BANGOR, Maine — Cindy Blodgett of Clinton helped transform the University of Maine women’s basketball program into a regional power and earned it national recognition with her stellar play from 1993 to 1998.
The phenom from Clinton was not able to produce any such successes during her four-year tenure as the Black Bears’ head coach.
Steve Abbott, who on Monday was installed for a two-year term as UMaine’s athletic director, made his first significant move Tuesday when he announced Blodgett had been relieved of her coaching duties.
“This was hard,” Abbott said. “We have somebody in Cindy Blodgett who has meant an incredible amount to this women’s basketball program here. We consider this to be a marquee program, one that’s very important to the athletic department, very important to the university, and that is looked at from over the whole state.
“Cindy worked incredibly hard as a coach, was a very determined individual, but unfortunately the results on the court are not what we need with the program, and I had to make the decision to replace her,” he said.
Abbott said he and Blodgett discussed the situation during the last couple of days.
Blodgett, 35, declined to comment Tuesday, except to say she plans to hold a press conference Thursday at a place and time to be determined. She was quoted by WLBZ-TV in Bangor as saying in a text message that she had been “fired without cause.”
Blodgett reportedly has hired an attorney, Tom Nale of Waterville, who had negotiated on her behalf when she was drafted in the first round, sixth overall, by the WNBA’s Cleveland Rockers in 1998.
As outlined in a two-year contract extension negotiated with former UMaine athletic director Blake James last September, Blodgett will receive one year’s salary, or $109,772, as part of the termination agreement. Abbott said money to fund that buyout will come from private sources with no tuition or taxpayer funds to be used.
Blodgett guided UMaine to a 24-94 record (.203 winning percentage) since taking over for Ann McInerney in 2007. Her teams routinely finished at or near the bottom of the America East standings and lost first-round playoff games in each of her four seasons.
“The program has an incredible history and has consistently competed for conference championships and NCAA playoff bids,” Abbott said. “The last four years we have moved further away from that.”
Abbott said he will launch a national search for a new coach immediately. They have not identified any candidates as yet.
Abbott said the timing of the firing should coincide nicely with next weekend’s NCAA Division I women’s basketball Final Four, where many of the nation’s coaches congregate.
“Everybody’s out there and everybody’s talking about jobs,” Abbott said. “It actually works to Cindy’s benefit as well.”
Despite her teams’ struggles, James extended Blodgett’s contract for two years through the 2012-13 season before he left for a job at the University of Miami. UMaine responded by going 5-24 last winter, good for last place in the conference.
In spite of the struggles, Blodgett’s players quickly came to her defense Tuesday after she informed them of her firing.
“She always had our best interests in mind,” said junior co-captain Samantha Wheeler. “She wanted us to strive to be our best and to be a good person.”
The team members felt so strongly about supporting Blodgett that they contacted the BDN Tuesday afternoon and requested the opportunity to share their thoughts.
Rebecca Knight of Alfred, who helped Catherine McAuley High School win the Class A state championship this season, is one of UMaine’s recruits for 2011-12.
“It’s really disappointing to hear coach Blodgett won’t be there next year,” Knight said via a Facebook message. “She was the biggest reason I chose UMaine.”
Knight said she still plans to attend UMaine starting in September.
“I’ll be honoring my commitment I made to the University of Maine. I’m excited for what the future holds,” said Knight, who pointed to Blodgett’s honesty as a key factor in her decision.
“Along with getting to know her over the past two years, I’ve seen how sincere she is as a person and she’s very respected by the Maine community,” Knight said.
Another signee, Danielle Walczak of Durham, N.H., said she was surprised by the news, but preferred not to comment.
William “Doc” Bromley of Ellsworth, the vice president of the Friends of Maine Women’s Basketball booster group, offered some thoughts on Blodgett’s dismissal.
“Let me just say that I’m extremely disappointed in that decision, extremely so,” Bromley said. “I’d prefer to make my own comments directly to the university and to the athletic director. I think you could say I’m upset and disappointed.”
The firing has immediate ramifications for Blodgett’s assistant coaches: Justin Rees, Maine native Gavin Kane and Caren Fiorillo. They will be paid for the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends June 30.
“They’re quality people, all three, but obviously the new coach has the right and the responsibility to hire the assistants,” Abbott said.
Abbott conceded the poor on-court performance of the women’s basketball program has been a subject of great interest among UMaine supporters.
“I would be frequently asked about it during the course of the year,” said Abbott, who added the situation did not affect UMaine’s ongoing fundraising project for the renovation of Memorial Gymnasium and the field house.
“We haven’t seen that (negative) impact on the fundraising,” he said, explaining it was more of a general detractor for the athletic department.
“The success of that program affects the mood of this athletic department and the perception of University of Maine athletics because it’s one of our most high-profile programs,” Abbott said.
This is the second time in five years a UMaine women’s coach left before her contract expired. McInerney stepped down in May 2007 with one year remaining on her deal but was paid for that year. McInerney resigned shortly after a traffic stop by police during which she gave a false name to a police officer while a passenger in the car of then assistant coach Kathy Karlsson, who was arrested for OUI.
The women’s basketball team rose to prominence during the 1990s. Much of that was attributed to Blodgett, who still holds scoring records at her alma mater.
Her 3,005 points ranked fifth in Division I women’s history at the time of her graduation, and she still holds 20 UMaine basketball records. Blodgett also is the all-time leading scorer in Maine schoolgirl basketball history with 2,596 points and sparked Lawrence High of Fairfield to four consecutive Class A titles.
Blodgett’s coach at UMaine, Joanne Palombo-McCallie, went on to coach Michigan State University and now is head coach for Duke University, which lost to No. 1 Connecticut in a Tuesday night NCAA Elite Eight game.
Sharon Versyp took over for Palombo-McCallie and kept UMaine at or near the top of its conference until her departure in 2005 to coach at Indiana University. The program has struggled ever since.
BDN reporter Eric Russell contributed to this report.