I.J. Pinkham experienced one of the tougher regular-season losses of his 46-year varsity basketball coaching career Monday night.
His Boothbay Region High School team held a comfortable lead through three quarters of its home game against Wiscasset but was outscored 19-0 during the final eight minutes of play to absorb a 53-46 loss.
Fortunately for the state’s winningest schoolboy basketball coach, Tuesday’s sunrise along Maine’s midcoast offered the prospect of a return to practice later in the day.
“I enjoy practices the most because at the practices you’re teaching and seeing the kids improve, and that’s what keeps you going,” said the 68-year-old Pinkham. “I tell my wife all the time that I don’t ever remember going to practice and not being glad I was there.”
Monday’s game notwithstanding, Pinkham has not had all that many disappointing experiences among the nearly 900 varsity contests he has coached in during 40 years at Boothbay and six earlier seasons at Buckfield.
Boothbay’s 71-47 victory over Carrabec High School in North Anson on Friday evening marked Pinkham’s 600th coaching victory. His career record is 600-289, a .675 winning percentage.
Only Dick Barstow, who coached girls teams primarily in northern Maine over nearly five decades, has more high school basketball coaching wins than the low-key Pinkham — totaling about 665 before he retired in 2008.
Roger Reed, who compiled a 571-201 record at Bangor Christian and Bangor before stepping down from the Bangor post in 2012, is believed to rank second in career victories among the state’s schoolboy basketball coaches.
Bob Brown, whose high school coaching stops included Belgrade, Cony of Augusta, Williams of Oakland, Rockland, South Portland, Cheverus of Portland, Edward Little of Auburn and Bonny Eagle of Standish, compiled a career coaching record of 618-298, but 142 of those wins came during college stints at the University of Southern Maine, St. Anselm’s and Boston University.
“You establish a reputation, and I think the way you maintain it is by doing what you say and saying what you do,” said Boothbay principal Dan Welch, who also is a former high school basketball player. “With I.J., his players know where they stand. They know he has their backs, but he has expectations, and they’re the same for everybody across the board, and he’s been doing it for a long time so he brings that consistency.”
Pinkham has guided Boothbay to Western Maine Class C titles in 1979, 2000, 2001, 2007 and 2013 and a state championship in 2001 with a team led by Bobby Deetjen, Ian McConnell and Michael Leighton.
“The disappointing part of my career is we only won one state championship, so those guys stick in my mind because they were a team that was supposed to win it the year before, then I graduated a bunch of guys, and the guys who came back won it in 2001,” said Pinkham.
“The 2001 team, they were just basketball junkies. If I didn’t want to practice on a Saturday or Sunday, they practiced themselves. That was a special group,” he said.
This year’s squad is 10-5 in Class C South and poised to make the program’s 23rd consecutive playoff appearance next month. The Seahawks have not finished under .500 since 1992.
“Year in, year out, Boothbay is always in contention, so you can’t be deceived by his quiet demeanor,” said former Penquis Valley of Milo coach Tony Hamlin, whose teams squared off against Pinkham’s Boothbay teams in the 2000 and 2013 state championship games.
“His kids play smart and they play hard,” he said.
An ice house product
Pinkham grew up in Down East Milbridge, playing most of his early basketball at the local high school and in another locale much more unique.
“When I first got interested in basketball, I was probably in fifth grade,” he said. “We had an old ice house on our property, and when my father cut the rafters out of the ice house, it was big enough to have a 10-foot basket, even though the whole thing was only about 12-by-15.
“We had a woodstove in the corner, and guys were there every Saturday and Sunday,” he said.
Pinkham went on to the University of Maine at Farmington where he played for four years under coach Len MacPhee.
Pinkham didn’t star at UMF, but he used the opportunity to study the game as a role player while also observing MacPhee’s calming sideline presence — one he came to emulate.
It’s a lesson he’s shared since then with his own players.
“One of the things you fight in high school is getting kids to accept their role on the team, everyone wants to play a lot,” he said. “So every year I have to tell them about my experience in college playing 120 games over four years and that probably in 80 of them, I never got off the bench.
“I told them practices were my games. I had to make them my game,” he said.
Pinkham took his first teaching job in Buckfield in 1969, and a year later, he began a six-year tenure as the Bucks’ boys basketball coach before returning to the coast — where one month after he accepted a job as a math teacher and coach at Boothbay, he and his wife of 40 years, Margaret, were married.
“He was an excellent teacher, very patient, meticulous in his preparation, and I think all those same qualities have led to him being successful in coaching basketball,” said Welch. “I think the kids in this community want to play basketball for I.J. Pinkham.”
No plans to stop
Pinkham has been a constant in the Boothbay basketball community, so much so that three of his assistant coaches are his former players and he’s coached two generations of players from numerous families — though no grandsons yet.
His staying power certainly has been rooted in his program’s success, but not to be underestimated is his quiet competitiveness that can help diffuse challenging situations.
“I look at I.J., and he truly is a gentleman of the game,” said Welch. “He is such an ambassador for basketball by being a competitor but being one in the right way. He wants his players to represent the school well and the community well. He expects that, and he has very clear expectations.”
And that’s not just during the winter. Pinkham also runs clinics and a summer camp through the Boothbay Region YMCA, a gathering point for young basketball players of all ages throughout the off-season.
While Pinkham continues to teach basketball, he also continues to expand his knowledge of the sport.
“I think the big thing is that when you first start out you don’t know very much,” he said. “You may think you do, but I learn every year. I steal stuff from other coaches, and there used to be a lot of clinics, but now where everything is online, if you have a question you can go online, and there are 20 different guys telling you how to do it.”
Basketball, family and good health since overcoming throat cancer several years ago are the stuff of a satisfying life for Pinkham in the aftermath of his retirement from teaching last spring.
“I love [retirement], I really do,” he said. “I’m putting a lot more time into my basketball. I enjoyed teaching, I wouldn’t have done it for 46 years if I didn’t, but it’s been a good change. I have three grandkids here in town who are starting to do sports, so it’s good to be able to see them.”
Pinkham has no timetable for retiring from coaching.
“I still love it,” he said. “I think the most amazing thing about 46 years is that I didn’t get fired.”