ORONO, Maine — Steve Abbott thrives on the thrill of competition.
Growing up in Orono, he spent fall afternoons pacing the sideline at Alumni Field alongside his father, former University of Maine football coach Walter Abbott.
He distinguished himself as a three-sport athlete at Orono High School, where he played on a football team that went undefeated four straight seasons. That involvement in sports fostered in Abbott an enthusiasm and competitive fire he has used in numerous arenas.
He battled on the football field and in the classroom at Harvard University and tested his mental mettle at the University of Maine School of Law. He engaged other attorneys in the courtroom during a five-year stint at the Portland firm Pierce Atwood, then led Sen. Susan Collins’ political team as her chief of staff for 12 years.
In 2010, Abbott threw himself into the fray as a candidate for the Maine Republican gubernatorial nomination.
Those experiences have led him full circle, back to UMaine, where he again frequents the halls at Memorial Gym and walks the sidelines of what is now Morse Field at Alfond Stadium.
Abbott, 49, manages a team of 90 employees and 400-plus student-athletes and oversees a budget of $15 million as UMaine strives to remain competitive in Division I athletics amidst considerable challenges.
As UMaine’s athletics director, he can use his professional, educational and athletic background in an administrative role. As the Black Bears’ No. 1 fan, he also enjoys attending events and cheering on the state’s only Division I athletics program.
Abbott took a nontraditional path to the position, so he approaches it with a unique perspective. He has won the support of UMaine coaches for his knowledge and insight and has helped finalize fundraising to renovate the Memorial Gym and field house.
His leadership will be critical as UMaine combats economic constraints that challenge its teams’ ability to compete. He is under contract for another 16 months, but is unsure whether he will extend his stay or possibly make another bid for public office.
After the run for governor, Abbott was pondering his future. In September 2010 he was hired, on an interim basis, by UMaine President Robert Kennedy after AD Blake James accepted a position at the University of Miami.
Abbott was thrilled at the chance to return to his UMaine roots, but didn’t view it as a long-term job. Seven months later, Kennedy had convinced Abbott to stay through June 30, 2013 — at $140,000 per year.
“When I took this job, I was very excited about it but I just couldn’t see this working out for us on a full-time basis,” said Abbott, who still lives in Portland. “Then you wake up one day and you’re doing it.”
New UMaine President Paul Ferguson, who arrived in July 2011, inherited Abbott but quickly embraced him.
“Steve’s education in law and sports management as well as his professional experiences enable him to bring to the table a broad view of college sports with diverse insights,” said Ferguson, who later appointed Abbott to his Cabinet.
From the beginning, Abbott was motivated and committed to help the athletic department move forward.
“He was willing to roll up his sleeves, take that fresh look at it and try to figure out the best possible scenario for Maine which, because of his dad and his family, he loves to death,” said Pat McBride, UMaine’s former director of athletic development, who now works at the University of Vermont.
Abbott took the job at a key juncture. Some UMaine teams were struggling, most notably the women’s basketball program, coached by former Black Bear All-American Cindy Blodgett. During 2010-11, attendance dipped some 10 percent at Alfond Arena as the once mighty men’s hockey team found itself mired in mediocrity. The football team went 3-8.
Abbott quickly exerted his influence. On March 29, 2011, the day after his two-year contract was announced, he fired Blodgett. The former Lawrence High School star led UMaine to unprecedented success as a player, but in four seasons as a coach, the Black Bears stumbled to a 24-94 record.
“I think he showed principled leadership there and said, ‘I can evaluate this program and know that we need to make a change and not be burdened by any political ramifications of that,’” McBride said.
Blodgett, who six months earlier had received a two-year contract extension negotiated by James and approved by Kennedy, felt betrayed that the deal was not honored.
She questioned Abbott’s rationale for the decision and his leadership. Blodgett said Abbott fired her because of a perceived rift between her and some players. Publicly, Abbott referenced the team’s poor performance and its lack of improvement.
“I know three days earlier when he spoke to me about [asking for] my resignation, it was not about wins and losses,” Blodgett said at her farewell press conference. “The reason he went to me was, there’s a divide in the locker room.”
Abbott oversaw the search that brought in veteran coach Richard Barron to replace Blodgett. Through Feb. 15, the Bears were 6-20.
Last September, Abbott accepted the resignation of softball coach Deb Smith, whose team was 73-81 in three seasons. He hired former UMaine pitching star and athletics staff member Lynn Hearty Coutts.
Last December, Abbott awarded a three-year contract extension to men’s basketball coach Ted Woodward.
“He’s got great vision, he’s an incredibly smart guy and he’s got great energy, a lot of passion for the University of Maine,” Woodward said.
Black Bears gain momentum
Most UMaine teams have shown improvement since Abbott’s arrival. The baseball team won the 2011 America East championship and played in the NCAA regionals.
