Even with just eight months left on his tenure as the University of Maine’s athletic director, Steve Abbott couldn’t tell you his plans for next year. There’s too much left to do right now. During his tenure, he has overseen renovations — including recent construction projects for several sporting facilities — but the biggest, looming problem still isn’t solved: what to do with the Memorial Gym. With that colossal project still in development, there’s no time to discuss a new contract.
“I haven’t talked to the president about [my future]. We’ve really been focused on this year and things we’re working on,” Abbott said. “I’m enjoying the job.”
Abbott was appointed as the athletic director in August 2010 after former AD, Blake James, took an athletic administration job at the University of Miami. In March 2011, former UMaine president Robert Kennedy gave Abbott a two year position that began on June 1, 2011.
During his time here, the Harvard College and UMaine alumnus has seen through the ongoing renovations to revamp Alfond Arena and the construction of the Mitchell Batting Pavilion, the new batting cage for the baseball team, but one of the projects he is most looking forward to is on the horizon.
“One of the most exciting things about taking this job was the opportunity to work on the Field House,” Abbott said. “I’m determined to see those projects get completed soon. I think we’re on track to do that. It would personally be very difficult to leave this spring if those weren’t in a position to be done.”
Plans for construction on the Field House are up and running, but plans for what to do with the Memorial Gym, which houses most of the athletic administrators and coaches, as well as the home court for men’s and women’s basketball, otherwise known as the Pit are still in the works. Talk of restoring the Pit and the Memorial Gym has hit a snag due to the difficulties in the architecture of the building.
“The biggest thing we have to do, and we need to get started immediately, is the Memorial Gym project,” Abbott said. “That’s going to dominate our attention. It’s the home for all our teams. It’s the practice and administrative center for all our teams except baseball and hockey.”
In addition, Abbott helped stabilize the Colonial Athletic Association, which provided football with a conference home for the coming years. Abbott stressed the amount of work done by himself, football head coach Jack Cosgrove and UMaine president Paul Ferguson.
It’s with that approach that Abbott hopes to see more problems resolved. Both he and Ferguson have made a conscientious effort to incorporate the athletic department with the rest on the campus. Abbott said the president is hoping to obtain more engagement across the campus.
“There’s a theme that the president has pushed us on and that’s engagement,” Abbott said. “It’s developing because of the emphasis, and that emphasis starts with the president and his vision for what his quality of life for students should be here on campus. He believes all our students need a diverse, rich experience and athletics is one of those rare opportunities to bring the whole campus together.”
Abbott stressed this commitment to work with the rest of the university. A number of national examples this past year have shown what happens to an athletic department when it starts integration.
“It’s very important with athletics that we’re not isolated. We need to be a part of the whole experience here and we need to work with everybody and they work with us,” Abbott said. “The upside of this type of engagement is its involvement with the whole campus. It gives us the opportunity to publicize the school. The downside of not doing it is those extreme cases of isolation where your athletics department doesn’t reflect the values of the institution.”
Filling the roles
To help stabilize the progression of the athletic department, Abbott has hired Seth Woodcock as an associate athletic director for development, who helps with the fundraising and to bridge the gap with other administrators.
“I’m what you’d call the senior fundraiser. I’m the major gift guy for athletics,” Woodcock said. “I build relationships, execute the fundraising plans of the athletic department. It’s like wearing every hat in development.”
Woodcock is pleased with the few larger benefactors the athletics program has, but his belief is that a large gift here or there isn’t going to sustain an athletic department on a day-to-day basis.
“From a fundraising standpoint we have to get ourselves in a more stable position with operating dollars,” Woodcock said. “That’s not going to happen with one donor here or there, it’s going to have to be a change of structure.”
Woodcock said he would like to see a more philanthropic approach to college athletes leaving the school.
“We need to build a solid annual fund for athletics and get people in the pipeline,” Woodcock said. “We need a culture of philanthropy to the athletes. People give to people. It starts with the coaches. You have to have that culture that it doesn’t end when you step off campus.”
In addition to hiring Woodcock to fill the vacancy, Abbott and the athletic department are currently searching for a senior associate athletic director — a position that has gone unfilled due to budget constraints since 2006 when James left the perch to become athletic director. The search started in July, and they have yet to find a suitable candidate.
“We continue to put more emphasis on running the business aspects of the department, and this individual will help work with us in our efforts to look for different sources of revenue and help with marketing,” Abbott said.
The responsibilities for the No. 2 person in charge is to focus on operational and financial details.
“I hope the person will be available to help with nuts and bolts of operations of the department,” Abbott said.
Regardless of what his future holds, Abbott said he would love to come back as the athletic director, but he admitted that nothing is ever permanent — especially in athletics
“The one thing about working in athletics is we’re all interim. We need to constantly assess and prove ourselves,” Abbott said. “Regardless of the length of the contract, we always have to perform.”