BOOTHBAY HARBOR — Arms folded across his chest and a flat stomach, I.J. Pinkham rarely moved from his spot on the sidelines in the high school gym. His eyes followed the movement of the basketball and his players.
If Pinkham spoke, it was short bursts of five or six words. He was mostly silent amid the noise of a standing-room only crowd for Boothbay Region High’s last game of the regular season with rival Wiscasset last Thursday night.
No one doubted a master coach was at work. This is Pinkham’s 36th season at Boothbay. I turned to the school’s athletic director, who was once a student here. It was my first time at a Boothbay basketball game. Had anything changed over the years?
“Nothing,” said Allan Crocker. “Nothing at all.”
Monday night, Pinkham will walk with his team into the Augusta Civic Center for the quarterfinals of the Western Maine Class C tournament. Boothbay has not missed a playoff appearance in more than 20 years. Over his 36 years at Boothbay, there have been just three losing seasons for this man of few words.
“People say I could have won more games if I yelled at my players more,” said Pinkham. “Maybe we would have won more. But that’s not the way I coach.”
Pinkham teams have won 555 games, including 49 at Buckfield High, his only other coaching and teaching job. Only a handful of Maine high school coaches have won more than 500.
“I also have 277 losses,” said Pinkham. “You should mention that.”
In his own quiet way he is as blunt as any Mainah. His players know his rules for the game they play and for the lives they live as a Boothbay Seahawk.
“He has some very clear expectations,” said Tom Woodin, the town manager of Boothbay Harbor and a player in the late 1970s. Woodin’s son, Ben, played for Pinkham last season.
“Every player gets a list at the start of the season. No facial hair. Short haircuts. This is your curfew. If you miss practice, you don’t play the next day. His rules haven’t changed. I got the same list.
“You follow the rules because you don’t want to disappoint I.J.”
Irving John Pinkham applied for the vacant position of head basketball coach at Boothbay Region in 1976. He also sought interviews for openings at new high schools in Readfield (Maranacook) and Wales (Oak Hill). Only Boothbay was interested. He got the coaching job and was asked to teach math and history. He was assigned Room 201. It is still his classroom, but now he teaches geometry and algebra.
About 10 years later a coaching job opened at Morse High in Bath. Pinkham applied. Again, he says with a wry smile, he didn’t get an interview. “Tommy Maines got the job. I didn’t feel bad.”
Maines won three straight Class A championships at Morse from 1987 to 1989, something no large school team has been able to do since.
It is Pinkham, 65, who has endured. “When I first started (at Boothbay), fans were pretty critical of what I was doing. My wife really didn’t like sitting in the stands. But nobody bothers me down here, now.”
He grew up in Milbridge, the small town near Cherryfield far up the Maine coast. It seems he’s always been where everyone knows everyone else. Dan Williams, a former player from the 1979 team that won the first of four Western Maine titles under Pinkham, owns an automobile repair ship. His son played for Pinkham.
Tom Perkins, a financial advisor, has his old coach as a client. He has a 10-year-old son and asks Pinkham to coach another seven years. Boothbay has won just one state championship (2001), but for the men who played for Pinkham, being part of this large fraternity is more important.
Pinkham’s younger son, Tim, played for him and is now an EMT and firefighter in Boothbay. Older son, Matt, is a local lobsterman. Pinkham’s wife, Peggy, was a top administrator at St. Andrew’s Hospital and Health Care Center in Boothbay.
For years, Pinkham collected tickets at Boothbay football games. Head coach Tim Rice was a former player. His father, Dennis, has been Pinkham’s assistant for 20-some years. In this town, so much is connected.
“He’s such a legend,” said Woodin. “The kids know his record. He gets their respect. He’s earned it.”
Friday, I noticed the hoarse rasp in Pinkham’s voice. “Maybe I yelled too much last night,” he said, referring to a loss to Dirigo High for the Mountain Valley Conference championship. “We were ahead by 17 points.”
Except he probably didn’t yell. That’s not his style, remember? Two years ago Pinkham was diagnosed with throat cancer. He continued to coach, driving to Brunswick for his chemotherapy. “I dodged that. Coaching was the best thing for me.”
He loves basketball and its lessons. He loves teaching players how to enjoy the game by being disciplined when they play.
“Our enrollment is declining (down to 224 in grades 9-12) but I always seem to get a lot of kids out for the team. The key is communicating. I let you know what you’re getting yourself into.”
There’s a sign high on the wall in the front of Pinkham’s classroom, near the clock. “Mathematics is not a spectator sport.”
Life is not a spectator sport. Pinkham has taught that, too.
Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: