BANGOR, Maine — When Bill Fletcher walks into the Bangor Auditorium this week, he’ll have the chance to do something he hasn’t done much in more than a quarter-century of tournament play — watch a full game.
“The thing was I never watched that much basketball over the years because I’d go out to check a score and then I’d go back to the office and get tied up doing something else,” said Fletcher, who retired as director of the Eastern Maine high school basketball tournament after last winter’s edition, his 26th.
“I did see [Bangor’s Joe Campbell] put the ball in at the last second against Deering [in the 2001 Class A state final]. And I recall other games watching some big leads evaporate, but usually I might start to watch a little bit and then something would come up.”
The 81-year-old Milo native, a longtime high school teacher, coach and administrator whose stops included Mattanawcook Academy of Lincoln, Falmouth, Penobscot Valley of Howland, Dexter and Brewer, is scheduled to be recognized for his contributions to the tournament scene during a ceremony Wednesday afternoon before the start of the Eastern B boys semifinals.
“Bill always had a very accommodating and easygoing presence around the teams, coaches, athletic directors and principals,” said Maine Principals’ Association executive director Dick Durost. “He always was a calming presence who made sure things would go smoothly with the least amount of resistance.
“He also paid great attention to detail. We never had to worry about anything not being ready, and he was great with follow-up after tournament.”
Fletcher became a tournament director began in 1986 when predecessor Woody Bailey, who had supervised Eastern Maine basketball playoffs since the 1940s, opted to give up those duties for the Class A event, which until 2006 was held during the two weeks after the B-C-D tournament.
Fletcher added the B-C-D tourney to his responsibilities in the early 1990s and oversaw both until Class A was moved from Bangor to the Augusta Civic Center in 2006.
“Bill was a natural extension as the director from the time Woody Bailey gave it up,” said Norris Nickerson, a longtime principal at Bangor High School who took over the Class A tournament from Fletcher during the early 2000s and then became Fletcher’s assistant director in Bangor after the Class A event moved to Augusta.
Nickerson is teaming with another former principal, Jerry Goss of Brewer, as Eastern B-C-D tournament directors this year.
Coping with unforeseen events such as inclement weather or an occasional leak in the roof, power outage or water main break have tested Fletcher’s troubleshooting abilities over the years, but managing financial affairs and the scheduling of a tournament staff of between 30 and 35 people were two of his primary responsibilities.
“I had the women’s basketball coach at Merrimack College one year tell me this was the best high school basketball tournament in New England,” said Fletcher, “and I took that as a great compliment for all the people who have worked here.”
Fletcher, like Bailey before him, relied heavily on fellow educators to fill the various staffing roles.
“Dick had a knack for hiring real good people,” said Durost. “He hired a lot of school people, people who were used to and knew how to deal with the public, people who knew how to defuse potential situations. That was a credit to his ability to understand people and what kind of people he needed in a situation like this.”
Fletcher’s financial responsibilities included keeping track of ticket sales and paying staff.
“There really hasn’t been a great deal of change,” he said. “I still did a lot of things that Woody did from a financial standpoint, I still used the forms I got when I took over from him in Class A.
“Once the tournament starts, one of the biggest duties is writing checks for the officials. I was always joking with them that if you’re calling fouls in the last two minutes and it’s a 20-point game you won’t get a signed check.”
And while much of what Fletcher did last winter was the same as he did during the late 1980s, there have been significant changes in the tournament, particularly the end of the eight-game Saturday that once marked the start of the Class A tournament in Bangor, the creation of the Championship Saturday, and the move of the Class A event to Augusta.
Fletcher supported ending the practice of playing eight tournament games on a single day.
“It was too much,” he said. “You felt sorry for the guys who had to play at 8 o’clock in the morning because that was nowhere near the time that they normally played, and of course the last teams playing at night didn’t get to play until really late. We’d usually get out of there around midnight, and nothing good happens after 11 o’clock as far as I’m concerned.”
Championship Saturday, in which all six Eastern Maine B, C and D finals are now held on the same day, began during the mid-1990s after postponements earlier that week pushed the schedule back.
Now the six-game day, with Class D finals in the morning, Class B in the afternoon and Class C in the evening, is a tournament staple for fans and the desired destination for all teams from the beginning of preseason practices in late November.
“It’s been a great thing from an attendance point of view,” said Fletcher, “To have a Championship Saturday like we do now obviously has brought more fans in, and it’s run very smoothly.”
As for the Class A tournament not only moving out of the Bangor Auditorium but also moved up to the same week as the B-C-D event, there are mixed emotions.
“My No. 1 thought was that I could understand the move, but I don’t think people realize that the tournament is different in Eastern Maine than it is in [Augusta and Portland],” he said. “You have a lot of basketball fans here in Eastern Maine who are not necessarily associated with any particular team but like to see basketball and they like to see tournament basketball, and when the Class A tournament was held the two weeks following B, C and D, a lot of those fans that went to the B, C and D tournament also went to the A tournament.
“Now they’ve got to make a choice, and it’s not that much of a choice because people see the mileage and it’s 150 miles for a round trip to the Class A tournament and it’s just a few miles to come here.”
Fletcher has witnessed a gradual decline in the number of fans attending the tournament.
“The crowds we’re drawing now are not as big as they once were,” said Fletcher. “Economic times, the interest in basketball, things have changed. Years ago a lot of these schools just had basketball, now the fact there are a lot of other activities probably makes a difference.
“Eight or 10 years ago we set a record for B, C and D with 50,000 fans, that’s been the highest we’ve had. Now we’re tickled to death if we get 40,000.”
Fletcher easily recalls the largest tournament crowd during his tenure.
“We sold out once the last year that Cindy Blodgett played in the state final here,” he said. “We stopped selling tickets at quarter to six, and we had sold 6,000. One of the staff members came up to me and said, ‘Bill we can’t sell any more tickets,’ and I said,’What are you talking about?’
“Then I looked up at the stands on the other side from where I was standing and it was almost completely full already, there were as many people there as I wanted. Now if you have 5,000 in the present auditorium you have all the people you want.”
No matter how many fans come to the auditorium on a given tourney day, it’s the energy they bring to the building that provides much of the event’s appeal to those who experience it, including Bill Fletcher.
“I’ve always felt one of the reasons we’ve had a great tournament was because of the fans,” he said. “I’ve met an awful lot of nice people from around Eastern Maine, people from Aroostook County, people from Washington County. These are people you’d see once a year every February or March, and I always thought that was one of the great things about the tournament.”