BANGOR, Maine — When Ed Kohtala called a meeting of his Bangor High School boys basketball team after school Thursday, the rumored reason was that the Rams head coach was going to announce his intention to join Rick Barnes on the coaching staff at the University of Tennessee.
The two had a history together, after all, with Kohtala serving on Barnes’ staff at Clemson and the University of Texas during the late 1990s and early 2000s.
But the announcement turned out to be quite different, as Kohtala announced his resignation from the Bangor coaching post after three seasons.
As the reason for his decision, the 57-year-old Kohtala cited a postseason analysis of the program he undertook after the Rams failed to qualify for postseason play last winter for the first time since 1986.
Bangor ranked 10th among Eastern Maine Class A teams with a 6-12 record, also the program’s first sub.-500 finish since 1986.
“It was a very difficult season with a lot of close losses, so I wanted to take some time to evaluate where we were as a program,” said Kohtala.
With the team not bound for tournament play, he conducted exit interviews, set up open-gym sessions for his high school players and held a clinic for the city’s middle-school-age players in the immediate aftermath of the season.
“Once I evaluated where we were, I thought, ‘What were the things I would need to do?’” he said. “I felt like despite the amount of time we spent here in the summer we’d probably need to up our skill work and expand what we were doing strength and conditioning-wise. We probably needed to try to get enough kids playing in the summer so we’d have two teams, one to play in the Hermon JV league in addition to the summer league we have here.
“These were the things I believed needed to be done in going to a more competitive setting. At that point I decided I’m not the one to do it.”
Kohtala said he reached that decision while traveling home from Mount Desert Island last month after watching a Bangor team compete in the Great Harbor House Shoot Out undergraduate tournament.
The next day, Kohtala’s younger brother, John, died suddenly, adding a more personal element to the chain of events.
“I did share with the players that when I was initially contemplating this I thought about what would I do afterward,” said Kohtala, “and that’s where now some of the heightened family responsibilities come in. I can’t replace my brother, but I hope I can step in as an uncle and as a dad for my grieving daughters and help in some ways.
“I didn’t want the players to think it was a snap decision where my brother passed away and I decided to step down. It was actually the other way around.”
Kohtala inherited a daunting challenge when he was hired to the Bangor post in the summer of 2012 after three years as an assistant at the University of Maine. He replaced legendary Rams coach Roger Reed, who had compiled a 457-103 record with eight Class A state championships during his 27-year tenure.
“I’ve coached in a lot of situations, and you want to coach where the sport you’re involved with is important because I’ve coached where it’s not,” said Kohtala. “You want to be where people expect you to win.”
Kohtala plans to remain as a math teacher at Bangor High School.
He guided the Rams to a 32-24 record over three years on the Rams’ bench. Bangor finished 13-6 with appearances in the Eastern A quarterfinals in 2013 and 2014 before slipping out of the postseason picture this winter.
“We respect everything about coach Kohtala as a teacher and coach,” said Bangor athletic administrator Steve Vanidestine. “He’s a great role model, has great ethics, and the best thing he did was he treated the players great.
“I was over there, I saw and listened through difficult times and he treated and coached the kids great and always gave us a chance to win. Not one time did I come away thinking he ever did anything but what he should have done for the kids, so as an athletic director it was easy for me to support what was going on because I was listening and hearing the positive feedback the kids got during games at times when honestly as a coach I don’t know if I could have done that.”
A native of Vienna and graduate of Mt. Blue High School in Farmington, Kohtala began his coaching career at Mt. Blue shortly after graduating from the University of Maine in 1981 with a degree in education. He spent 15 years as a high school teacher and coach in Maine, Florida and Georgia before turning to the collegiate ranks in 1996 as a graduate assistant at Florida.
After his stints with Barnes at Clemson and Texas, Kohtala became head coach at Division III Alma (Mich.) College in 2001 and stayed for six years before returning to the Division I ranks, first at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and then at UMaine.
“It really has been a long and arduous process,” he said. “I’m a basketball coach, but after this analysis at least for me right now given what I saw ahead it wasn’t the job for me.”