In the wake of the University of Maine’s Wednesday reveal of its jaw-dropping $110 million athletic facilities upgrade plan, Black Bears softball coach Mike Coutts pointed out a reality to his players.
“You don’t need a great facility to win. And having a great facility doesn’t mean you are going to win,” Coutts said.
Nobody questions that these upgrades will put UMaine on the map and be a game-changer in terms of recruiting. But the athletics department also must provide salaries and team budgets that will enable it to bring in top-notch coaches who can recruit impact players and build consistent winners.
The women’s soccer, field hockey and softball teams are going to get new lighted artificial turf fields. The basketball teams will finally have their own 3,000-seat campus facility for both practices and games. And there will be two new, larger domed facilities to benefit the teams during the winter months or when there is bad weather.
One domed building will have a 300-meter track. The planned upgrades will impact all 17 varsity sports with amenities including locker rooms, strength and conditioning facilities, locker rooms and offices.
UMaine athletics director Ken Ralph was the architect with the vision for the upgrades and Seth Woodcock, the senior associate athletic director for development, played an important role behind the scenes by helping secure a remarkable $90 million athletics gift from the Harold Alfond Foundation.
Even so, Ralph is fully aware there is more work to do to help UMaine teams improve across the board.
“The reality is you can’t fix everything all at once in our situation,” he said.
He said UMaine decided to upgrade the facilities because it will not only benefit their teams, but also will improve their standing in the community. It will enable UMaine to bring back events it once hosted and give them an opportunity to add events at which residents can use the facilities.
One key issue is how much money is provided to UMaine athletics.
“I have had long conversations with President [Joan Ferrini-Mundy] in terms of funding, where are we against our peers, where are we in terms of [coaching] salaries.],” Ralph said.
UMaine’s recruiting budgets and coaches’ salaries are among the lowest, if not the lowest, in their respective leagues: America East, Hockey East and Colonial Athletic Association Football.
“There’s no easy answers for these things. We’re very fortunate to have the staff we have and the commitment we receive from them,” Ralph said. “We recognize this is going to raise some bars [of expectations] but we’re also hoping this helps us with external revenue generation to support operations as well.”
That refers to raising money from the rental of UMaine facilities.
Having a campus basketball building will save UMaine money because they won’t have to pay a rental fee to the Cross Insurance Center. It cost it $199,770 to play their home games at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor last season. That didn’t include the cost of bussing the teams to the games and back.
However, UMaine will have to pay to heat, maintain and staff the UMaine Multipurpose Center.
UMaine coaches are at a distinct geographic disadvantage when it comes to recruiting, but the facilities upgrades will go a long way toward reducing that disadvantage.
It also means the coaches will be under more scrutiny.
UMaine must have the right coaches in place. The facilities and a bump in salaries should open up a more attractive pool of potential coaches to choose from when a vacancy arises. The department must make sure the coach is a top-notch recruiter who knows how to get the most out of each player.
Most of UMaine’s teams have struggled in recent years. Only the women’s basketball and field hockey teams are on a string of more than two consecutive winning seasons in conference play, although the softball team had four winning seasons in America East snapped in 2019.
The basketball team is in the midst of its eighth straight winning season and the field hockey team begins its spring season having posted seven consecutive winning seasons.
The men’s basketball team has had a losing conference record for 10 straight years and the women’s ice hockey team (7-7 so far this winter) has been under .500 in Hockey East seven times in eight years. Baseball hasn’t had a winning record in America East since 2013, but did finish at .500 twice.
Men’s hockey had posted two winning seasons in a row prior to this year, but the Black Bears are 2-7-1 this season and had four losing seasons prior to 2018-19.
The women’s soccer team will begin its season this weekend trying to snap a skein of four losing America East campaigns in a row. The football team has logged two winning seasons, two losing seasons and a .500 mark over the last five campaigns.
Student-athletes are more tuned in to facilities these days because they want to attend a school that gives them the best chance to flourish athletically and academically.
UMaine has addressed that need in unprecedented fashion and recruits will be impressed with its emphasis on athletics and academics.
The upgrades should also make fundraising easier, because they make a good impression and help provide a better product.
UMaine’s hope is that it can attract better student-athletes, the facilities will generate substantial income to help the financially strapped institution offset costs and more competitive teams also will bring more students to Orono.
As my late father, Larry Sr., once said after observing me wearing a three-piece suit with beat-up sneakers, “Son, wearing those shoes with that suit is like drinking champagne out of a mayonnaise jar.”
UMaine athletics has ordered the crystal goblets. Now it has to plant and cultivate the grapes so it can fill the glasses with fine champagne.