When Mike McGee received an e-mail Tuesday morning from Dick Whitmore announcing his former coach’s retirement, his response was simple and heart-felt:

“I love you coach.”

Whitmore, who has been a fixture in Maine college basketball for 50 years as a player and coach,  is stepping down as the men’s coach at Colby College in Waterville after 40 seasons.

“It’s obviously very emotional, but I think it’s time,” the 68-year-old Whitmore said. “If you live and coach as passionately as I did, there’s just so much involved that, at the end, it becomes difficult.”

It has been a successful run for Whitmore at Colby, where he was hired for the position in 1970 by then-athletic director John Winkin, who has been at a Waterville rehabilitation center since suffering a stroke in December of 2007.

“I broke the news to him (Tuesday) morning and it was a very emotional time for both of us,” Whitmore said.

Emotion is exactly what Whitmore elicits when his former players are asked about their experience at Colby.

“There is no man that’s been more influential in my life, outside my father (Dick McGee), from a personal standpoint and a professional standpoint,” said McGee, the boys coach at Lawrence High in Fairfield since 1986. “The impact he’s had on people’s lives outside of basketball is amazing, probably unparalleled.”

Paul Butler of Bangor was a mainstay on Whitmore’s Colby teams from 1989-93. He marveled at his coach’s ability to foster an atmosphere of teamwork and friendship.

“One of the great joys of my life was to be able to get to know Whit,” Butler said.

“Beyond basketball, at every point in my life — tough points, points of celebration — he’s been there in person, on the phone, with an e-mail, through a card, a letter. He made it about more than basketball.”

Whitmore ranks among the top 50 winningest basketball coaches in Division III history. His Colby teams compiled a combined record of 637-341 (.651).

Whitmore’s 637 victories rank seventh all-time in NCAA Division III men’s basketball and placed him 46th in all divisions going into the 2010-11 season.

“Dick Whitmore is Colby men’s basketball and he is Colby athletics,” athletic director Marcella Zalot said in a press release. “There is no way to quantify the impact that Whit has had on so many students over his 40 years, or the impact he has had on the members of our coaching staff at Colby, the local community and basketball in the state of Maine.”

From 1988-95, Whitmore’s teams went 154-26 with a run of seven straight 20-win seasons. Colby won three ECAC titles under his guidance and earned two NCAA tournament berths.

Whitmore coached 14 All-Americans and was named the Maine coach of the year six times. He was inducted into the Maine Sports Hall of Fame in 1998 and was a member of the inaugural class of the New England Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002.

Warren Caruso, the men’s basketball coach at Husson University in Bangor, played and coached against Whitmore.

“He’s a coaching giant. That’s a big loss for the state of Maine,” Caruso said.

“You’re talking about someone with a reputation not only on a state level but on a regional and national level,” Caruso said. “He has run an outstanding program and has had a great deal of success over the years.”

It is the relationships with Colby’s players that Whitmore will cherish most.

“From the first day I came to Colby until (Tuesday) morning when I told this year’s team, the amazing student-athletes that we have here at Colby continue to teach me, to broaden my existence every day,” Whitmore said.

On the sidelines, the animated Whitmore had a reputation as a fiery taskmaster.

“I think, No. 1, all of our teams played with a high level of intensity,” he said.

Butler said there was another side of Whitmore many people never got a chance to see and appreciate.

“You see the passion, the fire and it might get interpreted as anger or frustration,” Butler said. “In my four years I never saw him single out a player at any time during a practice.”

There were plenty of changes in the game during Whitmore’s career, most notably the 3-point line and the shot clock. He prides himself on having tried to coach to his players’ strengths.

“I think we were very fortunate in being able to adapt to the abilities of our players,” he said. “We tried to maximize their ability.”

Whitmore came to Maine when he enrolled at Bowdoin College in Brunswick in 1961 after a stellar career at Archbishop Williams High School in Braintree, Mass. At Bowdoin, he was a two-time, all-state pick under coach Ray Bicknell.

Whitmore began his coaching career with three seasons at Hall-Dale High in Farmingdale, then did a two-year stint at Morse High in Bath, leading the Shipbuilders to a berth in the 1969 Western Maine title game.

In 1970, at age 27, Whitmore joined the Colby coaching staff. Ever since, he worked alongside former Waterville High star John “Swisher” Mitchell.

“I was blessed that John Winkin hired me here,” Whitmore said. “He told me, ‘John Mitchell is here and he’s going to be your assistant coach.’ He’s (MItchell) been the light of my life for 40 years. We’re going out (of coaching) together.”

Whitmore said his greatest influence in athletics was his father, Dick Sr., himself a longtime basketball coach.

“I was blessed my father was a coach,” he said. “He won a state championship at Cheverus (in Portland) and then was a state championship down in Massachusetts. He was the guiding light of my life.”

Whitmore also listed Bicknell and Winkin as mentors who fostered his development.

When asked how he would like to be remembered, Whitmore said simply, “That I made a difference somehow.”

Pete graduated from Bangor High School in 1980 and earned a B.S. in Journalism (Advertising) from the University of Maine in 1986. He grew up fishing at his family's camp on Sebago Lake but didn't take...