AUGUSTA — Paul Vachon coached girls basketball for 23 years. He was an athletic director for 11. In that time, he went up against the peerless Cindy Blodgett. He dueled with the McAuley dynasty. Even Cony High School’s 23 athletic offerings weren’t too much of a challenge.

On this afternoon, however, Vachon had a different nemesis: A new cell phone, and one that he couldn’t get to stop ringing.

“This thing’s driving me nuts. I can’t turn it off,” he said. “I don’t know what the hell to do with it.”

Cassie Cooper hugs Cony High School girls basketball coach Paul Vachon after they won won the 2007 Class A state title game at the Augusta Civic Center. Kennebec Journal file photo by Joe Phelan

Eventually, Vachon returned his focus to the topic at hand: his stepping down as Cony’s athletic director at the end of last spring, ending 34 consecutive years with the school. Soccer, swimming and track and field coach Jon Millett will take over.

“Being an AD, there are a lot of hours. A lot of hours. I think I’ve got to tune back a little bit,” Vachon, 65, said. “I’ve enjoyed my time, I will miss it, but it’s time for a change for Paul Vachon.”

It’s a change for him, but it’s a jolt for the school. Vachon, an Augusta native who won a state championship as a player for the 1973 Cony boys team, had become synonymous with the Rams, first as an iconic yet polarizing girls basketball coach, then as the man overseeing the Cony athletic department.

“Cony means the world to him,” said Vachon’s daughter Amy, who coaches the University of Maine women’s basketball team. “He definitely bleeds red and white, for sure.”

However, he decided that he’d had enough last year, and his coaches said it will take time getting used to a sports year without him.

“I popped in his office almost every day,” boys basketball coach T.J. Maines said. “It’s going to be weird. … It’s a loss for Cony, not having Paul there. To me, he is Cony. When I think of Cony, Paul’s the guy I always think of.”

• • •

Vachon had become known to a new generation of Cony athletes as the school’s athletic director, but across the state, he’s still known as the coach who turned the girls basketball team into one of the state’s most powerful programs.

“He was a really, really good AD,” Maines said. “But he’d have to be AD of the Year for 20 years for him to match what he was for coaching. He was just that good.”

Vachon coached from 1985-86 to 2007-08, winning seven state championships. He reached 11 state finals and made Cony perhaps the state’s most feared team.

“For me, it came naturally. I loved it,” he said. “You have to have a passion for the game. I had that. I was very, very fortunate to have that.”

That passion didn’t turn off at the end of practices or with the final whistles of games.

“He was all about it,” said Amy Vachon, who starred for her father before graduating in 1996 and thriving as a player at Maine. “He constantly had the coaches over watching film, he was always reading books, always watching games.

“It was his baby. He gave everything to it.”

Vachon translated that strategy onto the court in the form of an up-tempo speed and intensity, and an unyielding attention to detail. Playing for Vachon meant learning to dribble with both hands, seeing the whole floor on offense, and mastering helpside defense.

His greatest weapon, though, was motivation, and an uncanny ability to tap into the psyche of his players both individually and collectively. Vachon had the Rams convinced they could win, convinced they were doing what they needed to do to win, and he knew which buttons to push along the way.

Katie Rollins DelSignore, who won the Ms. Maine Basketball award in 2005 before going on to play at Harvard, recalled one example of such tactics. Cony lost to Deering in the state final in 2004, so before the first practice of the next season, Vachon drew from that disappointment.

“He shut off the lights, he put the score from the (game) on the scoreboard and made us sit in the dark for 20 minutes, and just stare at the score,” DelSignore said. “At the end, he said ‘We will win a state championship this year.’ ”

Girls head basketball coach Paul Vachon cheers on his team during a 2005 game in Augusta. Kennebec Journal file photo by Joe Phelan

Cony did, beating McAuley 58-40.

“His greatest strength is getting his players to believe in a common goal, to truly believe in it,” DelSignore said. “He’s really good at leveraging each player’s strength, and making sure everyone’s aware of their role on the team, and making sure everyone knows that that role is critical to the greater success.”

His style wasn’t for everybody.

Outside of Cony many resented Vachon, due largely to his explosive sideline manner and tendency to scream at his players and officials alike.