Last fall, the eighth-ranked football team went 9-4 and advanced to the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision national quarterfinals. The field hockey team reached the America East semifinals and the women’s hockey program appears headed for unprecedented success.
The men’s hockey team has not excelled in recent years, bringing pressure on coach Tim Whitehead. The Bears have surged to a 16-4-2 record in their last 22 games.
“Nobody is satisfied with the results that we have had over the last few seasons,” Abbott said of the hockey team. “We knew that the fans want more. Both Tim and I — and the entire department — are committed to competing at the highest possible level.”
Whitehead commended Abbott for his support of the program and his understanding of the many factors that go into meeting the lofty goals associated with it.
“He’s a positive guy. He’s a glass-half-full person,” Whitehead said.
Abbott also pointed to the hockey team’s academic performance (3.3 grade point average last semester) and its community involvement and interaction with fans.
“He’s a big-picture guy,” Whitehead added. “He doesn’t get rattled with the small stuff.”
Abbott’s influence on the teams can’t be measured directly, but he appears to have made a positive impression.
“He’s such a gentleman. He comports himself with a lot of sophistication and he’s very thoughtful,” said University of New Hampshire athletics director Marty Scarano.
UMaine football coach Jack Cosgrove appreciates Abbott’s ability to relate to issues facing student-athletes.
“There’s a great connection, I think, when he talks to our players,” Cosgrove said. “There’s that ‘I’ve been there, I know what you’re going through’ type of feeling.”
Abbott’s nontraditional path to the UMaine job gives him a unique perspective on the dynamics of running an athletic department.
“Steve comes across a little bit different than most ADs because he approaches it differently,” Scarano said. “He’s an interesting guy. He brings a lot of his political savvy into the position and all the great experiences that he’s had.”
UMaine coaches support Abbott enthusiastically. They point to his ability to think outside the box on issues and his thoughtfulness in addressing their needs.
“Any time that I’ve had questions, whether it’s dealing with a recruiting situation or some scheduling issues, his advice and listening to the story and thinking about it and making some suggestions have made me be able to think of a different approach,” said field hockey coach Josette Babineau.
Abbott has proven himself to be a problem-solver, but he is more apt to float an idea rather than impose it as a directive.
Baseball coach Steve Trimper prefers being self-sufficient when it comes to running his program.
“He’s not a micromanager,” Trimper said. “I get the sense that he trusts his coaches. He can help out and, when he needs to, step in and help solve a problem.”
Abbott’s arrival at UMaine coincided with the ongoing effort to raise $14 million to renovate the Memorial Gym and field house, an idea that had been in the works since 2006.
Six weeks after he took the interim job, the Harold Alfond Foundation announced a $5.5 million donation for facilities upgrades. Of that, $2 million was earmarked as a matching grant for gym project.
The Alfond grant was negotiated under James’ watch, but Abbott seized the momentum. He knows the pivotal role the building plays as the hub of the athletics department and the gateway to the university.
“They don’t see the $27 million rec center and they don’t see the Buchanan Alumni House,” Abbott said of visitors and fans. “They go to the field house and Memorial Gym. It’s the toughest looking facility on campus right now.”
Raising money and overseeing plans for the renovations while trying to preserve its character and meet budget constraints proved challenging and time-consuming for Abbott.
“He never lost focus. He maintained his composure with the whole project where a lot of people were getting really frustrated,” said McBride, who also was immersed in the project.
When Abbott arrived, UMaine was still several million dollars shy of its goal. Now, the fundraising is nearly complete.
“We’ve raised a little bit more than 13.8 million [dollars] and we need 14 million. It’s close. We can taste it now,” Abbott said.
Abbott’s ingenuity resulted in the procurement of a critical donation. He contacted Matt LeBretton, director of public affairs for athletic shoe company New Balance, whom he knew from his days working for Sen. Collins.
Abbott proposed New Balance give UMaine $5 million in exchange for naming rights to two athletic facilities.
“Steve called me and said, ‘I’ve got a crazy idea for you … what do you think?’” LeBretton recounted. “I said, ‘You’re right, I think it’s crazy.’”
The people at New Balance, the last major athletic shoe brand to manufacture footwear in the U.S. — including three Maine factories — seized the opportunity.
“It’s the first significant gift that New Balance has made to a college or university,” LeBretton explained. “I don’t want to diminish what anybody else did, because the president [Kennedy] and everybody else was great, but Steve deserves the lion’s share of credit for making this work.”
LeBretton, who respected Abbott from their previous interactions, praised his ability to think creatively.
“I think it’s an entrepreneurial spirit that Steve has, a problem-solving ability,” LeBretton added. “He deserves a ton of credit. I wish we had thought of it.”
Through the arrangement, the field house will be called the “New Balance Field House” and the rec center will be known as the “New Balance Student Recreation and Fitness Center.”
