December 19, 2018
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Outgoing UMaine athletics director praised by coaches, bashed by boosters

Karlton Creech served as the director of athletics at the University of Maine for four years.

During that time, Black Bear teams won only 45 percent of their games. Numerous coaches and staff members were fired, hired or changed jobs.

And Creech alienated a lot of boosters and supporters.

Creech, who on Feb. 19 was named the University of Denver’s vice chancellor for athletics, recreation and Ritchie Center operations, ends his UMaine stint on Sunday.

UMaine coaches praise Creech, who was hired in February 2014 to replace Steve Abbott. But some supporters are glad to see him go, especially after he implemented a new fundraising structure that consolidated UMaine’s booster groups into a single entity.

The tenure of Creech, who had signed a four-year contract extension in 2017, was controversial.

A love-hate relationship

Amy Vachon, who last week received a four-year contract to serve as head coach of UMaine women’s basketball team, said the athletic department will “miss him dearly.” She added, “his support for me personally and professionally has been tremendous.”

But Will Rogers, president of the 86-year-old M Club, an organization made up of UMaine letterwinners and honorees, said there is “nothing negative” about Creech’s departure.

“The M Club is glad he’s gone,” said Rogers.

Former M Club president and UMaine baseball captain Dennis Libbey, a longtime member of Friends of Maine Baseball, said, “It’s time for a change.”

“He’s the worst athletic director we’ve had in 40 years. And that’s saying something because we’ve had a couple of real bad ones,” said longtime UMaine athletics supporter Frank Jordan.

“I don’t think he understood what his real role was up here and he didn’t care,” added Jordan. “He isn’t a bad guy. Personally, I like him. But he was reclusive at times and that’s not what you need for an athletic director.”

Vachon had been appointed the interim head coach in January 2017 after head coach Richard Barron, who on Monday was named the Black Bear men’s basketball coach, went on medical leave.

“He has done a lot of great things for our department,” Vachon said.

Seth Woodcock, UMaine’s senior associate athletic director for development, said there is one thing that can’t be disputed when it comes to Creech.

“Without question, when it came to making decisions for our athletic department, Karlton always put our student-athletes first and I admire him for that,” said Woodcock, who noted that Creech’s long-term vision and strategic planning put the athletic programs in a strong position for future fundraising success.

Creech earlier this week said he has no regrets.

“You do the best you can and you hope you make progress and I think we did that,” Creech said.

“I think I worked to the best of my ability and as hard as I could for the student-athletes, the coaches, the staff and the university. But there is a lot of work to be done and the next athletic director can pick that right up and keep going,” he added, noting many facility investments must be made over the next two decades.

UMaine teams mired in mediocrity

UMaine teams have had their ups and downs during Creech’s four years. The football, hockey, baseball, softball, field hockey and soccer programs posted a combined 455-564-42 record (.449), including a 227-253-22 mark in conference play (.452).

Only the 2016 softball squad and this season’s women’s basketball team won a conference championship and advanced to the NCAA tournament. The women’s basketball team has won or shared three league titles in that time.

Two of the three other high-profile programs — men’s hockey (51-81-17) and men’s basketball (24-100) — have struggled while football (18-25) has been competitive.

The 2017-2018 year has been the best by far under Creech. The field hockey team (12-6) was nationally ranked and is 44-17 over the last three years. Women’s ice hockey (19-14-5) spent time in the top 10 and won a Hockey East quarterfinal series after failing to win more than 10 games in a season the previous five years.

The women’s basketball team (23-9), picked sixth in the preseason coaches poll, won the America East regular-season title and went on to beat Hartford 74-65 for the tournament championship in Bangor on Friday.

The men’s hockey team, which won 19 games the previous two seasons combined and was picked to finish last or tied for last in the preseason polls, finished sixth in Hockey East. UMaine (18-14-4) advanced to the quarterfinals for the first time since 2014.

UMaine head hockey coach Red Gendron had received a two-year contract extension from Creech in February, 2016.

“From a coaching standpoint, [Creech has] always been supportive,” said UMaine softball coach Mike Coutts. “He allows you to run your program and make decisions you feel are best for the program.

“He is a great supporter of women’s sports and that is huge for us,” Coutts added.

Creech also emphasized academics. The number of student-athletes recognized for athletic achievement (grade point average of 3.0 or higher) has increased every year he has been at UMaine.

He was instrumental in establishing the new academic center as part of the renovations in the Memorial Gym building.

“That has been a great resource for our student-athletes,” said Coutts.

“My biggest goal was to instill a ‘Can-do-expect-to-be-excellent-anyway’ attitude and I think we’ve done that,” Creech said. “You’re starting to see that this year by the success that a lot of our teams have had. The results are there.”

Spearheading a shakeup

There were numerous and significant changes among UMaine’s head coaches and the athletics staff under Creech.

He first fired men’s basketball coach Ted Woodward in April 2014, then hired Bob Walsh as his replacement. Walsh’s stay in Orono ended last week.

In 2015, Creech promoted softball head coach Lynn Coutts to senior associate director of athletics and NCAA Senior Woman Administrator and elevated her husband, Mike Coutts, from assistant coach to head coach.

