When assistant coach Jhasmin Player left the University of Maine women’s basketball program in late August to take a similar position at Loyola Marymount, Black Bears head coach Amy Vachon was left in a bind.
The solution? Bring in one of the winningest head coaches in Maine basketball history.
Former University of Southern Maine women’s coach Gary Fifield, who led the Huskies to a 660-137 record, 23 NCAA Division III tournament appearances and three national championship games in 27 seasons, has played an important role in helping UMaine win another America East regular-season title.
Fifield, who last season coached the girls team at Cheverus High School in Portland after one season as an assistant at Division I Appalachian State, seems to have had a difficult time remaining retired.
“It has been a lot of fun. The players have been a really fun group to be around,” the 66-year-old Fifield said. “They really want to get better. They know why they’re here.”
Fifield said this year’s team has the right approach to handling all of their responsibilities on and off the court.
“They’re strong kids academically, and you don’t have to worry about them socially,” he said.
He also enjoys working with the coaching staff.
“It has been a treat,” he added.
Fifield retired from his position at USM in 2015. He has been inducted into the New England Basketball of Fame, the Maine Sports Hall of Fame, the Maine Basketball Hall of Fame and the Little East Conference Hall of Fame.
“He has been great in all aspects,” Vachon said. “He has added so much experience to our staff. He’s a great person. He’s really funny.”
UMaine, 24-7 and the winner of 13 straight games, hosts No. 2 Hartford (23-9) in Friday’s 5 p.m. America East title game at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor.
Black Bear players, who already had respect for Fifield because of his reputation as a Maine coaching legend, have found him helpful.
“We love him,” said UMaine graduate student Parise Rossignol from Van Buren.
“He’s a basketball genius. He’s a great guy to have in the locker room. He has been extremely helpful,” she added.
UMaine junior Blanca Millan, the America East Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, has been benefited from Fifield’s help.
“He observes every player, and he knows what they’re doing wrong and what they need to do to get better,” she said.
“He really helped me when I was struggling. He gave me one or two keys to focus on,” Millan added.
Fifield has acquired a lot of knowledge over the years, including time coaching in Division I at Dartmouth and Appalachian State, where he worked for one of his former USM players, Angel Elderkin.
Appalachian State also had lost an assistant heading into a season.
“That’s what happens when you’re an old dinosaur like I am. I’ve been around enough times to pick up little things, for sure,” Fifield said.
His approach is to focus on the players and trying to help them improve while allowing Vachon to run her program.
“You make suggestions, and if they go with them, that’s great. If they don’t, that’s great, too,” Fifield said. “Amy has had success, so why try to change.”
Fifield lives in Gorham but has a suite in Orono during the season. He is going to earn $45,000, plus housing costs.
Regardless of how much he has enjoyed coaching at UMaine, he won’t be back next season because of University of Maine System retirement regulations.
“Once you get the retirement package, you can’t take a full-time position [within the system],” Fifield said. “Because Amy lost Jhasmin late and didn’t have time to do a search, they created a temporary fixed-length position for me.”
Sophomore Dor Saar pointed out that Fifield stresses the importances of how important the little things are.
He’s simply happy to have had another opportunity to coach basketball.
“I’ve learned a lot as well. Hopefully, I’ve taught them some things. Overall, it has been a great experience,” Fifield said.