March 16, 2011

STEVE SOLLOWAY: Emotion tug on Whitmore

WATERVILLE -- Outside, on the Colby College campus, there were blue skies and the hint of an early spring. Inside the Harold Alfond Athletic Center there were sad smiles. Dick Whitmore has ended a 40-year career as the men's basketball coach at age 68.

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Colby College men's basketball coach Dick Whitmore announced his retirement after 40 years as the men's basketball coach at the school.

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"I'm doing fine," said Whitmore. "When I stop blubbering." A wry grin was at odds with eyes that were slightly puffy and reddened.

Early Tuesday morning he called his players together to tell them his decision to step down. He reassured them that Colby would take great care in finding his successor. He said a few more things and left quickly while he was still in control of his emotions.

"Drive and passion have always been important to me," said Whitmore hours later in his office. "It lessened a little this year. When I saw that, I said to myself, I think it's time.

"I coached hard. I wasn't the soft coach."

His teams won 637 games and lost 341. That's a ratio of almost two victories for every loss stretched out over five decades. He started at Colby in 1970 when players wore short basketball shorts at mid-thigh and their hair long. He ends with players in basketball pants at their knees and their hair cut short.

"Those are the small things," said Whitmore. "I've been blessed with players who have the same character." The same willingness to listen, to be taught and to be coached. That's a major reason why Whitmore stayed at Colby even as others pitched his name for Division I coaching jobs.

That's why, with all due respect to Colby's administrators and faculty, Dick Whitmore is the face and soul of this progressive school. The basketball court was his classroom and the lessons learned on it went hand-in-hand with academia.

In the 40 years Whitmore has coached at Colby, the University of Maine has had four different men's basketball coaches, Bates College has had eight and Bowdoin College two. John Winkin, then the Colby athletic director and baseball coach, hired Whitmore. Later, Tuesday morning, Whitmore visited Winkin to tell him. Actually, the two coaching legends see each other regularly.

"John gave me some of his sage advice," said Whitmore. "He's the one who gave me my chance."

Sitting at the desk, his left hand sometimes absent-mindedly covered the right with its large championship ring. "It's for the three ECAC championship titles."

His teams had 31 winning seasons and 27 postseason appearances. He was named college Coach of the Year six times in four decades. His 637 wins rank him among the elite in NCAA record books.

He can walk away from the numbers. He'll never be able to walk away from his legion of players. That's what made Tuesday so challenging and comforting. Either his cell phone or his desk phone buzzed or rang constantly during a 25-minute conversation. If Whitmore had a former player's e-mail address, they got the early-morning message as well.

"I was taking my dog to doggie day care when Matt Hancock called me." One of Whitmore's All-Americans told his coach he'd be on campus by 9 a.m. "That blew me away," said Whitmore.

Make no mistake, he was always the coach, But in age, he could have been the big brother to his first players. Now he could be the grandfather. He never lowered his expectations or the heat of his intensity but forged life-long relationships.

"That's why the Colby (basketball) family is huge," said Richard Whitmore, the eldest of two sons. "To my father, the greatest part was to impact the people who played for him and to feel the impact they had on him. To him, the winning was sort of a by-product."

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