The Clement family of South Portland – 17-year-old Bert and his parents, Cathy and Bill – gets suited up for a big day of championship football. Father and son are both New England fans, but Bill remembers the team’s lean years and Bert does not. The Patriots play the Baltimore Ravens tonight for a chance to appear in their sixth Super Bowl since 2001.
There's a sharp divide among New England Patriots fans.
No, not between those who say that Coach Bill Belichick is a genius and those who maintain just as emphatically that he's a freaking genius.
It's a generational gap between those who believe an annual trip to the Super Bowl is a birthright and those who can remember when the Patriots weren't a playoff cinch every year -- heck, some years they didn't even rise to the level of bad, like in 1990, when they went 1-15.
Nowadays, "I expect at least the playoffs" every year, said Bert Clement, 17, of South Portland.
Clement claims he "goes way back" with the Pats, but when asked if he remembers the 2001 team's first Super Bowl victory, he admits: "Not that far."
But Bert's father, Bill Clement, 57, remembers. And he can also recall a much different era.
"They played like a college team more than a pro team," he said. "They were an easy win for the other teams."
Bill Clement also remembers when the team, now a model of a professional organization, was a sports franchise in search of a home. Before a stadium was built in Foxborough in the early 1970s, the then-Boston Patriots, an original member of the American Football League, played its games at Boston University, Fenway Park, Harvard Stadium and Boston College's Alumni Field, among other locales. They even played "home" games in Birmingham, Ala., and San Diego.
"I remember them not being good -- so bad I don't remember watching them," said Erin Maguire of Portland, who calls herself a lifelong fan and, at 31, a bridge between the generational divide.
There was a time when the Patriots played so poorly that people found other things to do on autumn Sunday afternoons than to watch them line up. The team made the playoffs so infrequently that choosing between watching a game and engaging in some other activity on winter Sundays didn't even merit a discussion.
"We were the generation of 'maybe next year,' " said Claire Barclay, 58, of Auburn.
Ask an older Patriots fan about the years before Bill Belichick became coach and Tom Brady started putting up record numbers at the quarterback position, and a few names come up again and again.
"Steve Grogan, Tony Eason and that other guy, the one they traded," recites Barclay's son, Marc Robicheau, 36, of Auburn, who leaves no question about whom he roots for. Robicheau and Barclay were at the Maine Mall on Friday, Robicheau decked out in a Patriots T-shirt, jacket and hat.
The name he's searching for is Jim Plunkett, the Pats' quarterback before they drafted Steve Grogan in 1975. The next year, the Pats decided to go with Grogan as the starter and traded Plunkett to the Oakland Raiders, where he proceeded to help them win two Super Bowls.
Grogan had an injury-plagued 15-year career with the Pats, some of it spent embroiled in a quarterback controversy over whether he or Tony Eason should be the starter.
But mention quarterback controversy to younger fans and they're likely to think it's about whether UGG boots are really a good look for Tom Brady.
Since Brady became the starting quarterback in 2001, even non-Patriot fans figure the team will still be on the field when the calendar turns to January and February.
"I expect them to be in the playoffs every year and I expect them to have a first-round bye every year," said Kris King of South Portland, who works at a kiosk at the mall selling Boston sports memorabilia, even though he's a fan of the NFC's Washington Redskins. "Every year, going into the season, I expect them to dominate."
King, who said his job is "awkward," considering he's also a fan of the Major League Baseball powerhouse New York Yankees, said Patriots stuff sells well, but mostly when they make an appearance in the Super Bowl, which they have done five times since 2001, winning three of those.
Sometimes, framed pictures of players with conference championship T-shirts will be rushed to the kiosk, but a lot of fans wait until the Super Bowl to decide whether to put up another picture of the champions.
Clement said younger fans like his son are spoiled and don't remember what it's like to endure a playoff drought lasting longer than a year.
"You're almost expecting it now," he said of the team's regular appearances in the playoffs, let alone the Super Bowl. "That's what the younger generation is figuring is going to happen. It's automatic for them."
Those younger fans might think the good times will last forever, but those with a little more experience expect that the champion Patriots, like any other high-flying team, will eventually fall back to earth.
"I think they would lose a lot of fans if they stopped playing well all of sudden," Maguire said. "How long until Brady retires?"
Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:
Bert Clement, 17, and his parents, Cathy and Bill Clement of South Portland, love their football and will have plenty to root for in Sunday’s games, as the San Francisco 49ers take on the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC championship and the Baltimore Ravens visit the New England Patriots in the AFC title matchup.
PATRIOTS PAST: Quarterback Steve Grogan, left, gets a pointer from Coach Chuck Fairbanks at Schaefer Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., in December 1976.
PATRIOTS PRESENT: Quarterback Tom Brady confers with Coach Bill Belichick before last week’s AFC divisional playoff game against the Houston Texans at Gillette Stadium.