January 10, 2013

GUEST COLUMN: Defending Coach Whitehead

BY DAVID W. TOWNSEND

Last Friday, before a sizeable crowd at the Cumberland County Civic Center, the University of Maine hockey team demonstrated how well it can play as it defeated Mercyhurst University in an exciting game. But that win came after a woefully lackluster first-half to the season, a start so poor, in fact, that across Maine -- on the web, in newspapers and around office water coolers -- we are hearing calls for UMaine hockey coach Tim Whitehead's head.

Sure, with its current record of 5 wins, 12 losses and 2 ties panic is to be expected among fans accustomed to a nationally-ranked NCAA Division I hockey team. But let's all take a deep breath and examine the situation a little more objectively before we cavalierly dismiss the coaching staff.

Consider these points: This year's team has been plagued by injuries and illnesses to key players at the start of the season. This has forced the freshman class to become seasoned veterans right away -- in their first semester -- while they juggle the demands of a full load of college classes and life away from home. It has become common for seven, or all eight, of Maine's "true" freshmen, and the one redshirt freshman, to play in every game.

As for their losses, six of the 12 have been by a single goal. As for Coach Whitehead's performance, take a look at how he compares with coaches at the other top Hockey East schools: Prior to this season, and over the 11 years he has been at Maine, Whitehead has a winning percentage of 54.7 percent (number of wins divided by number of games played); University of New Hampshire coach Dick Umile's record over that same period is 57.5 percent; Boston University coach Jack Parker's record is 55.8 percent and Boston College coach Jerry York (who has the most wins in college hockey history) leads the group with 63.7 percent. Statistically, though, they are all tied. That is, the differences between Whitehead's record and these three coaches are not statistically significant; but -- and this is important -- the 11-year records for all four are significantly better than those of the other six Hockey East schools (Providence, Vermont, UMass-Amherst, UMass-Lowell, Merrimack and Northeastern). And how soon we forget that just one year ago Maine finished with 23 wins and earned a berth in the NCAA national championship tournament (which they have also done in seven of the last 11 years).

As for the future? Some are moaning that Maine is no longer able to recruit the elite players we once did, that we're not attracting players who are NHL draft choices. Well, we have two NHL draft picks in this year's freshman class and a third is a shoo-in for next June's draft -- when he will have reached the minimum age of 18. While Maine recruited two of the 17 draft picks who chose to attend Hockey East schools this year, Boston University and Boston College landed 11 of them. Of course, the coach is very important in recruiting top players, but so too is the institution's academic reputation. Look at where the other 2012 NHL draft picks went: 47 of the 68 who went on to play college hockey chose academically-elite schools, not necessarily schools with the best win-loss records. Remember: UMaine is not only a relatively small school way up Interstate 95, but worse, UMaine's academic reputation ranks below our Hockey East rivals BC, BU and UNH -- perhaps that deserves some editorializing as well. What can we do to elevate the academic reputations of Maine's public universities?

Whitehead's critics need to be reminded that he and his staff do not just go after hockey talent -- they go after solid student-athletes, who can also perform in the classroom. This year's freshman class is an excellent example. Since Whitehead arrived at Maine in 2001, the average GPAs (grade point averages) for his teams have climbed steadily, from 2.28 (out of a possible 4.0) to 3.37 this past semester. The team average has been above 3.0 every semester since 2007. This is an aspect of college sports -- and college coaching -- that is all too often overlooked and undervalued. In my opinion, Whitehead and his staff are exactly the coaches we want at Maine: Coaches who have class and who are winners -- with integrity and with academic standards.

David W. Townsend, Ph.D.

Professor of Oceanography and Chair of the Athletic Advisory Board

University of Maine

Orono, Maine

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