Normally in this space, you’ll hear about plyometric squats and fitness magic. But for today, we’re taking a break.
I had been half-asleep in my recliner for maybe five minutes Tuesday afternoon when I got the news that had been rumored throughout the morning: University of Maine hockey coach Tim Whitehead had been fired.
At first, I thought it was a late April Fools joke that my wife had been saving in her arsenal for a week and a half. But it wasn’t. And truth be told, most of us saw it coming.
Whitehead was given the keys to this well-oiled machine in 2001 when coach Shawn Walsh succumbed to kidney cancer. We all know how difficult it is to follow in a legend’s footsteps. A lot of quality coaches and athletes have wilted under such pressure. Whitehead didn’t. He did an admirable job.
In his 12 seasons behind the UMaine bench, the Black Bears made two national championship games and two Frozen Fours. Both national-title game appearances (2002, 2004) resulted in one-goal losses. The other Frozen Four appearances came in 2006 and 2007.
But after 2007, it was all downhill. The Bears didn’t appear in the NCAA tournament again until last season, falling 5-2 to Minnesota-Duluth, squandering a 2-0 lead. 2012-13 was even worse, as the team barely snuck into the Hockey East playoffs and won only two games at Alfond Arena. Attendance hit a low unseen since George H.W. Bush manned the White House.
A lot of people had been calling for Whitehead’s job for the last four years. A yearly trip to the NCAA tournament doesn’t sit will with diehards. Trust me, I know. I’m married to one. We were in the stands in Worcester last year when the Bears blew that two-goal lead. The 2002 loss to the Gophers is still wedged in her head.
There is no question in my mind that Whitehead is a really nice man, a great family man, a coach who was a class act to deal with from a media standpoint. A contrast to John Tortorella, a former Black Bear who finds himself on the hot seat in New York. The two of us had a great conversation prior to a road game at UNH in March. He is passionate about the game.
The problem is, too often in sports, nice guys finish last, although Terry Francona managed to prove that wrong with the Red Sox. People are looking for coaches with the fire of Herb Brooks or Bear Bryant, Bobby Knight or Bill Belichick, Doc Rivers or Claude Julien. It’s safe to say Whitehead would never throw a chair, make his players run “Herbies” for peering at that blonde-haired, blue-eyed graduate student in the Maine-iac section or wear a hooded sweatshirt on the sideline when its 75 degrees outside.
It is certainly time for a change and for the program to move forward. Hockey East opponents used to be scared to death to come into Alfond Arena. That is no longer the case. High-caliber teams such as Denver, Minnesota and North Dakota would be expected on the out-of-conference schedule. Now, the likes of Mercyhurst and St. Lawrence come into Orono expecting a sweep. Teams you wouldn’t expect to be in the Frozen Four, Quinnipiac and Yale, the former holding the country’s top ranking throughout the year, are playing for a national championship in Pittsburgh this weekend. The usual contenders are hitting the golf course. That’s the new generation of college sports.
Whoever gets the job will be given the keys to a talented, young team with potential. Devin Shore had an outstanding freshman year. Martin Ouellette was strong in goal over the second half of the year. But don’t expect a miracle right away. It takes time. A lot of would jump for joy over Jim Montgomery, who captained the legendary 42-1-2 team in 1992-93, returning to Orono to man the bench. Montgomery would be a top choice, but a national search will be upon us.
If there’s a Division I job out there, Whitehead should be a candidate. Best of luck to you, Coach.