In this August 2018 file photo, University of Maine athletics director Ken Ralph addresses a news conference after he was introduced at the Alfond Family Lounge in Orono. He is chairing a six-person committee that will select the Black Bears' next men's ice hockey head coach.  Credit: Ronald Gillis / UMaine athletics

University of Maine director of athletics Ken Ralph’s reason for leaving the NCAA Division I institution to take a similar position at Division III Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, is a simple one. 

“I needed to get back to an environment in which the student experience is the number one concern. This gives me a chance to do that,” said the 53-year-old Ralph. 

“The real joy in a college environment is watching students grow and figure things out. In Division I, the primary focus is on external things like generating revenue, fund-raising, ticket sales and media relations.”

Ralph took over as the athletic director at the University of Maine in 2018, and his four-year contract expires on Sept. 1. An interim athletic director will be appointed and a national search will be launched to name his successor.

It will be a three-year appointment at Southwestern University, he said.

Ralph, who earned $214,000 a year at UMaine, will be taking a pay cut at Southwestern. He said that UMaine President Joan Ferrini-Mundy presented him with “very, very generous” long-term contract extensions.

“But I couldn’t sign a contract if I didn’t know I was going to stay. That’s not ethical.”

He had reportedly explored other athletic director jobs before landing at Southwestern, including Division I school Northern Kentucky. 

“Northern Kentucky asked me to be part of their process. It was good to be a part of it but I told them I wanted to stay at Maine,” he said.

Christina Roybal got the job.

Ralph had served as the athletic director at Colorado College for 11 years prior to taking the job at UMaine and CC is in the same conference as Southwestern in many sports, the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference.

“So I know Southwestern really well,” he said.

Southwestern University is just 30 miles north of Austin and he said the rapid growth of Austin and towns around it will “afford us a chance to do things” for the athletic program.

Ralph, a Salem, New Hampshire, native who had been the athletic director at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York from 2002-07, has had a busy tenure at UMaine.

He played a significant role in the landing of the $90 million gift from the Harold Alfond Foundation for an upgrade of the school’s athletic facilities.

He has also hired several new head coaches including Ben Barr, who is beginning his second season behind the men’s hockey bench; football coach Jordan Stevens; and men’s basketball coach Chris Markwood.

Stevens and Markwood are in their first seasons.

“I have been treated so well by everybody here,” Ralph said. 

“I hope everybody feels I gave a great effort the last four years and moved the needle in the right direction,” he said. “I will always be a Black Bear.”

He admitted that being the athletic director at UMaine has its challenges.

“We operate in an environment where decisions can take a long time and where expectations don’t meet the resources,” he said.

What advice would he give to the new athletic director?

“First, we have a fantastic coaching staff. Let them do their jobs,” he said. “The next thing is don’t lose momentum on the facilities front. It’s too important for the future of the department and the university. And the final thing is they have to have a great business acumen. They will have to figure out how to milk the most out of the budget.”

Ralph, who will continue to be involved in the search for a new women’s ice hockey coach until his contract expires and he and wife Mary move to Texas, said there were plenty of highlights during his four years.

He listed the 2018 UMaine football team reaching the Football Championship Subdivision semifinals for the first time in school history, the women’s basketball team’s three regular season America East championships in his four years and one tournament title and NCAA Tournament berth, and the field hockey team’s first-ever AE title and NCAA Tournament berth last fall.

“Another big thing was seeing how well our student-athletes handled the difficult year when COVID-19 was here. They were phenomenal,” he said.