Former gubernatorial candidate Steve Abbott said Friday that he is thrilled to become interim athletic director at the University of Maine, a position that his father held.

Abbott, 48, was introduced by UMaine President Robert Kennedy during a news conference Friday afternoon in Orono and was described as a natural leader.

Abbott, who was a college athlete, served as chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Susan Collins for 12 years before he ran for governor in the Republican primary this spring.

He has deep Maine roots: He’s an Orono native who attended his first UMaine football game as an infant in 1962, when his father was assistant coach.

Abbott succeeds Blake James, who resigned last week to take a position at the University of Miami. Abbott will begin the job Sept. 6.

“I will confess I was pretty surprised, but I was also very pleased when (Kennedy) called. I really didn’t hesitate,” Abbott said. “One of the difficulties you have is when you lose an AD, there’s a period of time where your program can’t afford to be stagnant.

“For UMaine this is really a critical time. You can’t give up a year, can’t let it slip backward,” he said.

UMaine is in the middle of a capital campaign to fund a $12 million renovation of Memorial Gym. It has at least one key coaching contract — that of women’s basketball coach Cindy Blodgett — that will expire this year.

Abbott, a Harvard graduate, was captain of the Crimson football team. In 1991, he graduated from the University of Maine School of Law and began practicing at Pierce Atwood. He became Collins’ chief of staff in 1997.

In Orono, Abbott was a star athlete and a fixture at UMaine athletic events. His father, Walt Abbott, was head football coach from 1967-74 and was with the university for 50 years as a physical education instructor before retiring recently.

Walt Abbott served twice as UMaine’s interim athletic director.

Just a few months ago, Steve Abbott was campaigning for the Republican nomination for governor. He finished fourth among seven candidates in the primary.

“I was thinking about pursuing a variety of opportunities” after the primary, he said Friday. “Every time someone asked, ‘What do you want to do next?’ I kept saying I’m not sure, but I want to do something different.”

Kennedy began meeting with coaches and staff members after James resigned to gauge the kind of qualities the next athletic director should have. Several people floated Abbott’s name.

“If you were to assemble an ideal candidate, it would be Steve,” Kennedy said. “He has a legal background, is familiar with public exposure and press, has an athletic background as a student athlete and in an academic setting. And he certainly has familiarity and passion for Black Bear athletics.”

Abbott said he doesn’t have designs on filling the position permanently, and will concentrate on moving the program forward during his tenure. Kennedy, who will step down in 2011, has said he will leave the permanent hire to the next president.

The reaction on campus was strong.

The football coach, Jack Cosgrove, who views Walt Abbott as a longtime mentor, said there could not have been a better choice.

“The president defined leadership as a real need here. Steven has got a resume loaded with leadership,” Cosgrove said. “More than that, he’s got that leadership presence.

“I like all the credentials,” Cosgrove said. “His commitment will be to Maine, the state of Maine. He’s got courage. He’s a guy who’s going to stand up and make the hard decisions. And he’s a great communicator.”

The baseball coach, Steve Trimper, agreed.

“They got the right person in the job,” he said. “What Steve brings to the table is, No. 1, he understands UMaine and the tradition here. He brings great management skills and has the ability to be a great leader.”

“He’s a bright guy, charismatic, great with people in a gentle, unassuming way,” said Pat McBride, Maine’s assistant athletic director for development. “I think it’s a coup.”

 

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