Cindy Blodgett’s coaching career at the University of Maine came to an abrupt end Tuesday when the former star player was fired by Athletic Director Steve Abbott.

Blodgett’s goal of rebuilding the once-proud women’s basketball program never materialized, with the Black Bears losing 94 out of 118 games during her four years, including this past season, the program’s worst ever, when the team had a 4-25 record.

Abbott, who was promoted from interim athletic director on Monday, said it was a difficult decision because of Blodgett’s work ethic and stature in women’s basketball history at UMaine.

“She was our greatest player. And she’s worked incredibly hard as a coach. Ultimately, the decision was based on the fact that we have not been able to move the program forward,” Abbott said. “And we have to. This program is too important to the university, too important to our athletic department. We just had to make a change.”

When contacted, Blodgett said she had no comment but will hold a press conference Thursday, with the time and place to be arranged.

Blodgett will get one year’s salary in a buyout of $109,772, all of which will come from private sources, Abbott said. He said he wanted to assure taxpayers that the money will not come from state or federal funds.

The team was notified Tuesday. Calls to multiple players were not returned.

“They’re disappointed. They’re sad,” Abbott said. “They’ve put their heart and soul into this program. And they’ve all been recruited by Cindy. The bond you have with a coach is incredibly tight, so I understand they are disappointed.”

A national search will begin immediately, said Abbott, with the leader of a search committee to be named within days.

“This has now become the highest priority for the athletic department,” he said. “We’re looking for someone who is eager to be a part of the great tradition of this basketball program, who can accept the pressure and expectations that go with that tradition, and who can ultimately elevate the program back to the level it was before, and hopefully beyond.”

Led by Blodgett, the Black Bears reached four consecutive NCAA Division I tournaments from 1994 to 1998.

Blodgett, from Lawrence High School in Fairfield, was a four-time All-American and broke 20 school records, finishing in 1998 with a school-record 3,005 career points. She played professionally for four seasons in the WNBA.

She was hired as UMaine’s coach in 2007 and signed a two-year contract extension last fall that was expected to carry her through the 2012-13 season.

During Blodgett’s tenure as coach, several top players left the program.

In her first season, former Biddeford High School point guard Emily Rousseau departed for a Division II program. Last week, two more players – Katelyn Vanderhoff and Jaymie Druding – asked to be released. Their requests were granted.

During Blodgett’s four years, the state also saw some of its best high school players leave for other programs in the region.

Nicole Taylor of York, Maine’s Gatorade Player of the Year, and Kayla Burchill, Maine’s Miss Basketball this year, both will attend the University of Vermont next season. McAuley High junior Alexa Coulombe has already verbally committed to Boston College.

Others have chosen UMaine.

Rebecca Knight, a point guard for McAuley, the state Class A champion, has committed to playing in Orono. Knight could not be reached Tuesday.

Blodgett’s colleagues said Tuesday was a difficult day on campus.

“Naturally, as a good friend and colleague of Cindy’s, this is sad news from my perspective,” said UMaine hockey coach Tim Whitehead. “I have tremendous respect for Cindy as a person and a coach, so it’s been a tough day around here.

“I really feel for Cindy but think great things are in store for her,” he said.

Some reaction centered on the speed with which Abbott acted after accepting a two-year appointment as athletic director Monday.

“I would say there was a suddenness to this that surprised most,” said UMaine football coach Jack Cosgrove. “It speaks to the decisiveness on Steve’s part. And I don’t know when the last time someone was (fired). A lot of coaches have left here for various reasons. This one is a directive.”

Said Whitehead: “I have to admit I was a little surprised. I think everybody was. We certainly didn’t know it was even being considered at this time.”

Blodgett, along with other coaches, has been under fire on online message boards and Internet sites. Whitehead said that’s a sign of the times, where opinion can be disguised as fact.

“It’s an unfortunate part of the college coaching business, that people on the outside really have very little idea of the challenges facing programs and coaches on the inside,” said Whitehead.

Gary Fifield, the women’s basketball coach at the University of Southern Maine who was a mentor of sorts to Blodgett, said he hopes the program can be restored.

“Do I want to see UMaine women’s basketball successful? Absolutely,” said Fifield. “It’s just beneficial to the whole state.

“When Cindy got the job she called me right away. I said, ‘Cindy, it only helps Maine women’s basketball at every level if the women’s basketball program is successful. So, whatever I can do from this end to help you, I am more than willing to do so.’ “

 

Staff Writer Jenn Menendez can be contacted at 791-6426 or at: jmenendez@pressherald.com