On Friday, May 2nd I was in the RiRa in Portsmouth, New Hampshire meeting up with some friends around 5:30 PM when I got a phone call from Karlton Creech, the athletic director at the University of Maine. I had left campus at UMaine after completing my two-day interview around 2:00 that afternoon and stopped in Portsmouth to break up the ride home and meet some friends.
“How far did you get?” he asked me.
“Portsmouth, New Hampshire.”
“Do you want to come back?”
At that point I knew I was going to be the head coach at the University of Maine.
He made an official verbal offer over the phone, and we agreed to talk the next day about the details. I told him I absolutely wanted to be his head coach, but I wanted to make sure I spoke with my wife and family first, and it was also important that I spoke to my players at Rhode Island College, my AD and my President before I accepted the offer. I wanted to speak to them in person before I officially agreed to take the job.
It was a great feeling, almost a numb feeling, as I hung up the phone and went back inside. It was exciting and relieving at the same time, and I wanted to share it with my family first. Interestingly my wife had plans to go see “Book of Mormon” with her Mom in Rhode Island that night (a gift from my brother, that I had to cancel on due to the interview). When I called her, she was out to dinner so she didn’t have her phone out. I didn’t want to tell anyone before I told her. She called me back about an hour later as she was walking into the theater. So that put me in a tough spot. Do I really tell her right as she is walking in to sit in a theater and watch a play for 2 hours? I decided not to. Of course, that meant I didn’t really want to tell anyone else.
We had been through the process before, so to be honest we were both pretty numb to it. The Maine interview was my ninth Division I head coaching interview since I had been at Rhode Island College. (I’m pretty sure that leads the country, right? I mean, usually you either get one or you stop getting interviews right? Anyone else have 9 of them?) Needless to say despite the excitement and feeling good about where things stood, it was better to stay numb to it rather than get excited and risk being disappointed while I was going through the process.
The process moved very quickly. I didn’t really have any great connection to the University or the new athletic director. I knew a couple of people that knew some people that could say good things about me, but I didn’t really have a specific connection. I sent in my stuff, I followed up, and I got an opportunity to interview. They set up around 10 Skype interviews for earlier in that week, on Monday and Tuesday, and of course with coaches being like 12-year-old schoolgirls gossiping, we all knew who the other guys were who were interviewing. My Skype interview ended around 10:45 on Tuesday, and by that afternoon I had been invited up to campus on Thursday night.
Everyone asks me what was different this time, and to be honest not much from my end. I didn’t really do anything different than I had done in the past, although with more experience I’m sure came more confidence about our culture and program. With all of the success that we had at Rhode Island College I felt very comfortable talking about what we built, how we did it, and how it could fit at the University of Maine. To be honest the real difference I felt came from their approach. It just never felt like I had to explain the fact that I was a Division 3 coach. It’s really a ridiculous part of the process that successful Division 3 coaches have to overcome that fact. With the University of Maine it never came up.
I learned over the years that every coaching search is unique. Every one is different, with a different approach, different personalities, different people to answer to, and different fits for the school at that time. There really isn’t a game plan or an approach that works best. I was lucky to have some of the best kids you could ever imagine coaching at Rhode Island College and they bought in completely to our approach. We had some great success. So my advantage as time grew on in these interviews was simply being able to comfortably discuss who we were, what we had done, and how we had accomplished it.
Everyone asks how the transition is going, and the truth is there really isn’t much of a transition. You get started with the job as soon as you can. The official announcement was made on Wednesday, May 7th and I put a week’s worth of clothes into a duffel bag and drove up to Orono (4:15 from Providence without traffic – unfortunately usually Boston gets in the way). UMaine graduated on May 10th, so most of my players were leaving on the 8th to go home. Given that we have a number of international players on our roster who didn’t go home all year, everyone was looking forward to getting home. There wasn’t any summer school set-up for the entire team to attend. So I was named the coach on May 7th while I drove up to Orono, and I met with the team that afternoon – saying hello and goodbye within an hour. The next day most of them left.
If you’ve ever thought about being a college coach, you’ve probably thought about your first meeting with the team. It’s exciting and interesting, because you really don’t know what to expect. I did a lot more listening than talking. I knew I wasn’t going to set down any ground rules or expectations in one meeting before we broke for the summer, and I wanted to learn more about them and the program. They will have a chance to hear what I have to say plenty, so I wanted to learn from them. I felt great after the meeting. They were honest with me about the program without being disrespectful, and I left thinking about one thing: they were hungry. They were looking for something new that they could buy into, and that was very important to me. As I get to know some of them better over the summer, that feeling is continually confirmed.
So there really isn’t a transition. Everyone on campus, and especially the coaches in the athletic department, could not be nicer or more excited. Everyone has offered to help, and the people everywhere have been great. One thing that hit me right away is that everyone really seems to be happy to be here. There is great pride in the area and in the University. But you just hit the ground running. We were left with 4 open scholarships and about 2 weeks left in the spring signing period. Transition be damned, we needed to start recruiting.
It’s hard to tell you how lucky I am to have the staff coming together for my first year. I felt good about adding both Matt O’Brien and Zak Boisvert even before I was offered the job, but ultimately it was a decision they had to make. I was thrilled to get them both on board right away, and that made the first few weeks so much easier. They were both on the road for multiple years at Division I programs and had a great feel for the recruiting landscape. We sat around the same desk watching tape and making phone calls, trying to sort through available recruits and make the best decisions possible. I wanted to make sure we avoided the trap of adding players just to fill a uniform that we’d be trying to replace in a year. We had to make sure these guys had the character to fit our culture and the talent to help us win championships. We brought in only 3 kids on visits, and we got our top 2 targets in Aaron Calixte and Kevin Little. To be honest, we would have taken both of them a year ago at the University of Maine.
Once the recruiting situation settled down a bit after we signed two guys we were able to catch our breath a bit. I had to go back to Rhode Island to run our 2nd Dynamic Leadership Academy, which Matt and Zak both attended. The Academy went great and gave me a chance to start wrapping things up in Rhode Island a bit.
After we got back up to Maine we were able to think long-term a little bit about the program. We needed to start contacting our players and trying our best to develop trust, even from a distance. We had to finish the rest of the staff and plan July recruiting. Given the structure of the NCAA recruiting period, we will all be on the road for most of July. Before you know it, it will be August and we’ll have less than a month before the kids are back. We are moving offices down to the first floor, so we need to get settled in there. We need to make sure our gear is ordered for the fall, make sure our technology is up and running, and put together our game plan for individual workouts, strength and conditioning, and team workouts in the fall. There are a lot of long-term things that need to be handled now or else the semester will begin and we’ll be scrambling to catch up. You pretty much lose an entire month of your summer each year as a college basketball coach with July recruiting, and August moves quickly.
Every day I am at the University of Maine I am more excited about the opportunity to build a championship culture here. There is a great athletic culture at the school, and the basketball culture in the state of Maine is terrific. It’s a great opportunity to build something special, and we can feed off the energy on campus and in the entire state as part of our foundation. It’s our job to run a transparent program that the community wants to be a part of, and to put together a product that people will be proud of. There is no doubt in my mind we can do it. Every day I have been here I have gotten more confident we can build a championship program.
I understand how lucky I am to have this opportunity, and I will never forget that. I think about all of the great coaches I had battles with over the last 9 years and how difficult it is to get a chance like this. I will miss that grind, and all of the great coaches I got to know and learn from since I became a head coach. It’s hard to describe how excited I am to be the head coach at the University of Maine.
I really appreciate everyone’s interest in this blog. I look forward to sharing our program with you on this site, and trading thoughts and ideas about leadership, team building and basketball moving forward.