The University of Maine football team practices under the lights at Harold Alfond Sports Stadium in Orono in November 2013. The artificial turf is 13 years old and well past its shelf life. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Seth Woodcock has been fundraising for a long time, first at Maine Medical Center in Portland and, for the last eight years, as the associate athletic director for development in the University of Maine’s athletic department.

He knows when a donation, or gift, takes on special significance. So when Woodcock was asked about the $90 million gift that the Harold Alfond Foundation designated for UMaine athletic facilities, he knew of only one way to describe what it meant.

“I think the word ‘transformational’ is used a lot in our field of fundraising,” said Woodcock. “Maybe too much. But this is transformational.”

Even observers beyond the Orono campus agree that the donation could be a game-changer for UMaine athletics, one that will boost the profile of the university and have a ripple effect on the local economy.

For years, people on the outside and within the UMaine community recognized that the athletic facilities at the state’s only NCAA Division I school were aging and/or inadequate, that they needed to be renovated or replaced.

The artificial turf at Alfond Stadium, where the football team plays, is 13 years old and well past its shelf life. The women’s soccer team plays on the outfield of the baseball diamond. The softball stadium lacks the amenities of baseball’s Mahaney Diamond. The men’s and women’s basketball teams play off-campus at Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. Even Alfond Arena, the venerable hockey rink built with a donation from Harold Alfond, needs an upgrade.

The $90 million gift, announced earlier this month, will be distributed over 10 years and is designated for construction of new facilities, upgrade of other facilities and to advance gender equity in Maine’s athletic programs.  None of it will go to the annual operating costs of the athletic department.

University of Maine Athletic Director Ken Ralph will provide details in coming weeks of the school’s master plan for upgrading athletic facilities. University of Maine photo

Maine officials will raise another $20 million through private donations over the same 10-year period, to complete a planned $110 million investment in athletic facilities on the Orono campus. Athletic Director Ken Ralph, who has overseen similar facility upgrades at his two previous schools – Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Colorado College – said the school will release its master plan for athletics within the coming weeks.

“This is, obviously, a department-changing gift and it is the result of a lot of hard work,” said Ralph. “To be fair, a lot of it started before I got here (in 2018). Prior athletic directors put together different types of plans. And Karlton Creech (who preceded Ralph) did a lot of work with the Alfond Foundation and put them, and us, in a good spot to move forward.”

Those looking from afar know what this gift can mean.

Marty Scarano, the athletic director at New Hampshire, said the $25 million Wildcat Stadium, which opened in 2016, certainly changed the way visitors looked not only at the athletic program, but the school.

“It’s put a different touch on peoples’ perceptions of the University of New Hampshire,” said Scarano, in his 20th year at the school. “Maine and UNH are similar in so many ways. Sometimes, the first and only impression of a school by people is at an athletic event. And for 100 years, we had probably the worst facility in FCS college football.

“Now people come to games and they love our stadium. I’ll be at a game, and this is maybe the most gratifying thing that’s happened to me at UNH, people just thank me for the stadium. They just love it so much. And that’s a great representation of the university, not just athletics. That’s what I think great facilities do at this level.”

Woodcock stressed that the foundation for this gift was set years ago.

“Gifts like that don’t just happen, you don’t show up and ask for $90 million and get the gift,” said Woodcock, a Farmington native and 1999 Maine graduate. “These types of discussions go on for many, many years. It all started back in 1976 with that first gift from Harold Alfond that led to Alfond Arena, with the dream to someday compete for a national championship in hockey. About six or seven years ago, we started having conversations (with the Alfond Foundation) about what we could do to reinvest in that dream.”

Maine officials have talked about how the upgraded facilities would make the Orono campus a destination, a site for state championship games and more. Ralph said it should help significantly in keeping Maine’s top high school players from looking beyond the state’s borders.

“We want to stop the outflow of Maine students going to neighboring states,” he said. “We’d like this to be the first school they consider. We want them growing up with Maine gear in their closets … Hopefully they’ll come play here, go to camps here, attend youth events here, and this will be the only place they consider. We want them to be so excited to be a Black Bear.”

‘IT’S A HUGE DEAL FOR RECRUITING’

Jack Cosgrove coached the Maine football team for 23 years before he retired in 2015. He knew long ago that the facilities were inadequate.

“I always  felt like, if you were going to be located in an isolated environment, if you weren’t just down the street and not regularly passed by, you needed a ‘Wow’ factor,” said Cosgrove, now the head coach at Colby College. “People loved our campus. They loved the intimacy, the New England architecture. But there was nothing athletically that blew you away. We found ways to piecemeal things together in an old building.

Jack Cosgrove was head coach of the University of Maine football team for 23 years. “We had a nice locker room, but we struggled with the things that young people look for,” he says. “There was no ‘Wow’ factor.” Kevin Bennett photo

“As recently as 2008, 2009, we were lifting weights in an old rifle range in the back side of the field house, that we built in the 1990s. The things that other programs had that were ahead of us, weight rooms and locker rooms, were striking. We had a nice locker room, but we struggled with the things that young people look for. There was no ‘Wow’ factor.”

Cosgrove believes this gift from the Alfonds will provide that ‘Wow’ factor.

“It’s a huge deal for recruiting,” he said. “Now you’re going to have a ‘Wow’ factor on top of the campus. It reeks of athletics’ importance. It sends a message that the athletic programs have set expectations for success and they’re willing to invest in them.”

