ORONO, Maine — Coming off one of their worst athletics seasons in a decade, the University of Maine has reached a critical crossroads. New faces and facilities hold the promise of new success, yet old challenges and fan frustration remain powerful obstacles.
The 2012-13 season for UMaine was portrait in futility, with a dismal win-loss record of 110-183-15 for its most prominent programs — men’s hockey, football, men’s and women’s basketball, baseball, field hockey, women’s soccer, softball and women’s hockey.
Only 2007-08 was worse, when these teams were 79-183-10.
“There’s definitely some problems up there,” said Brewer attorney Joe Ferris, who played baseball on UMaine’s 1964 College World Series team and has been a longtime supporter of that program.
Another lackluster season for UMaine’s flagship team — men’s hockey — cost coach Tim Whitehead his job earlier this year. Men’s hockey put UMaine athletics on the national map in 1993 with the first of two NCAA national titles under late coach Shawn Walsh.
The program is vital for UMaine, which relies on revenue generated from large Alfond Arena crowds. UMaine now anticipates a resurgence under new head coach Dennis “Red” Gendron, a former Black Bears assistant under Walsh.
Steve Abbott, the athletic director for UMaine, thinks men’s hockey is poised for a comeback.
“We made a [coaching] change there,” he said. “The second half of the season they finished strong and we have a great nucleus of players coming back.”
It’s not only men’s hockey, though, that needs more victories. The sporadic success of the UMaine teams has sparked questions over Abbott’s leadership and whether the program can succeed under his watch.
Orono native Abbott, a Harvard-educated former football standout who was an attorney before moving into politics and working for Maine Sen. Susan Collins, is completing his third school year as UMaine’s AD.
“I’m disappointed with Steve Abbott,” said Ferris. ”I think he needs to be more accessible and more motivated and driven.”
Winners and losers
Abbott believes UMaine athletics’ overall winning percentage was dragged down by poor performance in three sports: women’s hockey (5-24-4), women’s basketball (4-24) and softball (8-39).
Men’s basketball also has experienced a decline. UMaine went 11-19 last winter, a step back from its 12-17 mark a year earlier, after a 15-15 record during 2010-11 and a 19-11 campaign that helped earn head coach Ted Woodward a three-year contract extension.
Only three teams, baseball (33-24), field hockey (10-10) and women’s soccer (7-7-3), won at least 50 percent of their games last year.
Baseball, however, has been one of UMaine’s top programs of late. Coach Steve Trimper’s team won the America East title in 2011 and has played in the league championship round each of the last three seasons.
Coach Jack Cosgrove’s football program also has maintained a consistently competitive presence in the Colonial Athletic Association.
Abbott said lumping all the teams together doesn’t paint an accurate portrait of the athletic program.
“We had some difficult seasons, but those are teams that are in transition and teams that in the future will be able to perform very well,” he said.
Nonni Hilchey-Daly of Bradley, a former Hockey East staff member and UMaine hockey booster, said the brief tenures of recent ADs has been detrimental.
Coaches usually are afforded three or four years to revive a lagging program and should demonstrate growth by their second or third season. The AD’s challenge is bigger, since it isn’t financially feasible to clean house upon arrival.
“I honestly think, without pointing specific fingers, that the constant change of command in athletics over the past decade or more has been a big factor,” Hilchey-Daly said. “People come, don’t know who we are and what our history has entailed and what our traditions are, and don’t care to know. They don’t plan on staying long anyway.”
Five people have served in the Maine AD post since 1995: Suzanne Tyler (1995-2002), interim Paul Bubb (2002-03), Patrick Nero (2003-05), Blake James (2005-10) and Abbott (September 2010 to present).
Other key challenges at UMaine are an athletics budget that requires significant fundraising, including some by head coaches, and a location distant from both their nearest competitors and prized recruits.
Fundraising a key challenge
Financial limitations are a known challenge for UMaine athletics, with a bottom line lower than many regional competitors. UMaine spends approximately $16 million annually on its athletic programs, less than 6 percent of the university’s overall budget.
“I think part of [the problem] is, we’re underfunded and we have to do more with less,” said Ferris. “That’s not always possible.”
Some UMaine head coaches must do significant fundraising to meet their programs’ needs.
“Coaches, in recent years, have had to spend a lot more of their time out raising money. That takes time,” said Rich Kimball of Bangor, a UMaine graduate, educator and sports broadcaster.
Kimball said UMaine is challenged to retain its best assistant coaches, particularly in football, because they can earn much more elsewhere. Football is UMaine’s costliest team, with $3.5 million expense during 2010-11.
Private donors, from which many colleges and universities secure funding for competitive athletic programs, are also limited. Some believe the university must do more to engage alumni to give.
“The real challenge, I think, with Orono is getting people back to campus to get that connection point with the institution,” said Pat McBride, a former UMaine assistant athletic director for development who now works at the University of Vermont.
Abbott freely admits the finances of UMaine athletics are an issue.
“Our finances are clearly a challenge and it’s something that we need to work on,” Abbott said. “College athletics are very expensive and for us to continue to compete, we have to look at ways to increase our revenues.”
Critical year ahead
Along with new coaches, new athletic facilities at the university and in Bangor are viewed as crucial steps for the development of the programs.
UMaine has begun a $5 million field house restoration and will undertake a $10 million
renovation of the Memorial Gym building during 2014. Abbott said this work should provide a boost to athletics.
“The Memorial Gym is the heart of our athletic complex,” Abbott said. “The renovations will have a profound impact on our ability to compete.”
The main void, though, is a home basketball venue that isn’t also a hockey rink. UMaine hopes to solve that issue by using the brand-new Cross Insurance Center in Bangor.
Negotiations to do that continue, but Abbott says access to the $65 million center is a “huge deal” for the university.
“I can’t overstate the importance [of it] to our program,” Abbott said.
Yet fields and facilities alone won’t change UMaine’s fortunes. Expectations are mounting for men’s and women’s hockey, football and basketball.
“In terms of wins and losses, I think you have to look at each sport individually and say, ‘What’s our goal?’” Kimball said. “Should you be competitive in your conference and have a chance to win your conference most years? I think so. It should be a reasonable goal.”
For his part, Abbott is not looking backward. From his perspective, the foundation for athletic success has been poured.
“We had teams that had disappointing seasons this year, but all these programs have major improvements coming that are going to give them the opportunity to compete,” Abbott said.
“We’re very excited about next year and the years ahead.”