In December 2015 Jack Cosgrove, UMaine’s head football coach for 23 years, abruptly stepped down to become a senior associate director of athletics. Defensive coordinator Joe Harasymiak was promoted to head football coach.

In February 2016, Creech gave Gendron the extension — despite a 31-54-12 record over three seasons. Steve Trimper left as the baseball coach after 11 years in December 2016 to take the same post at Stetson and assistant Nick Derba was appointed the interim head coach. Derba was hired as the head coach in June 2017.

Last December, Cosgrove ended a 25-year stay at UMaine when he became the head football coach at Colby College in Waterville.

There also have been several administrative departures. In 2015, 25-year senior associate athletic director Joe Roberts, 15-year sports information specialist and assistant AD Laura Reed and deputy AD/NCAA Senior Woman Administrator Eileen Flaherty all moved on.

Last year, longtime senior associate AD Will Biberstein left athletics to become UMaine’s director of conferences and institutes.

Battle with the boosters

Creech ran afoul of some UMaine supporters when he established the Alfond Fund Ambassadors program, which consolidated the fundraising structure for the athletic program. That virtually disbanded the various booster groups that raised money for their chosen sports.

The concept is to have one fundraising voice rather than several, all hitting up the same potential donors. But the plan alienated members of the pre-existing groups.

It essentially meant the dissolution of the five booster groups affiliated with the women’s basketball, men’s hockey, football, baseball and softball teams. In their former role, those entities raised more than $100,000 for UMaine athletics during the 2013-2014 school year.

Creech helped line up a $1.5 million, three-year grant from the Harold Alfond Foundation to establish the Alfond Fund and there was a 20 percent raise in annual giving to athletics during his tenure. That included an endowment in excess of $1.5 million to support the men’s hockey program.

Woodcock indicated UMaine is on pace this year to have more donors in one year than in any of the previous 15 years.

Rather than having several booster groups sponsor their own fundraising golf tournament, UMaine held one event last year. Woodcock said it raised nearly twice as much money as all the other tournaments had brought in, combined, in previous years.

“When you have an unlimited number of fundraising events, the same donors get hit up over and over and over again. Out of respect for them and at their request, that’s why we made a lot of these changes,” Creech said.

Creech said the modernized fundraising structure is more in line with what is being done nationally at the Division I level.

“You had done it a different way forever. I understood that,” Creech said. “But it was the right thing to do and it will help the university be successful down the road.”

Jordan and Rogers said there was a lack of communication between Creech, the M Club and boosters.

“He wouldn’t meet with us,” said Rogers. “He would always send Jack Cosgrove as his liaison. How can you work with someone if he won’t sit down with you?”

There were some meetings early in Creech’s tenure but not in recent years, according to Rogers.

“I did meet with them several times but one of the greatest challenges that a Division I athletic director has — that not everybody sees and most of us don’t talk about it because it’s just part of the job — is time management,” Creech said.

He said he tried to spend his time where he would get the greatest return on his investment, which was working on the fundraising structure and dealing with student-athletes and coaches.

“I understand if a group of people didn’t feel I spent enough time with them but that’s just the reality of there not being enough time,” he said.

The M Club, which includes 5,000 letterwinners and 300 honorees, assists with a variety of functions while helping athletic programs fulfill needs with money raised from dues and donations.

Rogers said it donated $17,000 to athletics for an 80-pound washing machine for the equipment room and provided $6,000 for an ice machine for the training room.

“Those were, by far, the largest gifts we’ve given,” said Rogers. “Karlton is a micromanager who wanted to control all the money.”

Rogers explained that in August they established the M Club Cooperation, which separates it from the university and the Alfond Foundation, a move he said irritated Creech.

“We did that because we were afraid he was going to try to control the funds,” said Rogers.

He said because of Creech, they haven’t been able to assist any UMaine athletic program for two years, so they are sitting on $40,000 waiting to disburse it to programs in need.

“We usually have more requests than money,” said Rogers.

M Club activities include sponsoring the Silver and Gold breakfast on homecoming weekend, the Dean Smith Award night that honors the top male and female student-athlete, and Seniors Night for all the senior student-athletes.

“The M Club needs to change and, so far, it has refused to do so,” Creech said. “The group didn’t embrace the diversity of our student-athletes. They need more diverse representation on that group. It should be a positive, valuable resource for the athletic director and the department of athletics. More work needs to be done there.”

No regrets

Harasymiak said he couldn’t have worked for a better AD and that Creech leaves the athletic program in a good position. He shared ideas with him and received feedback, which gave him confidence.

Women’s soccer coach Scott Atherley said Creech’s positive disposition and outlook were infectious and that he had a positive and favorable impact on the program.

Creech said leaving UMaine was a difficult decision.

“Maine is a great place. (Wife) Staci and I really enjoyed living here. It’s a great quality of life. It was more about when the opportunity at Denver arose and learning about what a great opportunity it was,” Creech said.

The job was a valuable learning experience for him.

“This was my first job as an athletic director. I had to learn a lot and I did. What I’m most proud of is the success a lot of our people have had and if I had a little part of helping them be successful, that’s enough,” said Creech.

Retired U.S. Navy captain Jim Settele, the chief of staff for outgoing UMaine President Susan J. Hunter, will take over as UMaine’s interim AD on Monday.

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