ORONO — The first player out for football practice on a recent raw weekend afternoon was the University of Maine’s career leader in sacks.

Helmet in left hand, head shrouded in a hood to protect against a bitter November wind, Mike Cole trotted toward Morse Field, pausing briefly to reach out his right hand and tap a waist-high hunk of granite upon which is carved a narrow black arrow pointing forward.

Before every game, before every practice, every member of the Maine football team taps The Rock.

“It rubs off on you,” Cole said. “The arrow represents everyone going in one direction, everyone moving together.”

One Direction is the term coined by Jeff Cole, a six-year Maine assistant who died in 2004 at age 30 after a prolonged battle with cancer, to reinforce a sense of unity among the special-teams players he coached.

Shortly after his death, decals bearing an upward-facing arrow appeared on the front of Maine football helmets, where they have remained.

One Direction has become one of the guiding principles of the Black Bears’ football program, which is enjoying its best season.

Maine is 10-1, ranked fourth in the country among Football Championship Subdivision schools (one tier below the Auburns, Alabamas and Notre Dames of the Football Bowl Subdivision) and champion of the Colonial Athletic Association.

Only rival New Hampshire stands between Maine and a perfect 8-0 conference record. New Hampshire (6-4, 5-2 CAA) is ranked 21st in one national poll and 24th in another. The Wildcats have won 5 of 6 games and need a victory at home to have a chance at extending a nine-year playoff run – longest in the nation – in the NCAA’s FCS tournament, which expanded to 24 teams this fall from 16.

Saturday’s winner also takes possession of the Brice-Cowell Musket, a prize that resides, as it has for nine of the past 10 years, within the New Hampshire locker room.

Named after a pair of former coaches – Fred Brice of Maine and William Cowell of New Hampshire – the musket is mounted under glass and dates to the early 18th century. Only in the past dozen years or so, with the teams coached by a class of ‘79 alumnus of each school, has the prize taken on a heightened significance.

“I didn’t know about a musket when I played,” said Maine Coach Jack Cosgrove. “It was never mentioned, ever, when we played New Hampshire when I came back here as (an assistant) coach,” in 1987.

In the late ‘90s, however, officials of the Atlantic 10 Conference pushed geographic neighbors to schedule their games at the end of the season in order to heighten natural rivalries. Maine and New Hampshire, which had been playing each other earlier in the season, began saving their final date in 1999. Soon after, the ancient rifle, first passed between the schools in the late 1940s, came to Cosgrove’s attention, and he and New Hampshire Coach Sean McDonnell agreed it would serve well as Northern New England’s version of the Little Brown Jug (Minnesota-Michigan) or Old Oaken Bucket (Indiana-Purdue).

“It gave us a tangible trophy,” Cosgrove said. “I think it came to life because somebody found it and brought it over here. They were cleaning out some place and said, ‘Hey, we found this thing.’ ”

Saturday will mark the 101st meeting between Maine and New Hampshire. Having a sense of tradition can help pave the road forward. When the wind is biting and the sun setting as practice is about to begin, touching The Rock and acknowledging the arrow are ways to maintain focus on the big picture.

“This is nobody’s first option,” said Cole, a fifth-year senior defensive end from New Jersey. “So everybody is, honestly, a little disappointed to be here. But misery loves company. It brings everyone together. Everyone’s in a cold, dark place and all you have is each other. It really grows the relationships with everybody.”

The Maine Way encompasses more than One Direction. Other slogans adorn the walls of the offices, hallways and locker room, including Start/Finish, Bear Down, Win A Recruit, Pound the Rock, The Black Hole (the nickname for Maine’s defense), The Core and Champion. All have meaning. All are reinforced from freshman through senior year.

This is who we are. This is what we do.

“The Maine Way is how we’re going to do things,” Cosgrove said. “We’re going to prepare for tests. We’re going to prepare for quizzes. We’re going to do our homework. We’re going to be prepared for games. We’re going to prepare for practice. Anytime you want to be successful, there’s preparation to it.”

Cosgrove extols the virtues of the Three Ps. Besides “preparation,” they include “presentation” and “performance.”

“The presentation part is how you walk into a room, how you walk out on the field, how you walk into a test,” he said. “It’s confidence. Preparation leads to a confident presentation. If you have both of those, you’re going to perform at a high level. You may not win but you’ll perform at the level you need to. You may not get 100 on the test but you’ll get a 95.”

The Rock is both a tribute to Cole and a reminder of each player’s role in contributing to the whole. Touching it is a tacit acknowledgment of personal responsibilty.

“They emphasize that a lot,” said senior Lamar Fitzgerald, a senior who played two seasons at a junior college in Pennsylvania before coming to Orono last fall. “Everybody going in one direction, us being a brotherhood and a family, just playing as a team, sticking together no matter what.”

Fitzgerald’s end-zone interception in the final minute sealed a 28-21 victory at Richmond in late September. Maine won three other CAA contests by two, five and six points. The cold and the dark and The Rock don’t always forge championship seasons. This year they have.

“If the game’s ever coming down to the wire,” said Cole, as a flock of departing geese honked overhead, “we know we’ve been through some rough times together. So we all have each other’s backs and we can rely on each other. We know, in the end, we’ll be all right.”

Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or:

Gjordan@pressherald.com

Twitter: GlennJordanPPH