As the 2011 football season gets under way at the University of Maine this week, the back story will undoubtedly heat up about the program’s future.

In the short term: Maine needs to improve upon last year’s 4-7 record for obvious reasons, and to essentially showcase the program’s value.

In the long term: A sustainable solution needs to be charted for its future.

Playing in the southern-heavy Colonial Athletic Association will mean travel bills for charter flights approaching $400,000 this season, according to Coach Jack Cosgrove.

One or two of those trips may be changed to become more affordable, but long-term those costs are not sustainable.

“It’s time for us as a staff, a program and a team to go in one direction,” said Cosgrove. “I promise you we will not line up and play New Hampshire 11 times. Right now we’re in the CAA and our travel bill is a high one. Meeting that challenge comes down to us as a program.”

Maine Athletic Director Steve Abbott said Maine’s position in the CAA is stable for the next two seasons.

Beyond that is questionable.

“There’s so many different factors. I don’t think anything is going to happen right away, but when it does happen it will happen fast,” said Abbott. “Winning is a factor, but where’s the future in your conference?

“We’re interested in playing at this level. So we’ve got to find partners interested who want to make a commitment. That could happen in the CAA, it could happen somewhere else.”

The urgency of Maine’s need to chart its future follows the loss of Northeastern and Hofstra football in 2009, Rhode Island’s departure for the Northeast Conference next year and Massachusetts moving up a level.

UMass begins play in the Mid-American Conference in 2012.

Villanova is poised to make a move to the Football Bowl Subdivision level in the coming years, with talk of joining the Big East gaining momentum.

That leaves Maine and New Hampshire alone in the north of the CAA.

UNH is within an hour’s drive of two major commercial airports — Boston and Manchester, N.H. — and isn’t in the travel pickle Maine is in.

So, among the most likely scenarios is combining with another league down the road.

The Patriot League is a front-runner. Current member schools are Lehigh, Holy Cross, Colgate, Georgetown, Lafayette, Bucknell and Fordham.

Member schools are allowed 63 scholarships, and with the addition of Maine, New Hampshire and perhaps Rhode Island, it would improve to a stronger, 10-team league.

Until these discussions heat up, the Black Bears will have to perform on the field. Turnovers, penalties and struggles at quarterback last year hampered the team’s ability to win games.

“We’ll be measured to our value to the state of Maine,” said Cosgrove. “I hope there’s a practical look and not a bottom line.”

Maine, which is among the lowest-funded programs in the CAA, has won 69 games since 2000 in the nation’s premier Football Championship Subdivision league. More than a dozen players have moved on to the NFL, nine are currently on NFL rosters and others have earned academic honors while playing football.

This fall quarterback Chris Treister will be pursuing his MBA while competing for the starting job at QB.

“I know success is measurable,” said Cosgrove. “We need to perform at a high level. We didn’t do that last year.”

Staff Writer Jenn Menendez can be contacted at 791-6426 or at:

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