Alfond Stadium in Orono, the home of University of Maine football, is among the athletics facilities expected to be upgraded thanks to a $90 million gift from the Harold Alfond Foundation. Credit: Peter Buehner Photo

The Harold Alfond Foundation’s eye-popping $90 million gift to the University of Maine athletic department to upgrade its facilities came at a critical time.

This year, the world has been gripped by COVID-19, the first pandemic since 1918. It halted the winter sports season and has also wiped out the spring and fall campaigns.

In the meantime, with the exception of the football, women’s basketball and field hockey teams, the other major Black Bear programs have been struggling.

The men’s basketball team has won just 24 of its last 100 America East regular-season games. The men’s hockey team, which once made a run of 11 NCAA Frozen Four appearances in a 20-year span, hasn’t even reached the Hockey East semifinals in eight years.

The women’s soccer team hasn’t qualified for the America East playoffs the last two years.

Despite those difficulties Greg Powell, the chairman of the board of the Harold Alfond Foundation and the CEO and president of Dexter Enterprises, said foundation members felt strongly about following late philanthropist Harold Alfond’s lead in providing the institution with the resources necessary to improve its athletic programs.

“Mr. Alfond believed deeply in the UMaine athletic program. It’s our only Division I program and he [always] felt a need to make a major contribution to lift the program to a whole new level,” Powell said of the foundation’s rationale in providing the money.

Late philanthropist Harold Alfond laughs as he recalls stories of his times together with Larry Mahaney during a tribute to Mahaney in 2006 at the University of Maine in Orono. Credit: Kevin Bennett / BDN

The Alfonds had over the years given UMaine more than $19 million leading up to last Wednesday’s gift. That included $150 million to the University of Maine system on top of the $90 million to the UMaine athletic program.

Realizing that UMaine was in need of facility upgrades, Powell and several members of the foundation visited the Orono campus and studied its needs. He said the pandemic is a good time to be investing.

“It is a unique time. We can see economic opportunity in Maine,” he said.

Seth Woodcock, UMaine’s senior associate athletic director for development, said the conversations with Powell about the Alfond Fund gift and its potential impact began six or seven years ago during a football road trip.

In the meantime, there were many changes at UMaine and in the system.

“We’ve had a couple of presidents, a couple of chancellors and a couple of ADs [athletics directors],” Woodcock said. “Leadership is important to the Harold Alfond Foundation. We got close a couple of times but had to put things on pause.”

More recently, the Alfond Foundation has been impressed with the people in key university positions.

Powell said the leadership of chancellor Dannel Malloy, President Joan Ferrini-Mundy and Athletics Director Ken Ralph played an integral role in their gift.

“That made a big difference,” Powell said. “Ken Ralph is the best athletic director in the free world and Chancellor [Dannel] Malloy and President [Joan] Ferrini-Mundy are rock stars.”

He called Woodcock a terrific asset for the university system.

“With those leadership positions filled, we felt very confident the university could move forward in many directions when it comes to the athletic facilities and programs,” Powell said.

Ralph maintained perspective for UMaine’s needs by stressing that the department didn’t need to attempt to outdo all of its rival schools in terms of facilities.

“We were going to upgrade appropriately for a Division I institution, for the state of Maine and for the University of Maine,” Woodcock said.

Ralph said at last week’s announcement that facility upgrades would be “simple, classy and functional.”

Powell mentioned that foundation members were impressed with facilities projects spearheaded by Ralph in his previous position at Colorado College.

“[We] don’t want the glitziest, fanciest facilities. We want the facilities to be solid and well-made,” Powell said.

UMaine continues to work on the details of its plans for improving infrastructure. All involved hope that people from across the state can take advantage of the improved facilities, including holding state championship events there.

Each of UMaine’s 17 varsity sports, along with its athletic training and sports medicine staff, are expected to benefit.

Powell said providing money for UMaine athletics demonstrates a commitment to the value of sports to Maine people.

“Physical health is important to the students and the community and it counts a lot to have the highest quality facilities that we can. Secondly, Division I sports in Maine is important to the Maine psyche. We love our sports,” Powell said.

Improving facilities also will make the experience more comfortable for Black Bear fans.

The needs are many for the university’s athletic programs.

The artificial turf for football on Morse Field at Alfond Stadium needs to be replaced and UMaine wants to provide a home field for the women’s soccer program, which plays on the baseball field.

The wish list also includes a new, self-contained outdoor track, synthetic grass and lights for softball at Kessock Field, and upgrades for the field hockey facility and inside Alfond Arena.

Powell said other projects in development are an indoor domed facility larger than the Mahaney Dome and other inflatable dome structures that can be used to cover fields for use during the winter.

Response to the Harold Alfond Foundation gift has been extraordinary as Powell heard from former UMaine athletics director Kevin White, who is the longtime AD at Duke University.

“I have heard from so many people, including two of our biggest donors,” Woodcock said. “It was very emotional. One of them was a close friend of Harold’s and he mentioned what Harold meant to the state and [wondered] where the state would be without him.”

Even with the Alfond Foundation gift in hand, Woodcock said UMaine athletics is undertaking a fundraising drive to bring in $20 million more.

Woodcock, a Farmington native and UMaine graduate, called the experience fulfilling and said it speaks to the generosity and legacy of Harold Alfond.

“It’s overwhelming. It’s transformational. But we have a lot of work to do,” he said.