The turnover within the University of Maine men’s basketball program is not confined to the numerous transfers on and off the Black Bears’ roster over the last few years.
Matt O’Brien, Bob Walsh’s top assistant for the last three seasons, is leaving at the end of this week to take a job as associate director of development for the business school at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
“It was a hard decision,” said O’Brien, who also coached under Walsh at Rhode Island College between 2005 and 2008 before spending six years as an assistant at the University of Vermont. “Coaching is what I’ve done forever and making it all about the kids is what I’ve been trying to do.
“But I was ready for a new challenge.”
Walsh is entering the fourth and final year of his initial coaching contract with UMaine coming off a 7-25 campaign last winter. There are no assurances that he would receive an extension, but O’Brien said that was not a primary factor in his decision to change not only jobs but career paths.
“I’ve got a ton of belief and faith in what coach Walsh does and how he does it and the future of the program,” he said. “I’ve had some concerns with how the university views the basketball program, but internally within the basketball program I have 100 percent belief in what’s being done and how it’s being done.”
Walsh said he didn’t know if his contract situation played into O’Brien’s decision.
“When I was at Rhode Island College and Matt was an assistant at Vermont and they were having a lot of success, he and I had conversations about him thinking about taking a different path,” said Walsh. “He loves coaching, he’s always wanted to be a coach, but he’s also smart enough and talented enough to do a lot of different things.
“There’s a lot of stuff that over time maybe changes your perspective a little, so I don’t want to speculate on how much it was one thing or another. I just think it’s something he’s thought about a lot and he finally decided to pull the trigger.”
The George Washington job will be O’Brien’s first foray into fundraising, but he said many of the skills he used in coaching will be applicable to his new post.
“Being a coach you interact with boosters and have relationships with development staff because they’re colleagues of yours,” said O’Brien, who will begin his new job on Sept. 25. “From a strictly money-raising standpoint, a lot of the coaching stuff I do when it comes to recruiting is very similar to what you would be doing with development. It’s about relationships, connecting people’s passions about their university from a financial standpoint.”
O’Brien, whose father Phil graduated from UMaine and played football for the Black Bears, went to high school in Rhode Island before graduating from Elmira College in New York. He was Walsh’s initial hire after he got his first head coaching job at Rhode Island College.
“Matt’s been really, really important to me personally and has been a huge part of the success I’ve had as a coach,” said Walsh. “He’s had a great impact on our teams and on our players individually. We’re going to miss him a great deal.”
A source within the UMaine athletic department confirmed that the hiring of a replacement for O’Brien is in the works, with a formal announcement expected later this week or early next week.
As first reported by the website hoopdirt.com, UMaine is poised to hire former Alabama associate head coach Bob Simon.
Simon worked under former NBA star and current Crimson Tide head coach Avery Johnson for the last two years — which both ended with first-round losses in the NIT — but did not have his contract renewed for the 2017-2018 season.
Simon was one of two associate head coaches at Alabama last season after Johnson added former Arkansas head coach John Pelphrey to the staff in the same capacity.
Prior to working at Alabama, Simon spent four years as the top assistant at Providence under head coach Ed Cooley, helping the Friars earn back-to-back NCAA tournament berths in 2014 and 2015.
Before that Simon coached under Cooley for five years at Fairfield.