University of Maine Athletic Director Ken Ralph will be leaving to take a similar job at Southwestern University in Texas. Credit: Ronnie Gillis / UMaine Athletics

It is crucial that the University of Maine hire the right director of athletics to replace outgoing Athletic Director Ken Ralph.

Whoever is hired will be the fourth full-time athletic director since 2011.

First of all, if you are wondering why Ken Ralph would leave a Division I program to take a similar position for less money at a Division III program at Southwestern University in Texas, the answer can be summed up in two words made famous by “Seinfeld”: serenity now.

Being an athletic director at a Division I institution is a 24-7 job, and you are under a lot of pressure. Your programs need to be successful. Or, at least most of them.

Add to the equation that you are at a school which has one of, if not the most, underfunded athletic program in its conferences — America East, Hockey East and the Colonial Athletic Association — and you get the picture.

Four years was enough for Ken Ralph. His number of sleepless nights should be significantly reduced at Southwestern University.

Ralph said he wanted to get back to a situation where the student-athlete experience was his top priority: not fundraising, selling tickets, media relations and other external tasks.

He made a positive difference in his four years and left the department in a better place than it was when he took the job.

Ralph helped secure the game-changing $90 million gift from the Harold Alfond Foundation for the upgrade of the athletic facilities at UMaine and hired three young coaches who have a ton of potential to be real difference-makers: men’s hockey coach Ben Barr, football coach Jordan Stevens and men’s basketball coach Chris Markwood.

And all three are either the lowest paid coaches in their conferences or in the bottom two or three.

Here is a prime example of UMaine’s financial plight: Outgoing UMaine women’s head ice hockey head coach Richard Reichenbach was making $69,999.96 per year.

Stephanie Jones, the assistant women’s hockey coach at UNH, is making $73,130.75. University of New Hampshire head coach Hilary Witt is making $133,650.  

The school’s chronic financial woes won’t be improving any time soon, especially with enrollment continuing to decline.

So the new athletic director will have their hands full.

However, there should be an impressive list of candidates even with the daunting challenges they will have to face. UMaine’s athletic program has a lot of positives including the Alfond Foundation gift and the three young coaches who should move their teams up the standings.

It could also be a good move, career-wise. If they can significantly upgrade the athletic programs with the budget constraints in Orono, they will be an extremely attractive candidate for an AD job at a bigger, more prominent school.

Let’s not kid ourselves: UMaine is a stepping stone school for athletic directors and coaches.

There are exceptions like former UMaine football coach Jack Cosgrove, who spent 23 years as the head coach. And the state of Maine certainly has its charm, so it is conceivable that somone will fall in love with it and want to stay.

But most successful ones move on. And that’s fine.

If they make significant improvements to the program, it makes the UMaine job more attractive to their potential successors.

The new athletic director has a number of issues to be addressed and groundwork to be established right away.

At the top of the list is the need to convince the UMaine Board of Trustees, Chancellor Dannel Malloy and President Joan Ferrini-Mundy of the athletic program’s importance to the school, community and state.

Like an AD at any Division I institution, the new AD must earn their support. If they can’t, their hands will be tied and the program will flounder.

Former UMaine President Dale Lick once told me he would love for the school to have one of the nation’s best history programs.

But he said having prominent athletic programs is more important because of the positive exposure it will provide which, in turn, can lead to more revenue that benefits the entire system, not just the athletic programs.

Money raised by successful athletic programs can be used to do things like build dormitories and supply academic departments with better resources.

It’s a lot easier for fundraisers when they have something to sell potential donors, like a UMaine hockey program that won two NCAA championships and appeared in 18 NCAA Tournaments in 25 years, 11 Frozen Fours in a 20-year stretch and five NCAA championship games over a 12-year span.

Even if the potential donor isn’t a sports fan, the buzz around the state will be evident.

Ralph had a spot-on analysis of the traits they should be looking for in the new AD. He believes strongly in the recent coaching hires, so he advised the new AD to leave them alone and support them. Let them do their jobs.

He also placed an emphasis on keeping the facilities upgrades moving forward, even though a labor shortage and the increase in prices of the materials have complicated matters. This is the world we live in, but these upgrades are essential. All 17 of the varsity programs are going to benefit.

The new AD will have to find a way to get these projects done as soon as possible while negotiating a number of obstacles.

Finally, Ralph said the new AD must have a business mind to be able to stretch the limited budget as much as possible.

The women’s basketball and field hockey programs have been the only consistent winners.  Others have had fleeting success but nothing consistent.

The men’s basketball program is one of just 37 programs among the 358 Division I programs in the country that has never made the NCAA Tournament.

That is an attainable goal under Markwood.

Barr will have the hockey program moving up the Hockey East ladder, and Stevens is a good fit to move the football program forward.

The new AD is going to have to have tireless energy, be organized and be resilient, as well as charismatic.

This job isn’t for everybody.

But UMaine is the only Division I school in the state, and the entire state will support the right person.

Now it’s up to the university to find that person.