“He was always quite animated on the sideline, screaming and hollering at his players, the other team’s players, the officials, whatever,” said Bruce Cooper, who won four Class A state titles while coaching Lawrence from 1989-99. “He did have a propensity to run up some scores. … A lot of people get offended by something like that.”

Of course, as Cooper noted, Vachon’s 451-50 record — a .900 winning percentage — and championship haul had a lot to do with it, too.

“It’s probably (like) why you get a lot of people that hate the Yankees,” said Cooper, who also taught at Cony for 18 years before retiring this past spring. “The idea is you get a very competitive team, and there were tons of people that wanted to see them get knocked off.”

With his team, however, approval rating was never an issue for Vachon.

“No matter who you were, you just wanted to play hard for him,” added Julie Veilleux Sinclair, who played at Cony from 1996-2000. “That’s the type of motivation he had. Knowing that you had more in you, and getting that out of the individual and the team.”

Vachon said his key was simple.

“Don’t ask me about any Xs and Os. You’re not going to get anywhere with that,” he said. “My strength was trying to get teams to play as teams.”

• • •

Crafting a juggernaut is rewarding, but as Vachon came to realize, it’s also demanding.

“Everyone expected us to win by 30 every game,” Amy Vachon said. “That’s a hard expectation for my dad, more than us as (players).”

Vachon left the Cony bench in 2008, but he wasn’t ready for a complete goodbye. He wanted to stay involved in sports, and found a fit in the athletic director position.

He soon saw how different it was. After being able to absorb himself in basketball, Vachon saw he had to divide his time and attention across all of Cony’s sports and teams.

“I learned a lot. I learned about wrestling, I learned about lacrosse. I learned about volleyball, field hockey, cross country, swimming, I could go on and on and on,” Vachon said. “I didn’t show any favoritism toward any sport, in that I gave everyone their fair share. I hope coaches thought the same way.”

Paul Vachon gives a wave in his car by his Augusta home on July 26. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Phelan

“He was unbelievably supportive of his coaches,” Cony football coach B.L. Lippert added. “We hear horror stories in the paper of administrative groups not supporting their coaches. … He was able to communicate to parents and say ‘Hey, he’s coaching 70 kids. The coaching staff’s doing the best they can.’ ”

Vachon also wanted to re-charge the student body’s sense of school pride, and on his first day meeting the athletes in his new job, he showed up ready with a wager.

“I offered anyone in the audience $20 if they could sing the school song,” he said. “I didn’t have one person. Not one. Not one person that got up and said ‘I could do it.’ ”

This year, on one of Vachon’s last days before stepping down, he gave a final speech to the school – and then was greeted by the entire student body singing that same song.

“I was like, ‘Uh oh. Thank God I didn’t offer $20 today,’ ” Vachon said. “That’s honestly what I’m most proud of. We did bring back school spirit, and that means wonders to me.”

• • •

Good luck guessing Vachon’s next step. No one knows — himself included.

“I’m not very good at golf, and I’m terrible at home improvements,” he said. “And I can only mow the lawn so many times.”

What it won’t be, however, is a sleepy slip into the sunset. The man who once stalked the Cony sideline, his emotions firmly on his sleeve, has far too much energy.

“I hate the word ‘retire.’ I really do. I hate that word,” he said. “I really don’t know what’s next, but I know there’s something next. … I can’t sit in my La-Z-Boy all day and be a lazy boy.”

Because he’s no longer the athletic director, a return to coaching is a possibility — and, according to those close to him, perhaps even more than that.

“He’ll be coaching again,” Amy Vachon said. “There’s no doubt. He’ll be coaching again somewhere.”

Paul didn’t use that same conviction — but he didn’t shy away from the thought either.

“Even for the last 11 years I’ve been athletic director, I thought about basketball every single day,” Vachon said, emphasizing the last three words. “Will I go back into coaching? I may. Will I help somebody? I may.”

Cony athletic director Paul Vachon speaks during a ceremony at the 25th Chrisanne Burns Tournament on Nov. 24, 2018 at Cony High School in Augusta. Kennebec Journal file photo by Joe Phelan

That can wait. For now, Vachon has other things to take up those hours.

“I’m taking it one day at a time,” he said. “Right now, I’m going to go see if I can figure out how to use the phone. How’s that?”

For the first time in 34 years, he’ll have all the time he needs.

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