New University of Maine athletic director Ken Ralph addresses a news conference after he was introduced at the Alfond Lounge in Orono on Thursday. Credit: Ronald Gillis | UMaine

ORONO — Building relationships is the top priority for new University of Maine athletic director Ken Ralph, who was introduced at a news conference in the Alfond Lounge on campus Thursday.

The number one priority for me is getting to know the people,” said the 49-year-old Ralph, who spent the past 11 years as the athletic director at Colorado College after a five-year stint as the AD at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York. “One thing that is very clear about Maine is that people matter. People want that individual relationship, they want to feel that you’re approachable. They want to feel that you’re going to be able to listen to and understand their concerns and be able to celebrate their ideas.

“So the big thing for me is to build on the personal side of things. Get to know President (Dr. Joan Ferrini-Mundy’s) cabinet, get to know other colleagues around campus, get to know our students. We have 92 staff members in the athletic program, and I’d like to get to know every single one of them.”

Ferrini-Mundy said hiring Ralph was a “terrific step for us at the university” and that Ralph is committed to “excellence and integrity.”

Ralph said interacting with the student-athletes has considerable value because they have been through the recruitment process.

“I want to get their impressions of what they think about Maine. What do they enjoy about being here? Why did they choose to come?,” Ralph said. “Was it an academic program? Was it a coach? Was it the location? Let’s find out because that helps us identify strengths. If our students are saying this, then it is clearly having an impact on them. How do we enhance that? And a lot of that is very low cost-high impact. A lot of the best ideas we’ll have will come directly from our students.”

One issue facing UMaine’s coaches in the recruiting battles is the school’s location. UMaine’s closest rival in America East, Hockey East and the Colonial Athletic Association is New Hampshire, and Orono is 199 miles from Durham, New Hampshire.

“Our coaches are going to have to outwork people in recruiting. They don’t really have a choice,” Ralph said.

“We have to sell Maine as a destination. We want to make them want to be here. We want them to look at what we have in order to provide options for their parents like the coast, Bar Harbor, Acadia National Park. We want them to enjoy the region, so everyone gets invested in wanting to be here.”

Ralph said it would be ideal to have all the athletic facilities on campus, but he also pointed out that the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor — 14 miles away — may be the best basketball facility in America East, and that has significant recruiting value.

“It is hard because you’re asking students to take a 20-minute bus ride and the athletic program is really for the students. But here at Maine, the teams are a little bit more for the region than it is at a lot of other places. I met with some people at the Cross Center and they were wonderful. They care deeply about doing a good job for the students and the people who care about Maine basketball,” Ralph said.

Building a new facility on campus isn’t an option at this stage, and he is in favor of coming up with a comprehensive long-term plan to improve the existing facilities “rather than trying to piecemeal things.”

“A lot would have to be done through private philanthropy, and when people make an investment, they want to have a payoff. We aren’t going to just slap signs up and improve an entrance. I want to make sure any facilities work we do has a direct benefit to our students and their health, wellness and safety, and that it impacts recruiting,” he said.

He has no intention of making whole-scale changes.

“For me to come in and swing a big sword and start hacking things off for the sake of making changes isn’t productive. It’s a disruptive force. Excellence doesn’t happen through spontaneous combustion. It is a process. It is about constant progress. We have to have a strategic direction, implement a plan and go after it with dogged determination. And we have to do it as a community. We can’t stand alone,” he said.

He said he wants all of the teams to be able compete for conference championships and will do everything he can to help them do so.

He called himself a “dreamer” but said he was able to accomplish things at Colorado College and RPI after being told those goals couldn’t be achieved.

Among his achievements were the newly announced $39 million Robson Arena project, an on-campus hockey arena in Colorado Springs, the $27 million expansion and improvement at the El Pomar Sports Center at CC, and the initial design, planning and fundraising for the $92 million East Campus Athletic Village at RPI.

“When you take a dream and make it a reality, that’s when extraordinary things happen and when true excellence is will be found. I will continue to be a dreamer, and if you decide to do that with me, dream big,” he said.

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