Tim Whitehead, who was fired Tuesday after 12 years as head coach of the University of Maine men’s ice hockey team, served as a fine mentor for student-athletes competing at the highest level of intercollegiate sports. We wish him well. But it was time for a change.
Hockey is UMaine’s marquee athletic program. It brought the university’s Division I national championships to campus in 1993 and 1999. The national powerhouse built by Shawn Walsh and sustained by Whitehead after Walsh died of cancer in 2001 generated millions of dollars in donations to the university and created a sense of statewide pride epitomized by signs touting the Black Bears’ success to visitors entering the state from New Hampshire, whose state university hockey team cannot claim similar championship caliber. Even people with no connection to the school came to care about Maine hockey.
But student and community support for UMaine’s hockey program has lagged since 2008, before plunging with the team’s win-loss record during the recently concluded season. Average attendance at Alfond Arena fell to its lowest point in more than a decade, and season ticket sales dropped precipitously. The passion and excitement that formerly started with blue-painted fans in Alfond and reverberated to all corners of the state is gone.
That loss of energy, as Athletic Director Steve Abbott identified Tuesday in announcing the university’s intent to buy out Whitehead’s contract, justifies the coaching change. It also provides an important opportunity for UMaine to assess honestly how it will define athletic “success” not just for hockey, its most prestigious program, but for all sports.
As the search team for a new hockey coach sorts through candidates to bring the “new energy and direction” that Abbott said the program needs, realistic benchmarks for measuring Whitehead’s successor’s performance should be clearly articulated.
Wins, tournament appearances and compliance with National Collegiate Athletic Association
rules are easily measurable standards. Attendance and fundraising are also easy to track numerically. But how much responsibility for those measures should fall on the shoulders of the hockey team’s head coach? Attendance and revenue generation play lesser roles for the majority of UMaine’s athletic programs, so is it fair to link those factors to the expectations for a new hockey coach?
As the search for a new hockey coach begins, it’s reasonable to ask whether the success established by Walsh and Whitehead during his first seven years created unrealistic expectations. Should a relatively small state university tucked into the northeast corner of the United States expect to compete annually with more affluent schools like Boston College, Providence and Boston University for Hockey East supremacy? Or with large state universities in Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota for national titles? The question holds true for sports other than hockey, as well, as it’s comparatively more difficult for Maine to recruit players and match the salaries for staff that larger schools can more easily provide.
Maine’s past successes, and this year’s Frozen Four lineup that includes Quinnipiac, Yale, UMass-Lowell and St. Cloud State, show it’s possible for smaller schools to compete for the national title, but does the ongoing cost offer a reasonable return on what will have to be heavy annual expenditures for recruiting, facilities, travel and other requirements of Division I participation?
Now is a good time for Abbott and University President Paul Ferguson to address the long-term implications of setting annual championship goals for the hockey program. In addition, Whitehead’s departure gives the university an opportunity to review all sports and their value to the campus.