April 10, 2013

Fired UMaine coach failed to meet goals

The university highly praises Tim Whitehead's efforts but says it needs new energy in its fading hockey program.

By Glenn Jordan gjordan@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Tim Whitehead's 12-year tenure as coach of the University of Maine men's hockey team is over after the team's third losing season in the past six years.

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University of Maine head hockey coach Tim Whitehead looks on during a Black Bears game in January. Whitehead was fired Tuesday after 12 years at the program's helm.

Gordon Chibroski / Staff Photographer

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Whitehead, the national coach of the year in 2002, was fired Tuesday morning with a year remaining on a contract extension that he signed in 2010. The university will pay him a $195,000 buyout -- a year's pay plus $5,000 in lieu of notice.

The money will come from private sources, said Athletic Director Steve Abbott, who pointed to a university written statement saying that "no funds will be reallocated from the current university budget committed to academic programs, faculty, student or operational needs."

Abbott said the decision to fire Whitehead was not easy, and ultimately was made by university President Paul Ferguson, in consultation with Abbott.

In a phone interview, Abbott said, "Tim's done a lot of good things for the program. He coached with tremendous integrity and he has given us a group of players we're very proud of. For those reasons, it makes it a very difficult decision."

Whitehead's teams missed the NCAA tournament in five of the past six years, while the base of season ticket holders shrank from a high of more than 3,600 to the current 1,900. Average attendance at Alfond Arena fell by 1,000 fans per game to 4,175 this season, the lowest since 1991-92.

"We wanted to add some energy and excitement to our program," Abbott said. "We're looking to have this program compete for championships at the Hockey East level and at the national level, and we want to find a coach who will get us there."

A search committee will begin that process soon, said Abbott, who two years ago fired women's basketball coach Cindy Blodgett with a year remaining on her contract.

Whitehead released a statement saying, "My family and I feel blessed to have been part of the Maine hockey family, and we will always cherish the relationships we have built, both at the university and in the Bangor community."

Last month, the Black Bears completed an 11-19-8 season in which they won only two games at Alfond Arena. With a lineup that depended on freshmen and suffered a series of injuries, they started the season 2-11-2.

A late-season surge earned them the eighth and final berth in the Hockey East conference playoffs, where they lost 4-2 and 2-1 in a best-of-three quarterfinal series to top seed and eventual tournament champion University of Massachusetts-Lowell.

But the late-season improvement wasn't enough to save Whitehead's job.

"This is about the future of our marquee program," Abbott said. "The president and I are committed to ensuring that our men's hockey program is financially sustainable, continues to focus on developing the student-athlete and is known nationally for excellence."

Four of the team's top five scorers -- freshmen Devin Shore, Ben Hutton, Ryan Lomberg and Steven Swavely -- and all three goaltenders -- juniors Martin Ouellette and Dan Sullivan and freshman Matt Morris -- are set to return next season.

Abbott informed the team of Whitehead's dismissal Tuesday afternoon.

Mike Cornell, one of this year's captains, told The Associated Press that Whitehead's departure was disappointing news, but the players understand that good coaches sometimes have to go.

No one wanted to win more than Whitehead, Cornell said, and he had the team's respect.

"At a school like Maine, it's not just for fun. It's big business and there are high expectations," said Cornell, who now plays for the Florida Everblades of the East Coast Hockey League.

(Continued on page 2)

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