Maine assistant coach Jai Steadman gives instructions from the bench during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. Tuesday, Nov. 9 2021. Credit: Matt Gentry / The Roanoke Times via AP

Ken Ralph’s search for the next men’s basketball coach at the University of Maine will include a thorough review of the program to determine the best route toward respectability and then championship contention.

That’s no small task for the athletic director, given that UMaine has never qualified for the NCAA Division I tournament, its last two coaches have gone a combined 45-175, and the Black Bears have not won an America East postseason game since 2005.

Jai Steadman has been an assistant coach at UMaine only since last August, and as he steps in as interim head coach after the university and former head coach Richard Barron agreed to part ways Thursday, he does so with mixed feelings.

“We didn’t win enough games and needed a change,” Steadman said. “I get it, but I’m not happy for my friend Richard.”

While Steadman’s immediate focus is on Sunday’s game against the New Jersey Institute of Technology at The Pit on the Orono campus, he also wants to be the one to reverse the program’s fortunes on a permanent basis.

“The people here are wonderful and I know just like in women’s basketball, football and field hockey, our teams are winning here at the university,” he said. “If we can get men’s basketball going, this place will be rocking and I want to be part of that.”

The Lincoln, Nebraska, native and University of Nebraska graduate has coached prep basketball in Arizona and professionally in Denmark and the NBA G-League. His collegiate coaching stops include Texas Christian, McNeese State, North Texas,  Bellevue University and Louisiana-Lafayette, and more recently the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley, formerly Texas-Pan American.

He spent more than six years as a UTRGV assistant before becoming an interim head coach for the first time in February 2021 after the death of head coach Lew Hill.

“I didn’t lose my boss last year, I lost my friend of 20 years. His family and I are really close,” he said. “Lew and I were together for 20 years and it was hard to coach after he passed.”

UTRGV was 8-4 and ranked first in the Western Athletic Conference when Hill died, but then lost six of its last seven games.

Instead Steadman moved from the southern border to the northern one as Barron hired an entirely new coaching staff for his fourth season with the UMaine men’s team.

“Jai, I thought, was a heck of a get as an assistant coach this year,” Ralph said. “He is extraordinarily experienced. He has a reputation as an incredible recruiter and it’s been borne out in multiple places he’s been.”

Steadman’s coaching focus at UMaine (5-20 overall and 2-12 in America East this season) has been on defense. He’s also been an active recruiter, using his Texas connections to attract 6-foot-10-inch center Ange Dibwa from Tyler Junior College to Orono next summer.

If he becomes UMaine’s permanent head coach, Steadman said he would work to include Maine’s top high school players — the current 15-player roster has no Pine Tree State natives — among recruiting priorities to join what he describes as a promising freshman class this season.

“We need to continue to wrap our arms around the state and keep our best kids here, too, and I know we can win here,” he said.

Steadman sees the planned construction of a new 3,000-seat, on-campus arena as a key step in the program’s long-term growth.

“When we get the new arena it’s going to be a great situation,” he said. “You might lose a few kids to the transfer portal, but on the other hand, there are guys at those bigger schools, the Power Fives, that aren’t playing and you can say, ‘Hey, we’ve got a special place over here, why don’t you come check us out and get some minutes right away.’”

Steadman debuted as UMaine’s interim head coach in Wednesday’s 75-65 loss at Hartford, as Barron was unable to make the trip due to what Ralph described as a minor medical issue.

“Jai Steadman is extraordinarily qualified. I feel very, very fortunate to have someone with his experience in-house who can guide us here over the last couple of weeks of the season,” Ralph said. “I fully expect him to want to compete for the job and we’re going to give him every opportunity to do so.”

Steadman doesn’t necessarily see the next four games as an audition, though people influential in hiring the Black Bears’ next head coach will be watching.

“We have to worry about us, we have to worry about Maine basketball and that’s trying to find a way to win against a very good New Jersey Institute of Technology on Sunday,” he said. “All the priorities will be for our game Sunday, then we’ll figure out life on Monday.”

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...