Tim Whitehead, head coach at UMass-Lowell for the past five years, has resigned his position effective April 30, 2001. Whitehead was the runner-up for Hockey East Coach of the Year and is a finalist for the Spencer T. Penrose Award as National Coach of the Year.
Lowell athletic director Dana Skinner said he offered Whitehead a two-year deal, but Whitehead turned it down, wanting a three-year offer.
“Tim and I agreed on some specific goals for the program five years ago, and while we haven’t yet achieved those goals, I felt that this year’s strong finish warranted a contract extension of two years,” said Skinner. “Tim indicated he would not return for less than a three-year contract. Given the challenges of this particular job at this particular time, I felt I had to set the bar at two years.
Whitehead said things were more complicated than that.
“I gave Dana two scenarios under which I’d return given the current level of support,” Whitehead said.
“One was a three-year contract. The other option was that I was fine with a two-year contract [if] there was a clause [stating] that as long as we finished in the top four in Hockey East or we make the NCAA Tournament next year, that my staff and I would get a three-year contract extension [instead of the two].
“Two years was fine, but I just felt that it was important to have something in there for security reasons for my staff and I that said that, if we accomplished what we thought as coaches we could accomplish and what was expected of us, then we’d know the following year that if we had 11 freshmen on the ice and we didn’t have a strong year that we were going to be around. I thought that was important.
“But Dana didn’t want to do that. He met with the school president and they decided not to put that clause in there.
“Was I surprised? No. Was I disappointed? Yes. But you have to draw the line somewhere and I had to take a stand and do what I thought was right. So now it’s time to move on.”
Some observers believed that leaving Whitehead without a contract extension all season, indicated that Skinner was intending all along to force Whitehead out once the season was over. But Skinner denied that claim, saying his tough contract renegotiations with Bruce Crowder five years ago — which led to Crowder’s mid-contract departure to Northeastern — changed his philosophy.
“I said at the time that I would never let a coach go out of a contract again, but I’d never fire one either, and, on other hand, I wouldn’t renegotiate the contract until the term was up,” Skinner said.
“I had people running up to me after games asking, ‘Is Tim gonna get a new contract?’ If I operated that way, I’d be hiring and firing coaches a hundred times year. I don’t operate that way. I lost a coach in the middle of a contract and decided at that point, I would never fire someone, but wait until a term is completed and evaluate all aspects.
“Tim and I knew right along that when the season was over, we’d discuss it.”
This year, the River Hawks finished fifth in Hockey East after the coaches’ preseason poll projected them for eighth place. They defeated New Hampshire in the playoff quarterfinals to advance to the FleetCenter for the third time in Whitehead’s five years. He posted an overall record of 76-95-13. He had served as an assistant under Bruce Crowder at Lowell for the previous five years.
“I love Lowell,” said Whitehead. “Part of me will always be Lowell hockey. I’ve been at Lowell for a long time and I’ve been through a lot of ups and downs as an assistant and a head coach. I’m proud to have been associated with the university and proud of what we’ve done over the past 10 years.”
Whitehead has no definite plans for his next coaching position.
“I’m going to be as patient as I can be and see what options develop and then make a move,” he said.
Skinner said a national search for a head coach will begin immediately. The job opening, by state law, must be publicly posted for 10 days.
“I’m grateful to Tim for all that he did to advance UMass-Lowell and the hockey program,” Skinner said. “He came to the university under some challenging circumstances following the most successful five-year period in the hockey program’s Division I history. With the construction of the Tsongas Arena, everyone’s expectations increased significantly.
“Our objective continues to be to compete successfully with quality student-athletes in Hockey East on a consistent basis and to increase the visibility of the program.”
Strong candidates to replace Whitehead include current Niagara coach Blaise MacDonald, and former Michigan Tech coach Bob Mancini. According to the Lowell Sun, Mancini, currently a scout with the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers after four years coaching in the USA Hockey program, has expressed interest in the job.
MacDonald has been an assistant at Lowell, Princeton, Dartmouth and Boston University. He helped start Niagara’s program from scratch, and took it to the NCAA tournament last season, where the Purple Eagles upset New Hampshire.
The native of nearby Billerica, Mass., having just completed his first season at Niagara, put his name in the running in 1996 after Bruce Crowder left for Northeastern. He was a finalist for the position, but had to pull himself out of the running when Niagara would not allow him out of his contract.
Dave Hendrickson contributed to this report.