BANGOR — Evelyn Walker’s youngest son was adamant about one thing when it came to choosing a career.
He would not be wearing a suit and tie. No way.
So imagine her amusement Friday when she sat in the front row at a news conference in the Cross Center, using her cell phone to videotape her son’s first public speech since accepting the men’s basketball coaching job at the University of Maine.
Bob Walsh was wearing a suit. And a blue tie that he and his wife of nine months, Alicia Cipriano, had picked out the night before.
“He’s always wanted to do sports. He never wanted to work in an office,” Walker said. “I remember when he was 4 or 5 years old and a fireman put him up on the fire engine and he said, â€˜What do you want to be when you grow up?’ And Bob said, â€˜I want to be a coach.’ And they were like, â€˜Don’t you want to be a fireman?’ And he says, â€˜No.'”
Walsh, 42, signed a four-year contract Tuesday to replace Ted Woodward at Maine. He was the head coach at Rhode Island College for the previous nine seasons.
His mother and older brother, Jonathan, also in attendance Friday, were frequent attendees at his games. The trip will be a little farther — 425 miles, Walker had already calculated the distance — but both plan to be back in the Cross Center as often as possible this winter.
There’s much to do for Walsh between now and then, of course. He said Friday his priorities for the next two weeks were to get to know his players, hire three assistant coaches and get on the recruiting trail to try to fill the three scholarships left open when a trio of Black Bears transferred this spring.
Walsh met with his new players Wednesday afternoon, then asked each of them to stop by his office for individual discussions before heading home for the summer. He said a couple players plan to stay on campus to take classes and work on conditioning.
“I really want to develop a trusting relationship with those guys,” Walsh said.
“They’re very honest, they’re very hungry, they’re very excited. I feel like they’re kind of used this, which is a difficult situation for anybody, to come together.”
Woodward, who had been on staff at Maine for 18 seasons, the last 10 as head coach, was dismissed April 14.
Walsh said he watched a little tape of last year’s team, which finished 6-23, to prepare for his job interview. But he doesn’t plan on looking at much more.
“I told them we’re starting at zero,” he said. “I don’t want to go back and watch every game and say, â€˜He doesn’t do this, he doesn’t do that.’ I want to get to know them on the court.”
Walsh has about $120,000 in annual salary to spend on his assistant coaches. He said he already had some people in mind for those jobs, but wasn’t ready to reveal the names yet.
They will have until May 21 to secure commitments for the next official signing day. Walsh said he started hearing from interested players the minute his name became linked to Maine.
“We’re looking for talented, tough players that are going to fit at the University of Maine and are going to fit into our culture,” he said. “We’re not going to take a guy right now just to fill a uniform.”
Still, despite having gaps in a roster that won just six games a year ago, Walsh is not looking at his debut season as a lost cause.
“The goal is going to be to compete for a conference championship and we’re never going to lower that goal,” he said. “So yeah, that’s where we’re starting.”
Walsh’s contract includes a pair of stipulations that were not found in Woodward’s. He is tasked with generating up to $100,000 a year in “guarantee” games, and he has the right to run his own summer basketball camps, with the ability to keep any proceeds.
Athletic Director Karlton Creech said the guarantee games, in which Maine will visit a major-conference opponent for a hefty fee, are important to the school’s athletic budget. The $100,000 would be spread out over the entire department. Any money above that will likely be devoted to men’s basketball, at the discretion of Creech and Walsh.
“Bob has a lot of great connections and the opportunity to go schedule some games to help him build the program, not only from a recognition standpoint, but from a budget standpoint,” Creech said.
Such games are becoming harder to schedule for teams with low ratings percentage indexes (RPI) like Maine. The Black Bears ranked 327th out of 349 eligible Division I teams this past winter. Walsh noted that when Maine lost 94-70 at Providence College last year, it actually hurt the Friars’ RPI, which is used to select teams for the NCAA tournament.
“We’ve got to get better so teams don’t suffer for playing us,” Walsh said. “I want to play those big games. That’s stuff that can really carry over. Playing those high-level games accelerates your work rate. They accelerate your progress.”
Maine has five non-conference games yet to schedule.
As for the camps, Walsh was not allowed to run his own at Rhode Island College. But they can be an important recruiting tool. So Creech agreed to give Walsh the freedom to have camps as long as they are not held on campus and don’t compete with Maine’s own summer camp, with which Walsh will also assist.
One probable location for a Walsh-run camp will be in Providence, where he has strong ties. He is so well-regarded by his former players at Rhode Island College that three of them made the drive to Bangor on Friday to see him officially take the reins at Maine.
“That’s how much he means to us. He’s just a great guy. It’s more than basketball with him. I thought it was long overdue,” Antone Gray said of Walsh’s move to a Division I program.
Gray recalled his father meeting with Walsh and immediately telling him that was where he was going to school. But his career at Rhode Island College ended two years ago without a degree.
He said Walsh insisted that he return to earn that diploma, then checked in to make sure he was getting to class on time.
Next Saturday, Walsh will get to return the favor to his former player.
“He’s a guy that used basketball to get to college. And he learned in college that the ball was going to stop bouncing some day,” Walsh said of Gray.
“I’m going to be back down there next week. He’s going to graduate and it’s going to be a terrific day.”
Walsh didn’t say whether he’d be wearing a suit for that occasion.
Mark Emmert can be contacted at 791-6424 or:[email protected]Twitter: MarkEmmertPPH