BANGOR, Maine — University of Maine men’s hockey coach Tim Whitehead has been ousted from his position after 12 years on the job.
Whitehead had one year remaining on his contract. UM President Paul Ferguson announced Tuesday afternoon that the university would “buy out” the last year of the contract.
Whitehead earned $190,000 a year.
In a news release, the university said Ferguson will use only privately raised funds from the President’s Discretionary Account to buy out Whitehead and no funds will be reallocated from the university budget committed to academic programs, faculty, student or operational needs. Athletic Director Steve Abbott has indicated that the Athletics Department is committed to reimbursing the president’s investment through anticipated revenues generated by renewing fan interest and increased ticket sales, the release said.
“This is about the future of our marquee program,” Abbott said in the release. “Since 2008, UMaine has experienced declining Hockey East success, season ticket sales and overall ticket revenues, and waning student engagement in men’s ice hockey.”
This past season’s average home attendance of 4,175 was the lowest since the Black Bears averaged 4,024 in 1991-92. Abbott said the number of season ticket holders has plummeted from 3,600 to 1,900.
“The president and I are committed to ensuring that our men’s hockey program is financially sustainable, continues to focus on developing the student-athlete and is known nationally for excellence,” Abbott added.
The announcement of Whitehead’s departure “follows several weeks of intense discussions with constituents of the University of Maine men’s ice hockey program that included current and former players, coaches, fans, donors, faculty, university administrators and Coach Whitehead,” the university news release said.
A national search for a new coach will be launched and a search committee will be put together.
“It is a decision that none of us relished,” said Abbott in a late Tuesday afternoon interview. “Tim has done a good job as a coach and a tremendous job mentoring our players. We appreciate all he has done for the program.
“But we need new energy and a new direction,” said Abbott. “We are going to have a very thoughtful and complete search for a new coach. I’m very confident there will be a strong applicant pool. We want to find the best possible fit for our program. We don’t have a timetable.”
Abbott also said that the atmosphere at Alfond Arena must be revived.
“One of our great strengths is the atmosphere at Alfond Arena and we have to make it better,” said Abbott.
Whitehead met with players at the Alfond Arena on Tuesday afternoon.
After the meeting, Whitehead was asked for comment. He said he would only talk if the BDN posted his full written statement in a story, although a link to the statement was already online. The BDN agreed to post the full statement, but Whitehead left without commenting.
“I have been fortunate to be surrounded with great players, coaches and staff during my time at Maine,” Whitehead said in a statement. “We have fought through a lot of adversity together, but we have always embraced those challenges head on. … The Maine hockey fans are the best in the country, and they have a lot to look forward to for next season. I love our returning corps of players and our incoming recruits. I’m confident this team will build on our strong second half this season and will compete among the top programs in the nation next year.”
Whitehead took over the University of Maine’s hockey program in trying times, after the death of highly successful and charismatic head coach Shawn Walsh in 2001, and he kept the Black Bears among the elite in Division I college hockey for six years.
But after going 154-69-26 in his first six seasons, he went 96-102-28 over the past six.
His home record over the first six years was 85-21-12 but slumped to 51-39-14 the past six seasons.
This past season was a particularly trying one for Whitehead and the Black Bears, who went a dismal 2-9-6 at Alfond Arena after averaging 12.2 home wins per season in his previous 11 years.
The Black Bears, with anywhere from five to eight freshmen in the lineup every night, did show noteworthy improvement in the second half as they overcame a 2-11-2 start (1-7-2 in Hockey East).
Maine climbed out of the Hockey East cellar and earned the eighth and final playoff spot in the 10-team league. But the Black Bears were swept by eventual Hockey East champion and Frozen Four participant UMass Lowell, 4-3 and 2-1 in overtime, in the Hockey East quarterfinals.
Maine, which was also beset by injuries, wound up 11-19-8 and 7-12-8 in Hockey East. Just five players appeared in all 38 games.
It was the third losing season over the past six, and Maine missed the NCAA Tournament for the fifth time in those six years after having made nine straight NCAA appearances.
Associate head coach Dan Kerluke said he wasn’t surprised by the news as Whitehead has been under the gun for five years.
“This is a tough place to coach and a tough place to recruit. Expectations are high. This is [the nature of] sports,” said Kerluke, who played for Walsh and was a member of the 1998-99 NCAA championship team.
Kerluke praised Whitehead and pointed out that Whitehead raised millions of dollars for the program.
Whitehead spearheaded the fundraising and completion of the $3.75 million Shawn Walsh Hockey Center in 2005 and the $4.85 million Alfond Arena renovation project in 2012.
The Black Bear program was hurt by the departure of longtime assistant Grant Standbrook after the 2007-2008 season. Standbrook recruited players who guided Maine to 10 Frozen Fours and NCAA titles in 1992-93 and 1998-99.
Standbrook spent his last two seasons (2007-2008, 2006-2007) as the volunteer assistant after being the recruiting coordinator/top assistant coach under Walsh and Whitehead from 1988 to 2006.
Whitehead was a graduate assistant at Maine in 1990-91 and returned to Orono as the interim head coach in 2001.
Walsh’s cancer had been diagnosed in June of 2000, and he hired Whitehead to take over the team when he wasn’t able to coach them because of the effects of the disease.
Walsh died on Sept. 24, 2001, and, despite the tragedy, Whitehead wound up leading the 2001-2002 team to a 26-11-7 record and a berth in the NCAA championship game where the Black Bears suffered a heartbreaking 4-3 overtime loss to Minnesota.
Whitehead earned the Spencer Penrose Trophy as the national Division I Coach of the Year. It was the sixth time he was a finalist for the award between his time at UMass Lowell and Maine.
That was the first of six straight NCAA Tournament appearances for the Whitehead-coached Black Bears and there were four Frozen Four berths among the six.
Maine played in another NCAA championship game in 2003-2004, but the Black Bears lost to Denver, 1-0.
He had the first of his losing seasons in 2007-2008 when the Black Bears went 13-18-3 and missed the Hockey East Tournament by finishing ninth.
Maine finished fifth or lower in four of the last six seasons and eighth or lower in three of them.
The Black Bears did snap their string of four straight seasons without an NCAA Tournament appearance a year ago, going 23-14-3. They lost to Minnesota-Duluth 5-2 in their first-round game, squandering a 2-0 lead.
Whitehead had previously been the head coach at UMass Lowell, going 76-95-11 in five seasons after serving as an assistant at the school for five seasons under Bruce Crowder.
Longtime Maine hockey fans agreed with the university’s decision.
“We’re so used to winning in Orono. I feel bad for Tim. He has done a great job,” said Pete Loiselle, who lives in Ellsworth. “But it’s time for a change. Some people were getting really frustrated with the lack of winning. We’re all used to Maine going to the NCAA Tournament every year.”
Loiselle also noted that “I didn’t feel the intensity was there.”
Loiselle’s wife, Christine, said she was bothered by the lack of discipline.
Maine ranked among the nation’s 11 most penalized teams the past three seasons (11th, third and fourth, respectively).
“What bothered me was two things,” said Orono’s Murray Bain. “I don’t think we were recruiting the best players. But I recognize that recruiting is very difficult these days. There are so many Division I teams and not enough good players. Secondly, the players didn’t develop enough based on the caliber of player we were led to believe they were.”
Bangor’s Doug Damon, whose son Derek played for Whitehead from 2002 to 2006, said he was grateful to Whitehead for the opportunity he gave his son and the other players who played for him.
He also said following a legendary coach like Walsh is “a tough thing to do.”
“Tim did a very good job keeping the program’s feet on the ground [after Walsh’s death],” said Damon. “But he just wasn’t able to sustain it.”
Whitehead’s calm demeanor was in stark contrast to Walsh’s fiery nature.
Damon said Whitehead “broke the fifth commandment of sports” by not mingling with the fans enough and that the combination of winning and interacting with the fans puts people in the seats.
Former Maine backup goalie Josh Seeley of Howland called Whitehead a “great coach and an even better person” in a tweet and thanked him for “giving a Maine kid the opportunity of a lifetime. You will be missed.”
Whitehead played his college hockey at Division III Hamilton College in New York and earned his bachelor’s degree in government in 1985. He was an assistant captain and captured the Sellers Award for team leadership and inspiration as voted by his teammates.
Whitehead had a two-year professional career in Europe before hanging up his skates and spending two seasons as an assistant coach at Middlebury College in Vermont under Bill Beaney.
Middlebury went 21-5-1 in 1989-90, marking Middlebury’s first winning season in 10 years. Whitehead received the William Wallace Award, given to the person who has the most positive impact on the hockey program by a no-player as voted by the players.