Monday, March 10, 2014
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.
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