Athletic Director Blake James will leave the University of Maine next month to take a position at Miami, where his career in athletic administration began more than a decade ago.

An interim AD is expected to be named by early September, then a national search will begin for a permanent replacement.

James’ tenure has been marked by significant upgrades to facilities, including new artificial turf for the football and baseball fields and progress on a $12 million project to renovate Memorial Gym for the basketball programs.

But it has also been marked by difficult times, most notably unprecedented budget challenges last spring that led to the elimination of volleyball and men’s soccer.

James said his successor will face financial challenges.

“The challenges are what they’ve always been here: trying to provide the resources necessary to be a competitive Division I program,” he said. “The bar in college athletics continues to rise every year. For the next person, that will be the greatest challenge. It was mine.”

James succeeded Patrick Nero as Maine’s interim AD in July 2005, then got the permanent job the following spring.

He hired former UMaine standout Cindy Blodgett to coach the women’s basketball team, developed a statewide television and radio network, and arranged a department-wide contract with Adidas.

In 2007-08, every UMaine team that evaluates its success in wins and losses did not qualify for the playoffs. That included men’s hockey, football and both men’s and women’s basketball.

Men’s hockey has bounced back, returning to the Hockey East title game last March.

Football qualified for the playoffs in 2008 for the first time in six seasons, and the men’s basketball team came one game shy of a 20-win season last winter.

In the spring of 2008, the economy left its mark on the athletic program. James was responsible for cutting $871,000 from the budget as part of a system-wide $8 million shortfall. Ultimately volleyball and men’s soccer were dropped.

“Blake went through some tough economic times, but so did every state. Blake did a good job and made some tough decisions when decisions had to be made,” said Maine baseball coach Steve Trimper. “You’re not in a popularity contest. You have to make sure you do the right thing for the university.”

“Blake is as good a person as you will find in college athletics, and he did the best he could with the many challenges we have in collegiate athletics at the University of Maine,” said Pat McBride, assistant AD for development. “There was tangible progress infrastructurally during his time, and someone needs to take that and continue the progress.

“The last few years have been challenging for anyone in higher education and athletics, and Maine has not been immune to that. Budget cuts have deeply affected the department, but at the same time, Blake has done some things to create new revenue streams and enhance old ones that are perhaps unnoticed by the general public.”

James previously worked at Miami in athletic administration from 1998-2001. He also has worked at the University of Nebraska and Providence College.

A year ago, he was a finalist to become the AD at Florida Gulf Coast University in Naples, Fla., but was not hired. Last November, UMaine President Robert Kennedy extended James’ contract through June 2012.

Kennedy was not available for comment, but said in a statement: “Blake has done an outstanding job managing the UMaine athletic department, and we will miss him. He has responded to significant challenges by making tough decisions and maintaining focus on the appropriate priorities, especially the academic success of our student-athletes, which has been exceptional during his tenure.”

James will be a senior associate athletic director for external affairs, dealing with development, fundraising, marketing and ticket sales. When he left Miami in 2001 he reported to the person in the position he will now hold.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity for me and my family,” said James. “But it’s definitely bittersweet. It was a very emotional night at the James household. My kids have basically grown up here. All they know is Maine.”

Maine’s new AD will need to navigate the future for the football team in order to stay competitive in the Colonial Athletic Association.

Two nearby competitors – Northeastern and Hofstra University – dropped football last winter because of budget constraints.

The Memorial Gym project is still several million dollars shy of its goal, and retaining and recruiting high-level coaches who can attract high-level athletes continues to be a priority.

“It’s a very key role, the face of our athletic department,” said Trimper. “We have a lot of faith in Bob Kennedy. We’ll trust no one is going to rush into anything.”

 

Staff Writer Jenn Menendez can be contacted at 791-6426 or at: [email protected]