UMaine President Robert Kennedy for use as he deems appropriate.
Blodgett was noncommittal when talking about what direction she will go professionally. She expressed the need to counsel and console UMaine’s players and incoming recruits to help ease the transition.
As for UMaine, Blodgett suggested the university should do more in terms of funding to enable women’s basketball to achieve its billing as “one of the premier sports on campus.”
“I think if the University of Maine is going to claim that, they need to put more money into the program and they need to support it more,” she said.
As a player from 1994 to 1998, Blodgett spearheaded UMaine to four straight America East championships and four consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament. She was the nation’s Division I scoring leader for two straight years and finished with 3,005 career points, then sixth all time.
However, after four difficult years as the Black Bears’ head coach and being terminated with the job left unfinished, Blodgett will depart with regret.
“I’m certainly appreciative of being given the opportunity when I was hired and that will remain unchanged,” Blodgett said. “I think that as I look at UMaine from here on out, I certainly will have a very different view. I’m disappointed.”
Will Blodgett’s future include basketball?
“History would say yes,” said Blodgett, whose outlook has changed.
“A situation like this, and it happens every day, so I’m not a victim by any stretch, but in life you believe in people and you believe in universities, you believe in places where you get jobs and stay,” she said. “It certainly makes me second-guess people’s commitment and loyalty and those sort of things.”