Those who read last week’s BDN story about the finances of the University of Maine athletic department probably had mixed reactions.
Yes, $16.5 million seems like a lot of money to run a department of 400 student-athletes and 90 coaches, administrators and staff.
Yet when compared to the overall UMaine budget of nearly $328 million, it can be seen in a different perspective. It’s a tiny part (5.6 percent) of the University of Maine machine.
When UMaine teams, student-athletes and coaches do good things — whether on or off the field — it brings notoriety to the university.
For example, when UMaine grad Mike DeVito makes a tackle for the New York Jets, it’s a testament not only to his talent and hard work, but to the UMaine coaches, teammates and professors whose efforts helped him excel and reach the NFL.
People like DeVito, Montell Owens of the Jacksonville Jaguars and Mike Lundin of the NHL’s Ottawa Senators are exceptional representatives of UMaine. Their character reflects the kind of principled, hardworking people who study and work there.
Sure, some UMaine coaches and administrators earn big salaries. The reality is, most of them at or near the bottom compared to the Black Bears’ conference and regional counterpart.
Virtually any of UMaine’s head coaches could go to a different university next year and take a similar job for substantially more money.
It’s hard to understand why some folks consider a large salary as being, in some way, shameful. Many of us won’t ever earn anywhere near as much as Tim Whitehead, Jack Cosgrove or Steve Abbott. So what?
They all possess talents and traits which have made them valuable, marketable commodities in college athletics. The existing pay scale for coaches is determined by the Division I athletics market nationwide.
If UMaine tried to significantly reduce salaries, it would be forced to hire coaches lacking the necessary experience to build successful programs. All the well-qualified candidates would instead seek competitive salaries elsewhere.
Coaches like Cosgrove have stayed in Orono because they have developed a special affection for UMaine and raising their families in Greater Bangor. As an alum, he knows what the university means to people and what a difference athletics can make in the lives of student-athletes.
While it is great for UMaine, the community and the state when Black Bear teams achieve success, that is only a small part of the equation.
UMaine is blessed with coaches and staff members who are infinitely more concerned about the development and maturation of the student-athletes, including in the classroom, than they are about wins and losses.
They are, first and foremost, good people.
All of them deal with budget constraints that hamper their ability to attract and develop more top-level talent. Recruiting has always been a difficult chore, given UMaine’s location.
Coaches also are forced to spend a considerable amount of time fundraising just to make ends meet, rather than concentrating on administering to their programs, mentoring assistant coaches and working with student-athletes.
Many people don’t understand or appreciate the quality of the athletic product UMaine provides as the state’s only Division I program.
Regardless of the sport, Black Bear athletes are engaged in high-level competition and often rank among the top performers in their league, the region and the country. And a fair number of those student-athletes come from cities and towns across Maine.
Alfond Arena, Morse Field, Mahaney Diamond and Memorial Gym are among the campus venues that provide rallying points for students and fans, young and old, to watch athletic events and share good times with family and friends.
Most of the contests are reasonably priced and admission to several sports is free.
Those who doubt the value of UMaine athletics as part of the university experience ought to do a few things before passing judgment:
First, grab a friend or family member and go to a game. Not only should the high level of competition be evident but one should be able to discern, through their intensity and effort, the athletes’ passion for their sport.
Those who remain unconvinced should remain after the game and speak with the coach or a couple of the players. Find out why they’re at UMaine, what motivates them, what their goals are.
My hunch is fair-minded folks will come away impressed with the kind of people who are involved in the program — whichever team you might choose.
In a few years, these young men and women will be working as engineers, nurses and business leaders. They’ll be teaching young people and coaching sports, applying the same lessons of teamwork, commitment and sacrifice they learned while competing for the Black Bears.
In a way they’ll be giving back, trying to prove the scholarship money and resources given to them was an investment in their future, rather than an expense for Maine taxpayers.
The value of UMaine athletics reaches far beyond what the programs cost or how many games or championships a team wins. It is about young people and their pursuit of excellence as they prepare to contribute in the “real world.”
It’s impossible to put a price tag on that.