ORONO, Maine — Tim Whitehead was a victim of his own success.
When he took over for the late Shawn Walsh in 2001, there weren’t high expectations.
Maine fans thought the 2001-2002 team would be good, but when you lose your legendary head coach to kidney cancer just before the season (Sept. 24), you can’t expect the team to overcome that devastation and have a productive campaign.
But Whitehead and the team overachieved, reaching the NCAA championship game and coming within 52.4 seconds of claiming the program’s third NCAA title.
The Black Bears were playing the University of Minnesota in the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., but the Gophers prevailed 4-3 in overtime.
The next five seasons all produced NCAA tournament appearances, including three more Frozen Fours and an NCAA title-game berth in 2004 when Denver beat Maine 1-0 at the TD Garden in Boston.
But there has been just one NCAA tournament appearance over the past six seasons and that cost Whitehead his job on Tuesday.
It was time to go in a new direction.
The marriage had soured. The fans were disgruntled and showed it at the ticket office.
Whenever you follow a legend, it is virtually a no-win situation.
One would assume Whitehead’s dismissal was in the offing long before the end of the season and the university probably should have pulled the plug within a few days of Maine’s series loss to UMass Lowell in the Hockey East quarterfinals on March 15.
They lost valuable time seeking a replacement.
It is of the utmost importance that they move expediently and they MUST make the right choice or the program will find itself lost in the category of forgotten former powers with the likes of Lake Superior State and Bowling Green.
Whitehead is a good coach who has proven he can coach teams with quality talent.
His 10-7 NCAA tournament record at Maine, including a 4-0 record against Hockey East schools, speaks for itself. It’s a noteworthy accomplishment.
But he wasn’t able to recruit enough talent on a consistent basis the past six years and the result was a 96-102-28 record and only one NCAA tournament appearance — the Black Bears lost in the first round to Minnesota-Duluth 5-2 a year ago.
If you don’t have the talent, you aren’t going anywhere.
UMaine lost players to Major Junior teams and they had players leave early to sign pro contracts but that is the nature of college hockey, especially if you’re an elite program or strive to be an elite program.
Only one of the seven seniors who are about to graduate, feisty right wing Joey Diamond, was ever chosen to an All-Hockey East team. He was a second-team pick a year ago.
Just three of the 18 players who return next season have received any kind of Hockey East accolades and two of them are goalies. Dan Sullivan was on the Hockey East All-Rookie team two years ago and Martin Ouellette was the co-recipient of the Army ROTC Three-Stars Award this past season based on the three stars of the game chosen by media members near the end of every contest.
They will be seniors next year.
Center Devin Shore was selected to the Hockey East Writers’ and Broadcasters’ Association All-Rookie team.
However, this past year’s freshman class is a cause for optimism and Shore could be one of the league’s top forwards.
But there have simply been too few quality classes and too many subpar classes.
Next year’s juniors and seniors have combined for 41 goals and 63 assists in 482 career games.
Whitehead is in a performance-based industry and he was coaching the school’s flagship program.
The hockey program had been a valuable moneymaker for the university but the revenue has taken a severe hit lately because of the on-ice struggles and the economy.
The fact UMaine has gone from 3,600 season ticket holders to 1,900 represents a loss of approximately $595,000. However, some of those seats were sold as individual game tickets.
Season tickets cost $350 apiece this past season, $390 if the team hosted the Hockey East quarterfinals. It didn’t, as Maine finished eighth.
The average attendance of 4,175 was the lowest since the 1991-92 season.
Whitehead was involved in the community but didn’t have the charismatic presence that Walsh had and wasn’t the salesman Walsh was. Whitehead, like Walsh, was a very effective fundraiser, spearheading the $3.5 million campaign to build the Shawn Walsh Hockey Center and $4.85 million for the Alfond Arena Renovation Project.
According to those close to the program, Whitehead was a micromanager who had to put his stamp of approval on everything. His assistant coaches felt underutilized and that led to longtime assistant Grant Standbrook’s decision to step down as the volunteer assistant after the 2007-2008 season.
But remember, that is the head coach’s prerogative. It is HIS program. If it fails, he takes the fall.
Micromanagers can be successful.
But over the past six years, Whitehead wasn’t.
Whitehead’s calm demeanor also irritated Maine fans, many of whom preferred the fiery antics of Walsh.
They didn’t think he had that burning desire to win or the passion Walsh had.
Whitehead did have a burning desire to win but he wasn’t demonstrative. It wasn’t his nature.
As long as he was winning and going to the NCAA tournament, fans tolerated him.
When the winning stopped, his critics crucified him.
To his credit, Whitehead made a classy exit and he said he will recommend to all of the returning players and incoming freshmen that they honor their commitment to Maine and don the Black Bear uniform next season.
He didn’t have to do that.
He didn’t point fingers or complain Wednesday about his limited recruiting budget.
He did the best he could with what he had and he cared deeply about the program.
He will finally have some peace and will be able to spend more time with his wife, Dena, and children Natalie and Zachary. He deserves that chance.
Whitehead is a devout family man, a nice person and a caring man who can be a very successful coach in the right setting.
But if the Black Bears are to return to prominence they will need a top-notch recruiter, a charismatic salesman and promoter who will put people in the seats. They need someone who has an edge to him and won’t take a back seat to any rival.