May 30, 2020

Hutchinson and Ploszek

A year ago, the University of Maine athletic program was solid. It had a view from the mountaintop, the peak of intercollegiate athletics. Today, it is listing and the perspective is downhill, the result of repeated gaffs and administrative oversights, the most recent episode: the inexcusable overscheduling that disqualified the successful women’s basketball team.

Last week, the alumni mood was turning ugly. Phone callers were demanding the head of Athletic Director Mike Ploszek. UM President Fred Hutchinson responded Friday with a damage-control plan that affirms his confidence in the athletic director but applies pressure on Ploszek to produce both an explanation and a prescription for now chronic compliance problems.

Perhaps most importantly, President Hutchinson bought time for the players on the women’s basketball team, the victims in an absurd scenario in which they were punished with disqualification from the North Atlantic Conference tournament because they were scheduled to play one more game than regulations allowed.

A cooling-off period can’t alter the facts — university officials failed the school and the team by exceeding the game limit — but it offers the people who run the NAC an opportunity to reflect on their responsibility to exercise judgment in the interest of the conference, the sport and the athletes. In its treatment of the UM women, penalizing them for a game they had yet to play, the conference looks bad, too.

Hutchinson had a tough call. In placing his priority on not aggravating a painful situation, his response is not completely satisfying.

In his favor, he did not intercede personally in behalf of the women’s team. This would have increased the visibility of the issue, magnified its importance, depleted the stock of presidential cache and put added pressure on the NAC.

Less convincing was his decision not to allow someone else from within the extended university community, but outside the athletic department, to investigate the compliance problems.

Ploszek has been doing a good job under adverse circumstances, and deserves an opportunity to put the department in order, but a report from someone out of the orbit of UM athletics would have added credibility. A third party might find, as many, including the president, appear to suspect, that UM has cut too deeply into athletic administration. UM probably needs to restructure its compliance component, which operates on two levels, one administrative and political and the other clerical. But these conclusions would carry more clout coming from someone other than the athletic director.

There also is a clear sense that UM underestimated the negative consequences of success. The spotlight that shines on accomplishment also illuminates student files, recruiting done on the ragged edge and administrative oversights. The system — competitive schools and regulatory boards — is less forgiving of winners.

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