November 26, 2013

Steve Solloway: Ray Bicknell, longtime Bowdoin coach, set example

Friends and family remember the man who died Nov. 11 at 93.

WESTBROOK — “Dear Lord, it’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way. I love to look in the mirror ’cause I get better looking each day.

“To know me is to love me. I must be a wonderful man. Dear Lord, it’s hard to be humble, but I’m doing the best that I can.”

Ray Stuart Bicknell, Bowdoin College coach, teacher and favorite uncle, was remembered at Monday’s memorial service with the opening verses to the Mac Davis song. It was virtually impossible to find a somber face in the full sanctuary at Prides Corner Congregational Church as the words were sung.

Which was the point. Bicknell’s 93-year-old life was lived with love and laughter, two qualities not associated enough with competitive coaches today. The Bicker, as he was called by colleagues and former players, most definitely could laugh at himself.

He died Nov. 11, Veterans Day, which was perhaps fitting. Bicknell served his country in the South Pacific with the Army in World War II from the toughest days of 1942 to the first full year of peace in 1946. Whatever memories he brought home to resume his education at Springfield College, he kept mostly to himself.

His 23-year coaching career at Bowdoin began in the 1960s with Dick Whitmore, whose intensity as a player would serve him well as Colby’s longtime basketball coach. The basketball chapter of Bicknell’s coaching book ended with Cheverus star Chris Jerome and Rick Boyages, now the associate basketball commissioner of the Big Ten.

Bicknell-coached basketball teams won 202 games when he stepped down in 1985. With the advent of Title IX and equal opportunities for women in sports, he started the women’s soccer program at Bowdoin. His seven-year record was 67-20-3.

Some 45 candidates tried out for the soccer team, nearly double what was expected. Bicknell believed in Title IX and wasn’t about to cut anyone. He went to the college administration and asked for a junior varsity team. Fine, he was told. But who would coach? Bicknell turned to John Cullen, a faculty member.

“He asked what I knew about soccer,” said Cullen. “ ‘I played in high school,’ I said.”

Cullen was hired on the spot. Bicknell had played football in his youth and at Springfield College. In a way they would complement each other.

Be truthful, be direct, Bicknell told those who played for him. Certainly he knew the fundamentals and basketball was the sport he embraced first. He didn’t try to make it complicated. He sold his strategies and his tactics to his players in both sports because he personified credibility.

Ray Stuart Bicknell was authentic, someone said in church. He could be a handful when he questioned a referee’s call. But as long as he didn’t jeopardize the outcome of a game, he was comfortable with the technical fouls he received.

He had the knack of knowing when it was time to put a smile on someone’s face. Which was often. But he didn’t let his good humor get in the way of his competitive side.

His two-on-two lunchtime basketball games with three other legendary figures of Bowdoin athletics – hockey coach Sid Watson, swimming coach Charlie Butts and athletic trainer Mike Linkovich – were heated. “They’d return to the locker room and not speak to each other for the rest of the afternoon,” said Cullen. “(Bicknell’s doctor) told him no more basketball. He had to lower his blood pressure.”

Bicknell was married for more than 40 years to Jane Bicknell, who died in 1995. They had no children. In his way he expected his players to marry for life. He told them he would go to one of their weddings, no more. His wedding presents were always the same: a plug-in tea kettle. He didn’t want any of his players to think he favored one over another.

Sitting next to me in a pew, Chris Jerome nodded and chuckled. He remembered that gift. The most valuable gift was Bicknell’s honest zest for whatever he did. He gave that gift to Whitmore, of course.

Bob Brown, 20 years younger but a peer, shares that gift. Brown bypassed Bowdoin College for Boston University when he graduated from Cony High of Augusta. He last coached at Cheverus High until his retirement two years ago. Monday, he met after the service with Whitmore and Art Dyer, the very successful high school basketball coach at Medomak Valley and Westbrook, and Fairfield University assistant coach. Each has a different personality but their common ground with Bicknell was their authenticity.

It’s too bad Bicknell left coaching so long ago. This generation didn’t know him and that’s their loss.

Kelli Whitman, pastor of Prides Corner Congregational, saw Bicknell recently and asked how he was. “If I was any better,” he said, “I wouldn’t be any good.”

Dear Lord, it’s hard to be humble, but Ray Stuart Bicknell always did the best he could.

Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:

ssolloway@pressherald.com

Twitter: SteveSolloway

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