He’s the winningest coach in Maine boys basketball history, but the circumstances of I.J. Pinkham’s recent retirement after 43 years at Boothbay Region High School suggest it was never about the numbers.
Pinkham has opted not to return for a 50th year as a head coach. He spent his first six seasons at Buckfield High School and his 659-316 record (.676) is just shy of the state record for varsity basketball coaching victories, regardless of gender.
Dick Barstow, who coached girls teams primarily in northern Maine over nearly five decades, totaled 664 victories before he retired in 2008.
But given that Boothbay has averaged 13.7 regular-season victories over the last three seasons and is expected to return a strong nucleus next winter, Pinkham would have been poised to eclipse Barstow’s mark with one more solid year.
“We graduate two starters, but four of the first six are back and we’ve got a few good kids in the pipeline,” said Pinkham, who turned 73 this week. “But I just thought it was a good time [to retire].”
Pinkham’s final Boothbay team finished with a 15-5 record, earned the No. 3 seed in Class C South and advanced to the regional semifinals before bowing out with a 53-41 loss to No. 2 Waynflete of Portland.
It marked the 24th consecutive postseason appearance for a program that has not finished under .500 since 1996.
“We had a good season,” said Pinkham, who led Boothbay to the 2001 Class C state championship and regional titles in 1979, 2000, 2001, 2007 and 2013.
Pinkham is a 1965 graduate of Milbridge High School who went on to play at Farmington State Teachers College, now the University of Maine at Farmington.
One of his college teammates for three years was Dick Meader, who recently retired after 27 years as the men’s basketball coach at UMF and 44 years as a college head coach overall.
“We played together for three years,” Pinkham said. “He played. I watched.”
Pinkham took his first teaching job in Buckfield and made his varsity coaching debut with the Bucks during the 1970-1971 season.
Six years later he moved to Boothbay, led the Seahawks to a regional championship in his first season with the Seahawks (1978-1979) and has been a coaching institution along the Midcoast ever since.
“Obviously when I started I had no intention of doing it for 49 years, but I enjoyed the whole thing,” said Pinkham, his voice affected by a 2010 bout of throat cancer. “I enjoyed being with the kids, the challenge of getting ready for a game, scouting other teams and seeing what you could come up with.
“I think it was more of a way to continue competing.”
Pinkham has seen plenty of change in Maine high school basketball over his nearly five decades with the sport.
On the court, that included the introduction of the 3-point shot during the mid-1980s.
“I was a guy who said, ‘Let’s pound the ball into the post and see what happens,’ and it took me a while to adjust to the 3-point line,” said Pinkham, who in 2015 retired from a 46-year career as a math teacher. “The last five or six years we’ve certainly been using it a lot, but prior to that I think I was a little slow to adjust.”
Pinkham also sees differences in the pool of basketball players available from the 1970s to the present.
“It’s changed a lot, kids are different,” he said. “I think entitlement has something to do with it, and the commitment doesn’t seem to be like it used to be. I know here in our school the numbers are down, and kids are finding other things to do.”
Pinkham, who was inducted into the Maine Basketball Hall of Fame in 2016 and the Midcoast Sports Hall of Fame in 2017, plans to spend much of his free time during the winter watching his four grandchildren pursue their sports interests.
And he hasn’t ruled out returning to the sideline as a volunteer coach at some level.
“You can be involved without the pressure, you can be involved without the same time commitment,” he said. “Maybe I’ll end up doing something like that.”