BIDDEFORD — When Clemson scored in the final seconds to upset Alabama in the college football championship game earlier this month, the first thought that popped into Mike Lichten’s mind had nothing to do with the read option or two-minute drill.

“The biggest thing I noticed about that game is that it was the last college football game that there will ever be,” he said, “before the University of New England has football.”

Lichten, hired a year ago as head coach of a program that will take the field for the first time this fall, can be forgiven for his singular focus. Building a program from scratch requires an ability to handle a seemingly endless to-do list.

So far, he has one assistant coach and 18 prospective players enrolled on campus. When he goes to work each day, there’s a near-constant sound of heavy machinery used to work on an addition and renovation of the 5-year-old Harold Alfond Forum that will include an expanded weight room and locker rooms for all sports, not just football.

By the time training camp arrives in August, Lichten hopes to have a staff of eight to 10 assistants and roughly 55 recruits preparing to play a 10-game, sub-varsity schedule – with every game on the road. The Nor’easters’ first game will Sept. 2 at Curry College. UNE will play a varsity schedule starting in the fall of 2018.

When Eric Ruest visited the campus last March as a high school senior from North Attleboro, Massachusetts, “Coach Lichten was really the only thing in place,” he said. “None of the construction had started yet. I thought it would be kind of cool to have a program grow up around you.”

Ruest, an offensive tackle, is among the football pioneers at the NCAA Division III school. UNE’s outgoing president, Danielle Ripich, announced in late 2014 plans to add the sport along with women’s rugby, which began play last fall. Expanding to 17 varsity sports was part of a larger vision for growth that includes a new campus in Morocco, an expanded campus in Portland and three current construction projects on the Biddeford campus, with a new University Commons rising across the street from the Alfond Forum expansion.

“I don’t know many small colleges in New England that are building and growing at such an accelerated rate,” Lichten said. “We have recruits on campus and we show them the dining hall and say, ‘Well, you may never actually eat in here, because by the time you get back here for camp, this new dining hall will be completed.'”

Officials at UNE declined to put a price tag on either the building projects or the new football program.

HOLDING PATTERN

As for playbooks, Lichten has plenty. He said he will build a system around his players, rather than try to fit them into his preconceived notions of offense and defense.

“We need to know who our players are and what their strengths are going to be prior to implementing a system,” he said. “Asking players to thrive in a system that doesn’t fit them doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

Lichten grew up outside of Boston, playing football, basketball and baseball at Newton North High. Halfway through his four years at the University of New Hampshire, he volunteered his services to head coach Sean McDonnell, breaking down tape and whatever else was needed. That led to an assistant coaching job at Northeastern, until that school discontinued football.

In 2010, Lichten joined the staff at Becker College in Worcester, Massachusetts. After one season as defensive coordinator, he became the head coach at age 23. After four losing seasons, the Hawks went 7-3 in 2015 and Lichten was named Eastern Collegiate Football Conference coach of the year.

Last week, Lichten gave final approval to the Nor’easters uniform design. He’s in the process of ordering everything from helmets and shoulder pads to filming platforms and blocking sleds.

“You name it, we’ve got to get it,” Lichten said. “Between recruiting and building a staff, learning to read blueprints, managing a major budget, supporting other athletic programs here, building our brand as a football program and developing myself professionally, there’s never a dull moment.”

BIDING THEIR TIME

Last April, Henry Shroder was a Cape Elizabeth High senior with his sights set on a small liberal arts college in North Carolina. He figured his football career was over … until Lichten showed up at his school.

“I really liked what he said about building a team,” Shroder said. “He wasn’t looking for elite players. He wanted people he could depend on who would work hard.”

Another UNE freshman, Christian Dunbar, played cornerback and wide receiver for Bonny Eagle High in Standish.

“When I played my last high school game,” Dunbar said, “I really thought I was never going to play again.”

Dunbar enrolled at UNE in part because his mother is a professor of nursing there. Once on campus, he emailed Lichten and expressed an interest in playing. Now, Dunbar and Shroder are part of a group that does regular strength training. The group includes nine freshmen, seven sophomores and two juniors.

“At first, it was kind of weird because technically we’re not a team team,” Dunbar said. “We’re doing workouts. But I think the guys who are here are starting to grow pretty close.”

Players see much more of Lyndie Kelley, the strength and conditioning coordinator, than of Lichten or defensive coordinator Kenny Treschitta, because the coaches are constantly on the road, trying to sell a program that has yet to take a snap.

Whereas equipment and facilities are relatively easy to order, attracting student-athletes requires much more effort, even though the Internet makes it easy to view footage of potential recruits, and texting and calling is a way to keep in touch with them.

“I am adamant that recruiting people face to face is the way it needs to be done,” Lichten said. “Just as much as they are looking at us, determining if we are the best fit for them, it goes both ways. I need to make sure that Player X, No. 1, has the character and ambition that we’re looking for; and No. 2, can play the game at the appropriate level. It’s hard to do that over the phone or over video or just text message. So we have a large ambition to go and see as many guys as we can.”

So far, their travels have taken them throughout New England, as well as Long Island and Westchester County in New York. They have visited New Jersey, Los Angeles and Dallas. Return trips to California and Texas are in the works, along with a trip to Florida.

Five accepted recruits have put down deposits. Many more are making official visits to campus over the next two months.

“We’ve had guys fly in from Washington state and we’ve had guys come from just down the road,” Lichten said. “Those deposit numbers should escalate quickly going forward. I’m in a different living room every night.”

ROUNDING UP A ROSTER

As a Division III school, UNE offers no athletic scholarships. Financial aid is based on need, such that “there’s no difference between a student who comes to study biology and not play sports,” Lichten said, “and a student who comes to play football.”

Applications for admission are due by Feb. 15 (although UNE has rolling admissions after that point) and the national commitment deadline is May 1.

So what is Lichten’s sales pitch? Get in on the ground floor?

“It’s a unique opportunity, that’s for sure,” Lichten said. “This is an unbelievable place to go to college. This is a place that’s going to shape you and promote your growth as an individual in a way that most places cannot do.”

In 2018, UNE will play a varsity schedule in the Commonwealth Coast Conference, which will make its football debut this fall with Western New England, Salve Regina, Endicott, Nichols, Curry and Becker. Plans are in place to renovate the Big Blue Turf field. Athletic Director Jack McDonald said he hopes to add a second turf field and expanded stands.

“Football is more than a game,” McDonald said. “It’s very traditional. It’s a weekly reunion on a Saturday afternoon. It’s alumni gatherings. It’s student spirit. We’ll certainly roll into tailgating and Friday night rallies and all of that excitement.”

Nearly 2,400 undergraduates are enrolled at UNE, including a historically large freshman class of 722 – more than half of them women. At a time when college enrollment has been declining, McDonald said adding football and women’s rugby can help make UNE a more attractive destination.

“And we have plans for other sports down the road,” he said. “We live in a sports-crazed world. We want to add to student engagement and alumni affairs. That’s really the ultimate goal.”

Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or:

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