From the moment Cindy Blodgett was introduced as the head women’s basketball coach at the University of Maine, the deck was stacked against her.
To set the scene, it was May 23, 2007. The women’s basketball program was in flux after the resignation of head coach Ann McInerney, who departed after providing a false name to a police officer when a passenger in a car driven by then-associate head coach Kathy Karlsson, who was charged with OUI.
Behind the scenes, the UMaine athletic department was already under fire from some quarters after recently having chosen a new entity to handle its broadcast rights. The implementation of the decision, while injecting some much-needed, guaranteed money into the athletic budget, wound up alienating two key UMaine benefactors, authors Stephen and Tabitha King.
Blodgett was the feel-good hire. As a player, she had helped take UMaine women’s basketball to unprecedented heights, scoring 3,005 career points to help coach Joanne Palombo-McCallie and Co. win four straight America East championships and earn four consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament.
The shy, skinny kid from Clinton was the face of UMaine women’s basketball. She had stormed through her career at Lawrence High School in Fairfield and created a whirlwind of excitement and support, not only in Orono but across the state.
During her four seasons (1994-98), UMaine enjoyed tremendous success on the court, and at the ticket office. Fans flocked to Alfond Arena to be part of the phenomenon.
Even after her departure, the Black Bears achieved considerable success under both McCallie and Sharon Versyp.
UMaine’s hope was that Blodgett’s success as a player and her name recognition would reinvigorate the program that had begun to slip under McInerney. Perhaps Maine high school players who knew of Blodgett would see it as an opportunity to play for the legend and become part of Black Bear lore.
Blodgett can’t be faulted for accepting the appointment. She was returning to her alma mater, to take her first head coaching job, one that came with a tidy $105,000 salary.
Never having backed down from a challenge, her competitiveness and confidence convinced her she was ready for such a challenge. She never doubted it.
However, Blodgett was deficient in some key areas that would hamper her effectiveness. Unfortunately, neither she nor the administration recognized them.
In spite of her extensive playing experience, which included four seasons in the WNBA and other professional forays in Korea, France and the U.S, her coaching resume was limited.
Blodgett spent one season as a graduate assistant at Boston University (1999-2000) and — five years later — returned to the sidelines with a two-year stint as an assistant at Brown University (2005-07).
While Blodgett had an idea of what coaching at the Division I level entailed, she still was relatively new to the profession. Her responsibilities had included recruiting, but she had never been privy to the day-to-day challenges faced by a head coach.
Suddenly, she was thrust into that demanding role at UMaine. Now in charge, she had to hire assistant coaches; begin recruiting players; formulate training regimens, practice plans and game strategies, and start expanding her network of coaches and supporters.
Blodgett never lacked the enthusiasm and work ethic to pull everything together. Rather, she faced the prospect of learning much of it on the job.
Numerous factors hampered Blodgett’s ability to overcome the tough odds she faced to rebuild the UMaine program into a winner.
Her shortcomings seem to have included: Inheriting a limited talent pool, the lack of an extensive network of high school and AAU coaching contacts, the inability to attract high-caliber Division I players to UMaine, the apparent failure to surround herself and work with assistant coaches who complemented her knowledge and personality, inexperience dealing with complicated situations involving prospects, players, parents and others, some budgetary constraints that limited her ability to attract more experienced assistants, and a lack of guidance from UMaine administrators.
Blodgett inherited a struggling program, which made recruiting more difficult. Understandably, she did some “house-cleaning” after her first season, weeding out some players she didn’t feel belonged.
She set a poor precedent early on when she initially refused to release former Biddeford High star Emily Rousseau from her National Letter of Intent, then was later directed to do so by athletic director Blake James. That episode demonstrated a stubbornness that may have affected other aspects of her performance.
Recruiting proved difficult, even in Maine, as the traditional tendency of southern Maine players to look elsewhere continued. So did the geographic aspect of trying to attract players to Orono.
Blodgett recruited throughout the Northeast and beyond, bringing in players from New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Texas and Florida.
Her recruiting pitch concentrated on finding young women who wanted to be part of the planned resurgence of the once-dominant program.
Over four seasons, few of them distinguished themselves on the court. Samantha Wheeler was the only all-conference selection.
It could be argued many of those who have played at UMaine in recent years have not exhibited significant basketball skill improvement. As a result, any gains by the team were difficult to measure because of its combined 24-94 record.
Off the court, Blodgett could be difficult to read. Ever the introvert, she never appeared comfortable in group settings or eager to interact with boosters and fans.
In terms of interpersonal communication, she often demonstrated her intelligence and could be engaging and, often, brutally honest.
Still, the apparent master plan of putting her out front as the face of UMaine athletics in a fundraising capacity seemed to yield minimal results. That coincided with the university’s trying to secure funding for a $15 million renovation of Memorial Gym.
Blodgett might have been aided by increased funding within her program, which might have helped attract assistant coaches and expand recruiting. However, the reality is Division I nonrevenue sports, especially at UMaine, continue to face budget cuts.
As happens with any coach, Blodgett had a handful of players transfer. Three of 13 players who signed NLIs during her stint wound up leaving.
That is a tricky dynamic. Blodgett desperately tried to recruit players who exhibited some semblance of the commitment and work ethic that had made her a great player.
What she found was, precious few of her recruits were able to meet those high standards and those who did needed to improve significantly in order to make an impact for the Bears.
There is no questioning Blodgett’s passion for basketball and desire to lead UMaine back to the top of Amercia East. She devoted herself to that goal in a basketball sense, but not without a sense of the more important overall picture.
Blodgett was brought up in a blue-collar family where she learned the value of hard work, commitment and integrity. She worked diligently to instill in her players a sense of unity and loyalty that could be applied to every aspect of their lives.
Most of them seemed to embrace those values, as evidenced by their public support of her after she had been dismissed.
In the end, Blodgett wasn’t ready to take on a Division I head coaching job and the UMaine administration was mistaken in believing she was. Sometimes the lessons learned that resonate most are those that are the most difficult.
Even so, don’t be surprised, a handful of years from now, to see Blodgett again pacing the sideline. Then, armed with experience gained at UMaine and beyond, she will again prove that she is a winner.