Chris Markwood, recently named the new head coach of the University of Maine men's basketball team, is seen in this undated photo during his tenure as an assistant coach at Northeastern. Credit: Courtesy of Northeastern Athletics

Ken Ralph began his search for the 23rd men’s basketball coach at the University of Maine last month longing for a candidate with a special sense of pride for the program, even though the team has been largely out of the competitive mainstream for the last decade.

That search led to what Ralph described as a clear choice in Chris Markwood, who was introduced Monday as the team’s next head coach.

Markwood’s resume reeks of Pine Tree State persona, beginning with his high school playing career that culminated in his selection as both the state’s 2000 Mr. Basketball and Gatorade Player of the Year as a senior at South Portland High School.

From there he played collegiately, first at Notre Dame and then for his final two years at the University of Maine.

That led to a 16-year run as a New England Division I assistant coach, first for five years at UMaine, then three years at Vermont, seven years at Northeastern and the most recent campaign at Boston College before being called back home to Orono after the university and former head coach Richard Barron parted ways on Feb. 17 amid the Black Bears’ 11th consecutive losing season.

Through those myriad stops Markwood’s love for the Pine Tree State never waned, something that became clear to Ralph when he and Markwood spent time together as UMaine battled Boston College during a recent women’s Hockey East playoff game.

“Not only was he fully prepared, not only did he have the intelligence and the aptitude and the drive, but he just had a different passion for Maine than anyone else. He knows the place better. It’s going to matter to him more,” Ralph said.

“One of the things we said as a search committee was when we get Maine into that bracket — that first time that Maine qualifies for the NCAA Tournament — it’s going to mean something different to Chris Markwood than it will to any other candidate, and that matters. It really matters.”

Final contract details are expected to be completed later this week, but for the 40-year-old Markwood, his wife and former Black Bears’ women’s basketball standout Ashley (Underwood) Markwood and daughters London and Malia, the time was right for a homecoming.

“This is a full-circle moment for me coming back and it’s surreal, to be honest,” Markwood said.

Markwood understands that his alma mater’s basketball program has struggled during the 11 years since he last coached in the Pine Tree State, with 11 consecutive losing seasons and fewer than 10 wins in each of the last nine years.

The Black Bears’ 6-23 record this winter included just three victories over Division I opponents, and not only did they extend their streak of never having qualified for the NCAA Tournament, they also were denied a spot in the America East playoff bracket.

Markwood didn’t lament those sobering times as he was queried about keys to restoring UMaine as a competitive men’s basketball destination. He’s one of the relatively few alumni from the program since the turn of the century who has flirted with March Madness, particularly during his junior season in 2004 when the team finished 20-10 and lost to Vermont in the America East championship game.

“All those goals that guys have, I know they’re very attainable [at UMaine],” he said. “You’ve just got to hit it right, you’ve got to have a little luck and you’ve got to get the right guys in there, but that stuff is attainable and it gives me a ton of hope.”

Markwood’s hope is based in part on his success as a recruiter throughout a coaching career that to date has included six 21-plus win seasons, four conference regular-season championships, three conference tournament titles and five postseason berths — including three NCAA tourney appearances.

Markwood’s tenure as an assistant at UMaine also included some solid seasons. The Black Bears won 19 games during the 2009-10 campaign, the third-highest single-year victory total in team history.

“What really helps me in terms of recruiting at Maine and the comfort I have with that is that I’ve done it before,” he said. “I did it as an assistant for five years under Ted Woodward and I think toward the end of my time there we had a really talented roster, as talented as anybody in the league.”

Markwood’s recruiting philosophy begins with focusing on where he’s most familiar, in New England. That includes Maine.

“I always tell people that this is a basketball state,” he said. “There’s great talent coming up in the state right now and I think the state wants to get behind local guys, obviously. Being selective and finding the right players within the state that we feel we can develop and can really help us grow [is important].”

Markwood also sees recruiting opportunities in Canada and other under-recruited areas internationally.

“People don’t understand just how many good basketball players there are out there,” he said. “It just comes down to combing through them all and figuring out what guys fit both the university and the style of play we want to have, with the overarching thing being great people who are going to embrace the community in Orono and really want to be part of what we want to build there.”

Markwood’s immediate priorities are to meet with members of the current Black Bears’ roster and assemble a coaching staff.

Markwood said he understands the angst current players on the team may be feeling — during his five years as a player between Notre Dame and UMaine he was either recruited or coached by four different head coaches.

“It all starts with having high-character people, people whose work ethic is through the roof and who share the connectivity, the pride in the program,” he said. “You have to build it and it takes time, but they’re all things we’re going to instill at the University of Maine.”

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Ernie Clark

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...