“You can’t live a perfect day without doing something for someone who will never be able to repay you.”
– John Wooden
He couldn’t believe it. Why would someone do that to him?
His team had just earned another win, and he was being accused of running up the score by the opposing coach. The University of Southern Maine women’s basketball team and its coach Richard Albert “Doc” Costello were playing in a tournament at Wellesley College in 1986 and had just defeated Suffolk University by a hefty margin, and the Rams coach wasn’t impressed.
“The score ended up being 106-23, and the guy was just ripping Doc apart,” said Al Bean, then a sports information assistant who is now in his 19th year as USM’s Director of Athletics. “He played his reserves the majority of the game and there was a shot clock. It’s not like he could just tell his kids not to score.”
To understand why Costello was so surprised by this coach’s rage, you have to understand what kind of a person he was both on and off the court, with or without the whistle.
In 1987 Costello did something no other college basketball coach had done before. With a 64-49 women’s basketball win over Eastern Connecticut State on Jan. 23, he became the only NCAA basketball coach to win 200 games in both men’s and women’s basketball.
He started the state’s first collegiate soccer program in 1957 at USM, expanded the athletics program from two sports to 12 serving as athletic director from 1955 to 1990, and served as head coach of five of the university’s varsity teams (baseball, men’s soccer and golf in addition to both basketball teams). Costello is a member of four hall of fames, and was named coach of the year by several college athletic associations and organizations.
Through all of his accomplishments and triumphs, he offered a generous hand and a kind word to everyone he met by approaching life with passion and devotion.
Even when fighting through a terminal illness, too weak to leave bed, he found the strength to put the people in his life first.
Bean put it simply about that day when Costello was being chewed out by Suffolk’s coach: “He was really taken back by the fact that someone would do that to somebody else. He didn’t do those kinds of things and didn’t expect those kinds of things from other people. He was the probably the nicest person I’ve ever met.”
Costello was born in 1928 in Burlington, New Jersey, a small town 23 miles northeast of Philadelphia. He grew up in a household of seven boys and girls, and like many of his siblings, athletics were a big part of his upbringing.
He entered Burlington High School in 1942 where he excelled in football, basketball and baseball.
After graduating in 1946, Costello joined the United States Army where he served in the 7th Calvary Regiment from 1946-48, receiving a WWII Victory Medal and an Army of Occupation Medal for his service in Japan.
It was clear, though, that getting an education was very important to him.
He first earned a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, and went on to earn a Master of Science from the University of Illinois as well as a Doctorate of Physical Education from Springfield College (Mass.).
Costello took a job in 1953 as an Instructor of Health and Physical Education at USM — then called Gorham State Teacher’s College — and started his coaching career as assistant coach for both the men’s basketball and baseball teams, which were the only two sports offered by the school at the time.
“He was a great teacher,” Bean said. “When you went in to see him or talk to him, he gave you his undivided attention. He was very engaging, great with students.”
One day in the fall of 1953 the school put on its annual freshman reception, and all faculty were required to attend.
Doc spotted a young women across the room standing with Edna Dickey — the longtime Dean of Women — and walked straight over and asked the her to introduce him. Her name was Melissa Hope Dunn, a native of Old Town who was just hired as USM’s Assistant Dean of Women and a fourth grade teacher in the university’s affiliated laboratory school that same fall. The two got to know each other, and were married three years later, buying a house off Flaggy Meadow Road in Gorham, a short five minute commute to work every morning.
“He was quite a guy,” Melissa said. “There was just something about him. He was so friendly and he would talk to everyone who came down to the gym like he knew them forever.”
“He was easy going and really funny. He had a way of making people feel like they were the only person for miles,” Bean said.
Two years after arriving in Gorham, Costello was promoted to director of athletics and also took over the reigns as head men’s basketball coach. Costello went 42-18 in his first three years at the helm of the Huskies, and would lead USM over the next 13 seasons, amassing a record of 207-144 before hanging up his whistle after the 1970-71 season.
He wasn’t done, though. He began to see the women’s basketball program slip and wanted to do something about it. He took over the team in the 1977-78 season while continuing his duties as director of athletics, and after inheriting a women’s team that went 4-13 the year before, he led the team to an 18-8 record in his first year.
The team won no less than 16 games in a season over Doc’s next nine years as coach. He finished his coaching career for good after the 1986-87 season with a record of 213-67 as women’s coach, eclipsing the 200-200 mark.
“It was quite the accomplishment,” Bean said. “It wasn’t a big deal for him, though, and if it was you wouldn’t know it. We presented him with a cake and gave him a little ceremony before the next game, and he said something like, ‘Well, if you stay around here long enough, it’s bound to happen.’”
Discipline was one thing, but hard-nosed and nasty was another. It wasn’t uncommon to see a head basketball coach in Doc’s era grab one of his players by the arm and ream him out in front of everyone, or even get in an official’s face. But Doc wasn’t like that. He wasn’t overbearing. He was cool and collected. He had expectations for his players, but he didn’t scream and holler at them, and he never would have thought to question an official’s call.
“He was one of those people that I like to call the gentleman of their era,” Bean said. “You never heard a bad word come out of his mouth. He was very respectful and polite. That’s kind of a lost era now.”
Bean could only recall one game when Doc lost his cool. There was a clear no-call that the official missed at half court. Surprised there was no whistle, Doc stood up quickly and his heels slammed against the bottom of the bleachers, prompting the official to issue him a technical foul.
“We were all trying not to laugh,” Bean said. “He never got in trouble and always kept his thoughts about the refs to himself.”
When it came to practice, Doc was all business. His practices were structured and discipline, but his approach wasn’t like other coaches who make up pages of scouting reports and strategically build practices around the next opponent.
