ORONO, Maine — Steve Abbott arrived at the University of Maine with no experience as an athletic administrator.
Three years later, the Orono native departs having guided Black Bear athletics through a period characterized by competitive teams, key coaching changes and considerable growth.
“I have greatly enjoyed working with Steve to further the success of Black Bear athletics,” said UMaine President Paul Ferguson. “We have worked diligently together to support our student-athletes, enhance our athletic facilities and manage a fully compliant Division I program.”
Abbott steps down on Friday as the athletic director. He is returning to politics and will again serve as the chief of staff for Sen. Susan Collins.
“I have especially enjoyed the time I have been able to spend with our athletes and coaches,” Abbott said. “They are dedicated, hardworking and talented.”
“As somebody who grew up in Orono, one additional benefit of this job has been reconnecting with so many old friends,” he added.
Seth Woodcock has been appointed as the interim AD as UMaine conducts its national search for Abbott’s replacement.
Abbott was an interim hire in 2010 after Blake James left for the University of Miami, but stayed 39 months.
Under Abbott, UMaine teams have achieved modest success. Some of the marquee programs, including men’s ice hockey and women’s basketball, have struggled.
Still, there have been significant facilities improvements on his watch. Most notable are the $15 million renovations to the field house and Memorial Gym buildings.
“This will be a transformational project for our athletic department and will be a huge boost for all our sports,” Abbott said.
“He’s a straight shooter,” said Guy Whitten, the president of the University of Maine M Club, who worked with Abbott on the gym building committee.
“He tells it like it is,” Whitten said. “You may not like it, but I don’t have any problem with that.”
Abbott was criticized by some for a perceived lack of commitment to his job because of his living arrangement. He commuted to Orono from his home in Portland, but sometimes stayed at the home of his father, former UMaine football coach Walt Abbott.
Woodcock, who lives in Windham, will be living in Orono during his interim appointment.
Abbott confronted issues involving struggling UMaine athletic programs. In 2011, a day after he agreed to a two-year term as AD, he fired Blodgett.
Blodgett had received a three-year contract extension from James, but Abbott terminated her. The university paid her a $109,772 buyout.
“The personnel issues are particularly wearing,” admitted Abbott. “We form close bonds in part because we work very closely and very hard in a competitive environment. Making those kinds of changes is emotionally draining.”
Abbott was at UMaine for the resignation of former softball coach Deb Smith in 2011 and the resignation this fall of women’s hockey coach Maria Lewis, who was under investigation for NCAA rules violations involving excessive practice time.
Perhaps the most notable personnel decision was made last April when Abbott fired men’s ice hockey coach Tim Whitehead. With the team below .500 and attendance slipping steadily, Abbott realized something had to be done.
UMaine bought out Whitehead for $190,000.
“… Steve Abbott did the right thing in firing both Cindy Blodgett and Tim Whitehead despite the heavy criticism he faced for doing so,” said history professor Howard Segal.
Abbott’s commitment to UMaine student-athletes, coaches and staff was apparent to those who worked with him.
“With Steve you knew you had someone who really understood the history and the importance of UMaine athletics to the state and whose commitment to the programs was unquestionable,” said Maria Baeza, the president of the Friends of Maine Women’s Basketball booster group.
Abbott helped guide the decisions about the field house and gym improvements. Approximately $9 million was promised prior to his arrival, but Abbott procured a $5 million gift from New Balance that further boosted the project.
The work will include new offices, locker rooms and numerous infrastructure and code upgrades.
“The fact that it has happened on his watch is a testament to the depth of his relationships and individual persistence,” said UMaine head women’s soccer coach Scott Atherley.
With gym renovations deemed cost-prohibitive, Abbott pushed to get UMaine’s basketball teams into the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor, a move that already has helped secure recruits.
“I don’t think anybody more than Steve Abbott was hoping to be able to renovate Memorial Gym to the point where it could be the home for UMaine basketball,” Whitten said.
UMaine undertook a $5 million renovation of Alfond Arena in 2011 and 2012 and built the Paul J. Mitchell Batting Pavilion, a $454,000 addition to the baseball complex, in 2012. UMaine also constructed Alfond Way, a path that connects athletics facilities to first-year student dorms.
Next summer, UMaine will install a $750,000 high-definition scoreboard for Morse Field at Alfond Stadium. Abbott also is proud to have worked with his peers in the Colonial Athletic Association to maintain a strong New England football presence.
Most UMaine teams have not achieved at a high level during Abbott’s tenure. In 2011, the baseball team advanced to an NCAA regional and the football team reached the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. Men’s hockey qualified for the NCAA tournament in 2012.
His influence was reflected in other areas.
“Steve has brought stability to our department since his arrival and I attribute his effectiveness to him being exceptionally bright, perceptive and unflappable,” Atherley said.
Abbott was praised for his willingness to reach out to the faculty and other constituencies on campus and in the community.
“I was impressed that Steve Abbott often came to the UMaine Faculty Senate meetings,” Segal said. “As a faculty senator, I appreciated this kind of involvement in non-athletic developments.”
Abbott, who is pleased to have helped bring more high school events to campus, said he is confident UMaine athletics will continue to adapt to the financial challenges it faces, in part by revamping its fundraising structure.
“I have thoroughly enjoyed my experience at the university,” he said.
“To actually be part of the staff at UMaine was very meaningful for me,” he added.
Women’s basketball coach Richard Barron said Abbott championed the cause of student-athletes to secure NCAA grant money for summer school scholarships, fostered the team-faculty liaison program and negotiated a pending five-year footwear and apparel deal with New Balance.
“It is very evident that he loves UMaine,” Barron said. “It is home for him — the place he grew up — and he has a great affinity for the university and the state of Maine. We will miss him.”