FORT KENT, Maine — Coach Tom Bird could feel his days of working in the University of Maine at Fort Kent athletic department coming to an end when President Deborah Hedeen would not allow the Bengal men’s basketball team travel to its last game of the 2022 season because Bird had not received a COVID-19 booster shot.
He received the initial series of COVID-19 vaccinations, but mixed messages from the University of Maine System in February provided unclear guidelines for whether employees could travel in pursuit of university goals without the additional booster shot, Bird said. His understanding of the situation was that UMS employees could travel as long as they tested negative for COVID-19.
An award-winning basketball coach who also served as the university’s assistant athletic director, Bird resigned in mid-July, largely as a result of that game being canceled, which he said reflects larger issues in the UMFK administration. His letter of resignation became public Wednesday.
“I was being coerced into getting the booster shot by the president among others at the University or threatened that I would not be traveling,” Bird said.
Hedeen not only prevented him from traveling to Fisher College in Boston to coach the game, which was the last-ever college basketball game for three senior student athletes, but also refused to allow another coach to take his place at the match-up, Bird said.
“Because she wanted to hold a personal grudge and prove a point, she took it out on the students, which is so wrong,” Bird said. “There was actually a mother that was flying in from California to see her son’s last game but had to cancel the trip and obviously didn’t see the game because we didn’t go.” .
Bird filed a grievance with the Universities of Maine Professional Staff Association branch of the Maine Education Association — a union for university staff — over the incident and said he was ultimately provided clearance to travel without the booster shot. But the decision came too late to save the final basketball game.
“The COVID-booster issue is a personnel issue and we will not comment on that,” UMFK spokesperson Heidi Carter said on behalf of Hedeen.
Bird held nothing back when he explained to more than 100 colleagues in a Wednesday email why he chose to leave UMFK.
“Typically when you draft up an email of the sorts it would begin with something like: ‘it’s with great sadness’ or ‘I’ve made the difficult decision to resign’, but as I sit here and write this email, it is with great relief, that I have resigned my position as Men’s Basketball Coach and Assistant Athletic Director,” Bird, who became the university’s men’s basketball coach in 2014, wrote in the email.
The email outlined issues regarding what Bird deemed as ineffective leadership among UMFK administration, particularly President Hedeen and Chief Business Officer Pamela Ashby.
Following Bird’s union complaint, he said Ashby began investigating the financial dealings of Bird’s annual UMFK Summer Classic fundraiser. Bird has organized the tournament for seven years to support the men’s basketball team, which he said is underfunded by the university.
The current UMFK budget does not provide funding for athletes to attend playoff games, although he suspects that will change, Bird said.
Some of his colleagues were questioned about the tournament funds, which proved embarrassing to him, he said
“As I put in my response to the email where I was indirectly accused of stealing money, a thank you for raising over $11,000 this summer for the basketball program would have been suffice in this instance,” Bird said.
In his 8 years working for the UMFK athletic department, Bird has served as athletic director, assistant athletic director, sports information director, and volleyball coach.
As basketball coach he led the Bengal men to four USCAA tournament appearances including two final fours.
The United States Collegiate Athletic Association named Bird national Coach of the Year in 2017 following a historic season in which the Bengal men achieved their first ever postseason national tournament victory, after the team went 23-9, their most wins since 1983.
Bird said he never intended the email to his colleagues would be made public, and did not send it to the media.
“I felt people needed to know the truth, and while it may have gotten me in hot water a time or two, I’ll leave knowing that I always tried to battle for the betterment of the student athletes and my basketball program,” Bird said.
A person associated with UMFK, who does not wish to be named for fear of retaliation, forwarded the email to Bangor Daily News in the hopes that “the community at large will have an open discussion” about some of the issues Bird addressed in the email, which also include decreased enrollment figures and a higher than usual employee turnover rate.
“UMFK is floundering,” that person said.
Bird said his role in recruiting, coaching and guiding basketball players is what drove him as a UMFK employee.
“Being able to bring young men from all walks of life, from all parts of the country and world was why I did this job,” Bird said. “I hope along the way they learned a thing or two about basketball and about life.”
Hedeen, who t ook over as president/provost of UMFK in July 2020., issued an email to the UMFK campus community on Wednesday afternoon.
“In reference to Tom Bird’s email that was distributed earlier today, we wanted to reach out to the campus community. Please know that athletics is an integral aspect of life and enrichment at UMFK. Our continued commitment is to fund travel and related expenses required for participation in national tournaments. We fully support our teams,” Hedeen’s email said.
The University of Maine System has been dealing with a handful of challenges over the summer, including the fallout of a decision to hire a new president at the University of Maine at Augusta who had received votes of no confidence at his former school, which has sparked tensions between faculty and system trustees.