He was solely concerned with skill development and making his own team better with the practice of fundamentals.
He loved to run the shuffle offense and — master of the two-hand set shot himself — was a sucker for a shooter.
And he had some great years. He patrolled the sidelines with ease, turning in winning seasons in 11 of his 16 years as men’s coach, and coached his women’s teams to seven straight seasons of 20 wins or more (1980-87), a streak that was continued by current head coach Gary Fifield for 21 years and for one year by Mike McDeavitt, setting an NCAA DIII record of 30 straight seasons with 20 wins or more (it was broken last year after USM won 18).
Whatever it was that Doc and his teams succeeded in, it all translated back to his vibrant personality and zest for life.
“He was very sincere,” said Fifield, who took over the women’s program after Costello, and is entering his 24th year as head coach. “He was very loyal, very genuine and was certainly a very caring person to everyone he met.”
Bean arrived at USM in the fall of 1973 and was a pitcher on the baseball team. He had seen Doc around and took a few of the classes he taught in the university’s coaching certificate program.
After graduating in 1977 Bean came back to USM as assistant coach of the baseball team, and, in 1983, started working in sports information as a full-time employee.
From that point on Doc started to mentor Bean, and a friendship blossomed between them.
“I would watch and learn from him, and we started to spend a lot of time together and got to know each other pretty well,” Bean said.
Doc and Bean joined forces and brainstormed many of the things that USM Athletics has today, including the Husky Hall of Fame. Doc was also a revolutionary in bringing USM from postseason NAIA play to postseason NCAA play entering the 1986-87 season.
“He had a way of making people feel like they were the only person for miles.”
USM Athletic Director Al Bean
With the help of Bean, Doc was a pioneer in the development of the Little East Conference, and helped lead four meetings in Boston that resulted in the conference’s inception.
“They asked Doc to be the first commissioner, and when he accepted he made me the first sports information director,” Bean said.
Bean and other LEC administrators are in the process of starting an LEC Hall of Fame. The first induction will be next October, and Doc will be inducted into the first class.
Doc dedicated the majority of his life to better USM Athletics, and he decided it was his time to retire in 1990.
“I remember he came into a meeting one day and said ‘I think it’s the right time for me’,” Bean said. “I think he knew he would miss the people more than anything.”
Doc was far from a stranger around the athletics offices after his retirement, though. He would come in two, three times a week and kick his feet up on Bean’s desk, talk for a half hour or so and go up to the gym to do the same workout he did for 35 years.
One day he came into Bean’s office and had a bad cough.
“He said, ‘You know, I can’t seem to shake this thing I’ve got,” Bean said. “So he went to go see a doctor and he came back and told us they think he may have pneumonia.”
After some more doctor visits, he came back a few weeks later with some bad news. He had cancer caused by asbestos. There was nothing they could do.
When Bean and the athletics department found out it was terminal, they organized a night to honor Doc at the Italian Heritage Center in Portland, a place where he and Melissa spent a lot of their time. The date was set for Nov. 24, 2007.
“The Saturday after Thanksgiving isn’t the the best of times for people to come out, but we had about 250 people show up,” Bean said.
At the banquet they remembered Doc’s accomplishments and all the lives he touched in his 37 years as athletic director and 26 years coaching basketball. Bean was the master of ceremonies.
“It was upbeat, but it was sad because you knew what it was about. He was thrilled, though,” Bean said.
Throughout his battle with cancer, Doc’s love of life and extreme kindness never ceased.
“You would feel awful visiting him, but he never complained once. He would always ask how everyone was doing in the office and how your family was doing,” Bean said.
Bean was planning on visiting Doc on a Sunday night in the spring of 2008 until he got a call from Melissa saying he wasn’t doing too well, and that she needed to get him to bed.
The next day Melissa called back and said, “Dick wants to know if you’ll speak at the funeral?”
“It just hit me very hard,” Bean said. “He was still alive.”
Doc Costello died at the age of 79 on April 7, 2008 with Melissa by his side. Friends, family, and former players gathered at St. Anne’s Roman Catholic Church on Main Street in Gorham, and like Doc requested, Bean spoke at the funeral.
“Speaking that day was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.”
In 1998, the Costello Sports Complex — dedicated to Doc and Melissa Costello for their devotion to USM for 37 years each (Melissa went on to become the Department of Education Chairman) — was finished on USM’s Gorham campus. The complex includes USM’s fieldhouse, athletic offices, student academic space, athletic training facilities, Hill Gymnasium, and the USM Ice Arena.
These days Melissa is still in Gorham living in the same house off Flaggy Meadow Road.
She went to many of the games in years past, but said she wasn’t able to make it to as many as she wanted to last year.
“I absolutely love the facility, and I don’t get into it as much as I’d like, but I’m so proud that it’s named after my husband and I. It is definitely well-earned by my husband’s years in athletics and my longevity in the school of education.”
She also still keeps in contact with many of Doc’s former players — forming a very tight bond with his girls in particular — and frequently speaks on the phone with Bean and goes to lunch with him occasionally.
“When I’m at places around the Portland area people will come up to me and tell me how much my husband changed their lives, and everything is always so positive,” she said. “It speaks measures about what kind of person he was and how he treated people.”
As far as Bean, he continually strives to send Doc’s message of kindness and generosity to everyone who walks into the Costello Sports Complex.
“If I could describe Doc in one word, it would be class.” he said. “He was very much about people. Even more so than laying the foundation of our athletics program, he laid the foundation of how we should treat people, and for the most part I believe that’s stayed true around here.”
It’s how he would have wanted it.