GORHAM — Gary Fifield kept his composure for the most part, at least until things got personal.

As he thanked just about everyone at the University of Southern Maine athletic department for their support of his women’s basketball program, Fifield brought up his family: his wife of 34 years, Mary, and his 32-year-old son, Ashley. Then he choked up.

“They’ve been very supportive and understanding and really made a lot of sacrifices so I could pursue a career in coaching,” Fifield said, fighting back tears. “You really miss a lot of family time when you’re a coach.”

He’ll soon be making up for lost time.

Fifield, 62, announced his retirement Tuesday after a 27-year stint as one of the nation’s most successful NCAA Division III women’s basketball coaches. He compiled a career record of 660-137 and led the Huskies to five Division III Final Four appearances, three times finishing second in the nation (1998, 2000 and 2006). His 660 victories rank sixth all-time among Division III women’s basketball coaches.

Fifield also served as USM’s associate director of athletics for the past seven years. His retirement from both positions takes effect June 30.

“This is obviously one of those situations where you are happy for the person making the choice to retire, but also feeling a bit saddened by the loss,” said Al Bean, USM’s athletic director.

Fifield faced a tremendous undertaking when he replaced Richard “Doc” Costello for the 1987-88 season, and now “replacing Gary will truly be an ominous task,” Bean said.

The school plans to begin a national search soon for a women’s basketball coach.

WORKAHOLIC OPTS FOR SOME ‘LIFE BALANCE’

Fifield missed the 2008-09 season for health reasons, specifically the stress brought on by heading a traditionally strong program. But on Tuesday his health was no longer an issue. He said he is leaving after receiving “an enhanced retirement incentive package” from the university in December. He discussed the offer with his wife and financial adviser.

“They said, ‘You should take it so that you can do some things in your life that you haven’t been able to do,’ so that maybe I could get some type of life balance that I haven’t had, probably because of my own fault because I’m a workaholic,” Fifield said. “As late as last night I was still recruiting for USM women’s basketball.”

He accepted the offer, but asked the administration to hold off on making it public so he could coach this winter.

“I didn’t want this season to be about me,” he said. “Just like I’ve never wanted any season to be about me. It’s about the players, the team and about the program.”

FROM FORMER PLAYERS, SURPRISE, PRAISE

Fifield told the team about his decision in an emotional meeting a half hour before his news conference Tuesday at the USM Ice Arena.

“I think everyone is just still in shock,” said Stephanie Gallagher, a senior co-captain from York. “I just wish we could have ended the season a little better for him.” She added that “he taught us a lot on and off the court, just his dedication. I know he worked harder for us than he ever has this season.”

USM finished 12-14 this winter – the first losing season of Fifield’s career and the first losing season for USM women’s basketball since 1976-77.

“It’s not the way, obviously, that you want to go out,” Fifield said. “But we just couldn’t catch a break this year. We had more injuries and more sickness than we’ve ever had. “

His decision to leave surprised many of his former players.

“I can’t believe he’s retiring,” said Ashley Marble, a two-time All-American who played for Fifield. “I could never see him not being part of the university and the basketball program. If anyone deserves to go play golf and enjoy the nice weather we get in Maine, it’s him.

“He was fun, he was passionate, he was intense. He was a competitor and he hated to lose. He was relentless.”

Under Fifield, USM qualified for the NCAA Division III tournament in 24 of his 27 seasons. The Huskies won 20 Little East Conference tournament championships and won or shared 21 regular-season titles. Fifield was named the Division III National Coach of the Year in 2005, when USM went 31-3 and finished third in the nation. He was named the Little East Coach of the Year a record 14 times and served as head coach of the conference’s 25th anniversary team in 2011.

He has been inducted into the New England Basketball Hall of Fame, the Maine Sports Hall of Fame and the Little East Conference Hall of Fame.

Five of his former players have gone on to coach at the college level: Angel Elderkin at Appalachian State, Mandy King at Kean College, Julie Plant at Saint Anselm College, Shannon Kynoch at Saint Michael’s College and Angela Santa Fe at Regis College – plus many more at the high school level.

“I was really lucky that I got to learn from him for four years,” said Plant, who grew up in Gorham. “Not only is he a good strategist, but he’s a really good teacher of the game. I benefit every day from the lessons I learned from him and how he taught the game and how he prepared us for every opponent every day.

“He’s a tremendous man, a tremendous coach. It’s a sad day for Southern Maine women’s basketball.”

Meg Cressler was the captain of his 2003-04 team and now coaches girls’ basketball at Camden Hills. She tries to use many of his drills in her practices.

“He’s always been a good mentor,” Cressler said. “I’ve been able to call him and see him at a couple of events throughout the year and you can ask him just about anything and he’s a straight shooter.

“He gives you the pros and cons of it and lays it out for you. I know I enjoyed playing for him. I feel pretty fortunate that I was part of those USM teams.”

RETIREMENT ‘NOT AN EASY DECISION’

Even with the financial incentives to retire, “this was not an easy decision to make,” Fifield said.

But he realized that he was nearing retirement age and that he wanted to spend more time with his family.

“We missed a lot of family gatherings, or they went without me,” he said.

Bean said Fifield’s administrative duties will be picked up by others in the athletic department.

Although Fifield took the retirement package, Bean said the school’s administration supports hiring a new coach.

“There are certain positions you can’t go without,” Bean said. “If you’re going to have a basketball program, you need a basketball coach.”

And in USM’s case, a pretty good one.

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at:

mlowe@pressherald.com

Twitter: MikeLowePPH