Tim Whitehead’s 12-year tenure as coach of the University of Maine men’s hockey team is over after the team’s third losing season in the past six years.
Whitehead, the national coach of the year in 2002, was fired Tuesday morning with a year remaining on a contract extension that he signed in 2010. The university will pay him a $195,000 buyout — a year’s pay plus $5,000 in lieu of notice.
The money will come from private sources, said Athletic Director Steve Abbott, who pointed to a university written statement saying that “no funds will be reallocated from the current university budget committed to academic programs, faculty, student or operational needs.”
Abbott said the decision to fire Whitehead was not easy, and ultimately was made by university President Paul Ferguson, in consultation with Abbott.
In a phone interview, Abbott said, “Tim’s done a lot of good things for the program. He coached with tremendous integrity and he has given us a group of players we’re very proud of. For those reasons, it makes it a very difficult decision.”
Whitehead’s teams missed the NCAA tournament in five of the past six years, while the base of season ticket holders shrank from a high of more than 3,600 to the current 1,900. Average attendance at Alfond Arena fell by 1,000 fans per game to 4,175 this season, the lowest since 1991-92.
“We wanted to add some energy and excitement to our program,” Abbott said. “We’re looking to have this program compete for championships at the Hockey East level and at the national level, and we want to find a coach who will get us there.”
A search committee will begin that process soon, said Abbott, who two years ago fired women’s basketball coach Cindy Blodgett with a year remaining on her contract.
Whitehead released a statement saying, “My family and I feel blessed to have been part of the Maine hockey family, and we will always cherish the relationships we have built, both at the university and in the Bangor community.”
Last month, the Black Bears completed an 11-19-8 season in which they won only two games at Alfond Arena. With a lineup that depended on freshmen and suffered a series of injuries, they started the season 2-11-2.
A late-season surge earned them the eighth and final berth in the Hockey East conference playoffs, where they lost 4-2 and 2-1 in a best-of-three quarterfinal series to top seed and eventual tournament champion University of Massachusetts-Lowell.
But the late-season improvement wasn’t enough to save Whitehead’s job.
“This is about the future of our marquee program,” Abbott said. “The president and I are committed to ensuring that our men’s hockey program is financially sustainable, continues to focus on developing the student-athlete and is known nationally for excellence.”
Four of the team’s top five scorers — freshmen Devin Shore, Ben Hutton, Ryan Lomberg and Steven Swavely — and all three goaltenders — juniors Martin Ouellette and Dan Sullivan and freshman Matt Morris — are set to return next season.
Abbott informed the team of Whitehead’s dismissal Tuesday afternoon.
Mike Cornell, one of this year’s captains, told The Associated Press that Whitehead’s departure was disappointing news, but the players understand that good coaches sometimes have to go.
No one wanted to win more than Whitehead, Cornell said, and he had the team’s respect.
“At a school like Maine, it’s not just for fun. It’s big business and there are high expectations,” said Cornell, who now plays for the Florida Everblades of the East Coast Hockey League.
Whitehead compiled an overall record of 250-171-54 in his time at UMaine, which followed five years as head coach of UMass-Lowell. He also coached at Middlebury College in Vermont and was a graduate assistant to Shawn Walsh at Maine in 1990-91.
Walsh, a colorful and often controversial figure, built the program to national prominence and won NCAA titles in 1993 and 1999. When he died of cancer in the fall of 2001, Whitehead returned to Orono.
He guided the Black Bears to the 2002 national title game in St. Paul, where they lost to Minnesota in overtime, and was named national Division I Coach of the Year.
Maine reached another national championship game in 2004, and got to the Frozen Four in 2006 and 2007.
In his first six seasons, Whitehead had a record of 154-69-26 and went to the NCAA tournament every year. The next six included three losing seasons and only one tournament appearance, last spring.
Whitehead’s record over the past six years was 96-102-28.
His statement Tuesday pointed to successes off the ice.
“We worked hard to establish a culture of academic excellence and social responsibility that we can all be proud of,” Whitehead said. “In addition, we completed the fundraising and construction of the $3.75 million Shawn Walsh Hockey Center in 2005 and the $4.85 million Alfond Arena Renovation Project in 2012.”
Whitehead said he is most proud of the mutual respect among his players, coaches and staff, and that the program’s future is promising.
“I’m confident this team will build on our strong second half of this season, and that they will compete among the top programs in the nation next year,” he said.
Abbott said assistant coaches Bob Corkum, Dan Kerluke and David Alexander remain under contract until June 30.
There is no timetable to name a successor to Whitehead.
“I’m certain we will have a very strong applicant pool,” Abbott said. “We think we’ve got a program with very talented players and we want to be certain we get the right person for our program.”
Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at: