MILO, Maine — The bus ride to the Bangor Auditorium was like hundreds of others Tony Hamlin had taken with his teams since 1974.
The frost heaves of late winter, squeaky seats trying to keep pace with that bumpy terrain, and youngsters in varying stages of mental preparation for the challenge ahead or perhaps engaged in some tomfoolery reminded the longtime high school basketball coach of so many other excursions they had shared in the spirit of competition.
But this bus trip also was very different — in many respects a trip down memory lane.
“Going down there on the bus Saturday and thinking it would be my last ride was pretty nostalgic for me,” said Hamlin. “I had to slap myself in the head to get back to business.”
Hamlin and his Penquis Valley boys basketball team did take care of business that night, with junior standouts Isaiah Bess and Trevor Lyford leading the Patriots past Boothbay 61-54 to win the Class C state championship in the final tournament game played at the auditorium before it is replaced by the Cross Insurance Center under construction nearby.
It also was the 61-year-old Hamlin’s final game as a high school basketball coach, as he made official Monday what had been rumored for weeks by informing SAD 41 Superintendent Michael Wright that he was retiring after 31 seasons and 401 victories.
“The last two or three years it had been getting harder to do it physically, but I had kind of committed to Isaiah and Trevor, I had really looked forward to coaching them,” said Hamlin. “I also knew I needed so many wins to get to 400, which was a threshhold I wanted to get to, and with that happening and the season ending with a gold ball and the culmination of the auditorium, this seemed like the right time to do it.”
A coaching career that began immediately out of college when he simultaneously coached the boys varsity and postgraduate teams at Maine Central Institute in Pittsfield and continued through stops in the Class A ranks at Morse High School of Bath and South Portland concluded with 17 seasons back at his alma mater, which were highlighted by two state championships and three Eastern Maine titles.
“I’ve been really lucky here for the last 17 years,” said Hamlin. “I think my coaching style matched up pretty well with the community and the kids. These kids allowed me to pound them a little bit, to really push them. For 17 years I had great kids who worked their butts off and allowed me to challenge them, and we had some pretty good results.”
That coaching style focused on hard-nosed, fundamental defense and ball security, but Hamlin also was highly regarded for his tactical sense.
“He’s probably the most cerebral coach I’ve been around in 31 years,” said recently retired Lawrence of Fairfield coach Mike McGee, a longtime friend. “I consider him one of the best coaches in the state, if not the best.”
Hamlin first began to develop his basketball philosophy while playing under Carroll Conley at Milo High School and then on the first two Penquis Valley teams after SAD 41 was created during the late 1960s.
He subsequently walked on at the University of Maine, where the 5-foot-11-inch guard was a two-year starter and a captain for coach Skip Chappelle’s Black Bears as a senior in 1974.
“Skip was a hell of a coach, people really underestimated him,” said Hamlin. “I got a master’s degree in basketball from those four years of college experience.”
Chappelle helped land Hamlin his first teaching and coaching job at MCI right after graduation, and he guided both the Huskies’ boys varsity and postgraduate teams for three years — leading the postgrads to two New England championships.
“That really helped me along,” said Hamlin of his double coaching duty. “As a 22-year-old right out of college, it helped me become a better coach that much quicker.”
Hamlin moved on to Morse for four years before replacing Bob Brown as the head coach at South Portland, where his seven-year tenure was highlighted by guiding the Red Riots to the 1983 Class A state title and a second Western Maine crown in 1985.
“I think the big thing with Tony was his demand for detail,” said Brown, a longtime high school and college coach who retired after the 2012 season. “His kids always played hard regardless of the situation, and regardless of whether it was offense or defense his kids were always well organized and knew what he expected from them.”
Hamlin left South Portland after the 1988 season and took a hiatus from the high school coaching ranks until returning home to teach and coach at his alma mater beginning with the 1996-1997 season.
Hamlin compiled a 231-110 coaching record at Penquis, initially leading the Patriots to the Eastern Maine Class C crown in 1999 and the school’s first state boys basketball title a year later.
His 17 seasons at Penquis included 15 postseason appearances, two state championships, three regional titles and five trips to the Eastern C final.
“I never had issues in terms of support from the administration and I never had issues with support from the parents,” he said. “It’s been a good last 17 years.”
Another highlight of his coaching tenure was more personal.
“One of the great pleasures I’ve had in coaching is having the chance to coach my sons,” said Hamlin. “To be able to have that kind of relationship with them (Casey, Drew and Gerard) was really special for me.”
Hamlin said he also has benefited from the friendships he has forged throughout the state’s coaching community, among them with Brown, McGee, former Medomak Valley of Waldoboro and Westbrook coach Art Dyer, former Morse coach Tom Maines and current Oxford Hills of South Paris coach Scott Graffam.
“There are two big things when it comes to coaching,” said Hamlin, “One is you’ve got to understand that you don’t know everything, and the second is you’ve got to watch people who do.”
Hamlin’s teams made 26 tournament appearances overall, and he may be the only coach to have led his teams to tournament victories at the current Bangor Auditorium in five consecutive decades.
He guided MCI to a quarterfinal victory in the 1976 Eastern B tournament there, and his South Portland team defeated Caribou in the 1983 Class A state final played in Bangor.
After returning to Penquis, his teams were 22-13 in tournament play during the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s.
And while such milestones will linger as Hamlin makes the transition from basketball coach to basketball fan, so, too, will other memories.
“I was thinking about this last night,” said Hamlin, “and I saw the faces of the kids I had back in 1974 at MCI, and then right through to Morse and South Portland. It was a whole kaleidoscope of faces, and I remember them all.
“And the last 17 years here have really been an enriching experience for me. It’s really enriched my life so much.”