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Tim Whitehead’s job not in immediate danger, despite planned review of UM hockey program

Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
University of Maine hockey head coach Tim Whitehead shouts to a player during the first period against Merrimack College at Alfond Arena Friday, Jan. 18, 2013.
By Larry Mahoney, BDN Staff

LOWELL, Mass. —- University of Maine men’s hockey coach Tim Whitehead’s job is safe for now, although UM athletic director Steve Abbott said he will begin a “thorough” review of the program immediately.

Whitehead just concluded his 12th season behind the Maine bench and he has one year left on a contract that pays him $190,000 a year.

He has compiled a 250-171-54 mark at Maine after serving as the head coach at UMass Lowell for five years.

If Abbott decides to go in a new direction, the university will have to pay Whitehead his salary plus hire a new coach at a similar salary.

The Black Bears went 11-19-8 this past season and finished eighth in Hockey East. They were ousted by top seed UMass Lowell in their best-of-three Hockey East quarterfinal series, losing 4-2 on Thursday night and 2-1 in overtime on Friday evening.

It was the second worst record during Whitehead’s tenure, although Maine did rebound from a 2-11-2 start to go 9-6-6 the rest of the way to climb out of the cellar and earn eighth seed. The 9-6-6 mark was second-best in Hockey East behind UMass Lowell’s 18-3-1 finish.

Maine went 13-22-4 in 2008-2009 but Whitehead followed that with three straight winning seasons capped by an NCAA Tournament berth last season, when the Black Bears registered a 23-14-3 mark.

But Maine has now missed the NCAA Tournament five times in six years following a run of nine consecutive NCAA berths, including four Frozen Four appearances in Whitehead’s first six seasons after replacing the late Shawn Walsh.

Two of those Frozen Four appearances saw the Black Bears reach the national championship game.

This season’s team went 6-3-2 over its final 11 regular season games and four of its top five scorers this season were freshmen.

All eight of Maine’s freshman skaters played in at least 23 games and six played in at least 32. Back-up goalie Matt Morris appeared in six games.

“The team turned in a tremendous effort and I was proud of the way they competed,” said Abbott following Friday night’s season-ending loss.

“We have to look at what we need to do to improve the program and make us more competitive. I’m going to look at the whole program, including the coaches.

“The hockey program is extremely important to the entire state, the university and the athletic department,” said Abbott, whose own contract expires later this year.

Maine struggled at home this season, going 2-9-6, and it was reflected in the attendance, as Maine averaged 4,175 fans compared with 4,437 in 2011-12 and 4,928 in 2010-11.

Abbott said season ticket sales have also dropped off, but said the sagging economy has certainly played a part in the drop in attendance and season ticket sales.

Abbott said there is no timetable for a decision on Whitehead’s future.

Whitehead is hoping to return and build on the strong second half.

“The entire coaching staff really enjoyed working with this team. We knew it would be a rebuilding season. Obviously, we were all frustrated with our record in the fall semester but we were very encouraged by the significant improvement the team showed in the second half. We can’t wait until next season. We know how to rebuild a team. I’m fully confident that we’ll win next season,” said Whitehead, who feels he has another very good recruiting class to complement the current freshman class.

He pointed out that his team’s dramatic turnaround came despite an injury-marred season in which they lost 123 man-games to injury.

He also noted that, like the other coaches in the athletic program, he has had to deal with budget cuts which have sliced into his program’s financial support from the institution.

Every program sustained a five percent cut beginning in 2010-2011.

Fundraising is a necessity.

“I have to raise $200,000 every year and, for next season, I’ll have to raise $250,000 because we’re flying to Notre Dame for a pair of games and that will cost between $40,000-$50,000,” said Whitehead, who previously raised $4.85 million for Alfond Arena renovations and considers fundraising part of his job.

Notre Dame, located in South Bend, Ind., will become Hockey East’s 11th team next season.

Whitehead, a six-time finalist for national coach of the year (Spencer Penrose Trophy) and the winner in 2002, said he isn’t going to dwell on his contract situation.

“I’m not looking beyond next season until I sit down with [Abbott] and the president [Dr. Paul Ferguson],” said Whitehead, pointing out that 21-year Maine football coach Jack Cosgrove was in the last season of his contract last fall and didn’t receive a three-year contract extension until last month.

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