Winning coaches at UMFK attribute successes to right philosophy and athletes

FORT KENT, Maine —  In a speech to his team following a historic national tournament run, University of Maine at Fort Kent Men’s Bengals basketball coach Tom Bird succinctly illustrated the profound success of his players and other UMFK student athletes during an awards ceremony on Friday, April 7.

“…..There is not a more successful group of athletes, collectively, anywhere in the country. We have 80 percent of our teams make a tournament and 40 percent of our teams win a championship. That is unrivaled,” he wrote.

Indeed the coaches of UMFK have racked up a succession of accomplishments in recent years. University athletic director and men’s soccer coach Bill Ashby has coached the men’s soccer team to three national championships. He also has played an integral part in the recruitment of quality coaches and players over the years.

“I try to hire people who are competitive; competitive people don’t let the limited resources stop us from being successful,” he said. “We set our sights on a goal and do what we can to make that happen. We all work together to help each other. This results in great teamwork and makes all of us successful.”

Ashby first began coaching men’s soccer in 1984.

“I’ve been able to stay with it for 32 years of coaching. It’s always been my passion,” he said.  

Ashby’s alma mater, the University of Maine at Machias, recently inducted him into its Hall of Fame. The United States Collegiate Athletic Association also named him national coach of the year in 2015.

UMFK men’s basketball coach Tom Bird earned the same honor this fall, after coaching the Bengal men to their first ever post-season national tournament victory. The team went 23-9, their most wins since 1983.

Originally from Lee, Bird was working in North Dakota when Ashby reached out to hire him. Bird is a former basketball player himself, a forward who scored more than 1,000 points at Lee Academy and a national Mr. Basketball semi-finalist. Mr. Basketball is an annual award given to the top male senior basketball player in the country.

When an opening came up at UMFK, a former player who went on to become a college coach himself suggested Ashby talk to Bird.

“I like to be proactive and go get the people I want instead of waiting to see who applies,” Ashby said.

Ashby does not regret hiring Bird.

“It took me 31 years to win national coach of the year. It took him three. That speaks volumes for the man’s success and determination to be top notch,” Ashby said. “I’m proud of the hard work and dedication he puts into his career and his craft and into UMFK.”

For his part, Bird said he appreciates all that he is learning from Ashby.

“He’s been a great mentor for me. When I arrived at UMFK I had no head coaching experience. He took a chance on me. A lot of the credit for my personal success and our team success is due to his guidance and mentorship.”

Both coaches also are quick to attribute much of their success to their student athletes.

“It’s all about the players; you have to have good players. They make me look good,” Bird said. “What I want to communicate to the younger guys is that it’s not about winning or losing but how much they grow up and mature as young men. I hope those lessons carry over to basketball and they did this year.”

Ashby noted three criteria that drive his decisions about which athletes he wants to recruit.

“Are they a good person, are they a good student, are they athletically inclined, in that order,” Ashby said. “It seems to be a recipe for success for us here. For the most part, we hit a lot of homeruns. We bring people in and a lot of them stay here after graduation, which is just marvelous.”

Women’s soccer coach Lucas Levesque agrees.

In 13 years, Levesque has coached the UMFK women to six national soccer titles.

“We’ve been able to attract some very, very good players in our program,” he said. “I think success is contagious, so once you establish a pretty good culture of winning in your program kids want to stay and kids want to bring their friends and things kind of grow from there.”

In 2015, the USCAA also named Levesque national coach of the year. He said one factor in the success of UMFK coaches is the camaraderie amongst them.

“We work really closely with one another. I think one of the reasons we’re so successful is that we help one another as much as possible. It really does help make all our programs better when we all work together,” he said.  

Levesque is a former UMFK soccer player himself.

“It’s nice to be able to build a successful program in my hometown. I grew up here and Fort Kent is home to me. To be able to build a soccer program here at UMFK is special,” he said.

Despite his individual success, Levesque, like Ashby and Bird, has one specific goal in mind when it comes to sports.

“Individual awards are great, but we’ll take a national championship over individual awards any day,” he said.

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