The first three months of the winter season produced dismal results for the University of Maine’s hockey and basketball teams.
The most troubling is the men’s hockey situation.
Coach Tim Whitehead’s Black Bears (4-11-2) ended 2012 on an upbeat note when they doubled their previous win total by capturing the championship at the Florida College Classic.
But the stumbling start, which includes an unprecedented 0-6-2 record at Alfond Arena, is worrisome for not only Whitehead and his program, but UMaine athletics as a whole.
If the Black Bears continue to be anemic on offense and keep losing, there will be ramifications.
The problem isn’t simply the school’s dwindling reputation as a national hockey power. If UMaine doesn’t start winning games, fans will continue jumping off the proverbial bandwagon.
That would mean lost revenue for UMaine, which builds its budget around near-capacity crowds at Alfond Arena. In this economy, as the athletic department struggles to make ends meet, there are no easy ways to overcome a substantial hit at the ticket office.
That doesn’t appear to have been a major issue yet. Men’s hockey is averaging 4,385 tickets issued which, if the figure represents paid admissions, is an average decrease of only 52 fans per game since last season.
Anecdotal evidence suggests many fewer seats have been occupied at Alfond Arena.
This year’s UMaine squad, hit hard by graduation and pro signings and hampered by youth and a lack of proven, elite-level players, does not appear to be a Hockey East title contender, nor a candidate for the NCAA tournament.
Even so, Whitehead’s teams have shown a propensity for strong second-half play the last two seasons, so a resurgence isn’t out of the question.
But if the Black Bears finish 2012-13 the way they started, athletic director Steve Abbott and his higher-ups likely will take a serious look at Whitehead’s future.
It would cost UMaine approximately $190,000 — one year’s salary — to buy him out. With 18 months remaining on Whitehead’s contract, it makes fiscal sense he should keep his job.
At the “mid-major” level of Division I athletics, one bad season seldom results in a coaching change without other significant, extenuating circumstances. The soft-spoken Whitehead has consistently handled himself with class both on and off the ice.
His fiercest critics, who have grumbled about the direction of the program — UMaine has an 89-94-22 record since the start of the 2007-08 season — will clamor for his ouster.
They will point out that there is a precedent, as Abbott fired former women’s basketball head coach Cindy Blodgett in 2011. It required UMaine to buy out her $109,772 contract, using one of then-UMaine President Robert Kennedy’s “discretionary funds.”
That move came after Blodgett’s teams won only 24 games in four years, a protracted period of poor performance.
Whitehead’s team has always been competitive. UMaine has won 58 games in the last 3 1/2 seasons, has an overall record above .500 (58-54-15), and reached the NCAA tournament last season.
It’s not the kind of success to which UMaine fans became accustomed but, under the circumstances, it doesn’t warrant a $190,000-plus coaching change.
However, barring an amazing turnaround, the Black Bears are poised to finish this season with one of the worst records in program history. Only three times previously has UMaine failed to win at least 11 games.
Whitehead is skating on thin ice. If he doesn’t get his team back in the upper echelon of Hockey East and into the NCAA discussion during the next 15 months, he’ll likely be gone.