And, UNH’s Scarano noted, it’s not just the athletic programs that benefit. He noted that before Wildcat Stadium was built, visitors would drive toward the Durham campus and “see a broken-down stadium. Now, they see that big video board with the giant Wildcat on it. It’s a great entrance to campus. If you’re bringing your son or daughter to visit the school, it’s a hell of a more impressive entrance than we had.”

Jeff Bourne, the athletic director at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, said a new facility attracts more than just sports fans and its benefits go far beyond the athletic department.

James Madison completed a $62 million renovation of its football stadium in 2011, increasing its capacity from around 8,000 to 25,000, including suites and a private club that can entertain up to 1,000 people. The monetary effect has been significant, said Bourne.

“The stadium is sold out, or close to sold out, every game,” he said. “The club and the suites are sold out with a waiting list. It’s a very popular venue on Saturdays and I would say it has changed the culture of sports in Harrisonburg. It’s moved from being just a sports venue to having entertainment value.”

It attracts fans who want to enjoy the game experience, and it benefits the local economy. “It really helps offer an opportunity for the local community to thrive from the fan/spectator standpoint,” said Bourne. “Hotels, restaurants, local retailers all benefit from that.”

‘IT WAS A ROCKET SHIP FOR OUR GROWTH’

Jack McDonald knows a little something about what a new facility can mean to an athletic program. McDonald, who retired as athletic director at the University of New England in Biddeford in 2017, was the head of the athletic department at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut, when that school opened the TD Banknorth Sports Center – now called the People’s United Center – in 2007.

At the time, Quinnipiac was a midlevel program, and many of its facilities were not Division I ready. The new building, which includes a common lobby area for both a hockey arena and a basketball arena, lifted the Bobcats to another level.

Jack McDonald, shown in 2015 when he served as the athletic director at the University of New England, was the AD at Quinnipiac University when the school constructed a new arena for hockey and basketball. That arena boosted Quinnipiac’s rise to a NCAA Division I program. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The men’s hockey program entered the ECAC two years before the building opened. After, the Bobcats advanced to the NCAA Division I Frozen Four twice, in 2013 and 2016, losing in the national title game each time.

“It was a rocket ship for our growth into Division I,” said McDonald. “It sent Quinnipiac to a level we never thought we’d get to.

“Back then,” he continued, “people didn’t know how to say Quinnipiac, didn’t know how to spell Quinnipiac. They didn’t know what it was.”

McDonald said the arena provided a statement for where Quinnipiac was at the time. The Bobcats wanted to get better, wanted to become one of the top destinations for Division I hockey prospects.

That building is one that both Ralph and Woodcock mention when they talk about new facilities.

“You’ve got to remember before that structure went up, the hockey program was good but not relevant on a national scale,” said Ralph. “It helped elevate the league they played in, it helped attract a different level of recruit. It solidified them about the school being serious about hockey.”

“We used that Quinnipiac facility early on, how transformative that was to their hockey program,” said Woodcock. “That may not be the model we go with. We go to a lot of schools. When we’re at away games, we get a chance to see what’s great about the facilities, within and without our conference, what works and what doesn’t.”

Ralph said he spends much of every day on the road talking to the facilities staff about game-day operations, branding, marketing, ticketing, fans. “I feel like I learn something every single time,” he said.

The most important thing – and it’s something McDonald stressed – is that you want a new building to fit its surroundings.

Of the Quinnipiac arena, McDonald said, “It’s not the biggest building in college athletics (around 3,500 seats in each venue). But I think it’s the best building in college athletics. You don’t need a lot of seats to be a successful building. That size is perfect for Quinnipiac.”

Ralph realizes that, saying, “You have to make it unique to your location.”

STRONG BACKGROUND WITH NEW FACILITIES

Ralph has had plenty of experience with fundraising and new facilities. It was one of the reasons he stood out to the search committee that selected him.

At RPI, he helped plan, design and raise money for the $92 million East Campus Athletic Village. At Colorado College, he oversaw the fundraising and construction of the El Pomar Sports Center, home to most of the school’s teams, and the Robson Arena, home to the school’s Division I men’s hockey team.

He has seen first-hand what new facilities can do to a program. When the sports center was complete, with a single entrance and a plaza that had a view of Pike’s Peak, he said the community became engaged. “It was so memorable,” said Ralph. “We called the landing Commitment Point. That’s where coaches would stand, with the mountain in the background, and say, ‘Can you imagine going anywhere else?’ The number of verbal commitments we got at that spot was amazing.”

And he said, prospective students, could see the commitment the school was making. “As students are being recruited and visit, they make a value judgment trying to see how much the university cares about their sport,” said Ralph. “If they feel that a school really cares about my sport, and is clearly invested in it, it completely transforms the conversations that you have.”

Ralph is offering few specifics until UMaine’s master plan is released in the coming weeks. But in an interview a year ago, he noted that it was important to bring basketball back on campus, to move the track from the football stadium (making it a true stadium) to elsewhere on campus, to upgrade the softball stadium, get a true soccer field and to improve the field hockey field. Of Alfond Arena, one of the most iconic college hockey rinks in the nation, some serious thought has to be done to either renovate it or replace it.

All of those contacted for this story said the commitment by the Alfond family to Maine, and especially Maine athletics, was something most schools only dream of. “I wish we had someone even close to the Alfonds,” said UNH’s Scarano.

Ralph knows he and the Black Bears are fortunate. When talks with the Alfond Foundation began to get serious, he presented them with a $255 million plan which would have included new facilities for every sport Maine offers.

“We worked backward from there,” said Ralph. “Honestly, they wanted to see if you were going to dream big. Well, that would be dreaming big.

“But landing on $90 million seems like dreaming big to me.”

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