“It’s a new model for us at the university. It’s not something we’d done in the past,” Abbott said of selling naming rights.
“However long Steve stays there, that could be one of his best legacies, the partnership with New Balance,” McBride said.
Abbott revealed UMaine is poised to get the gym/field house project started. The university has hired an architect, SMRT Inc. of Portland, and work should begin in 2013.
Abbott works at UMaine without having established residence in Greater Bangor. He and his wife, Amy, live in Portland with their children Hannah, 11, and Henry, 7.
A variety of factors led the Abbotts to maintain their existing home situation.
“My major job shifts and run for governor over the past two years, while exciting, provided a level of disruption and public attention that our family was not used to,” Abbott explained. “We have lived in the same house for the past 14 years, have great neighbors and our kids are happy at school, so remaining there through all this turmoil has provided some stability for them.”
The struggling housing market and the considerable expense of running for governor also would have made moving a challenge.
Abbott admits the arrangement isn’t without challenges. He normally spends most of his week in Orono, where he stays with his parents, two miles from campus.
Abbott appreciates the patience and support Amy and the kids have given him as he splits his time between home and campus.
“I’m at work doing things that I love to do, but it’s a lot of time away from your family,” he said. “Your family’s making the sacrifice, too.”
Abbott is a frequent presence at UMaine home games, but he also travels to the Boston area and beyond for contests and conference meetings. Spending time in Portland provides opportunities to promote UMaine athletics in southern Maine.
“While it is a personal inconvenience, there is no need for me to make my residence in Orono to do this job,” Abbott said.
Abbott is committed to putting UMaine athletics on a course that will enable its teams to remain competitive.
The completion of the gym/field house project should put the department in good stead as far as facilities, but economic challenges are expected to continue.
Establishing more productive revenue streams, including putting fans in the seats at home games, is a point of emphasis. Efforts to continue expanding UMaine’s donor base will be critical.
“We’re trying to run the operation as efficiently as we possibly can and try to make sure we’re spending our money as wisely as possible,” Abbott said.
UMaine appears comfortable and competitive as a member of America East and Hockey East. The future of the football program, which plays in the Virginia-based CAA, requiring expensive air travel, is a concern.
“We need to have a plan going forward,” Cosgrove said. “I’d like to think that Steve being a football guy, having been around it and having a passion for it, would be a key to that taking place.”
Abbott maintains a keen interest in politics, especially the Republican Party, and endorses Mitt Romney’s candidacy in the 2012 presidential race.
When he first took the job with Sen. Collins, Abbott never imagined he would seek elected office. In 2010, he ran for governor.
“It really gave me a deeper appreciation for the strengths we have in the state but the problems we have here as well,” Abbott said. “Seeing it every day, it’s an eye-opener.”
So, too, were the results of the Republican primary. Abbott finished fourth behind future Gov. Paul LePage, Les Otten and Peter Mills. He garnered only 13 percent of the vote.
“I think some people, when they run and they have the kind of result that I had, it takes a lot out of you,” he said. “People can get pretty negative on the process, and understandably so.
“I feel like not only did I learn a lot [running for governor] but I feel like I grew as a person to challenge myself like that,” he said.
Abbott credits his resilience and determination to his experiences on the football field, where tough lessons are learned.
“You go out there on a Saturday afternoon and get your face ground into the turf and you have a bad day, then you’ve got to be back out there the next week. It’s the same thing. It translates very well.”
Abbott has no plans to practice law again and is inactive with the Maine State Bar Association. He views his future cautiously, but isn’t ready to rule out a future in politics.
“I’ve no idea whether or not I’ll ever run again, but I didn’t walk away from that governor’s experience saying, ‘No way, I’m done.’”
Abbott is optimistic about the future of UMaine athletics because of the quality department staff, campus leadership and dedicated student-athletes.
“We have a great relationship with President Ferguson,” Abbott said. “He is committed to athletics and the role that athletics plays on campus.”
Short-term goals include attracting young people to campus, especially high school students. UMaine plans to make facilities available for high school athletic contests.
“If they can also see how they fit and that they’re comfortable here, we’ve got a lot better chance of getting them as students,” he said.
Abbott said Black Bear teams across the board are performing better, thanks in part to the efforts of the coaches.
“I’m very pleased in general with the attitude people have had within the athletic department,” he said. “I think our teams are competing very hard and very well.”
UMaine also wants to promote its status as the state’s only Division I athletic program, with the emphasis on boosting attendance at men’s ice hockey, football and basketball games.
“We have good support from the community,” Abbott said, “but we want to expand it and that starts on campus with more engagement with our students and our faculty.”
As for Abbott’s future, it could be in athletics, politics or elsewhere. History has taught him to be flexible and patient.
“The one thing I’ve learned is, you never know,” he said.