February 3, 2012

Patriots Beat: That man from Orono prowls the sidelines

INDIANAPOLIS - Jack Bicknell Jr. admits there is much he misses about college football.

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Jack Bicknell Jr., an assistant coach with the Giants, is the son of a former UMaine head coach and was part of an Orono High dynasty.

Mike Lowe/Staff Writer

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As a college football coach, he said, "you probably have a bigger impact on a young kid's life."

But he wouldn't trade what he's doing now for anything in the world.

Bicknell is an assistant offensive line coach with the New York Giants. Sunday he will be on the field when the Giants take on the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl at Lucas Oil Stadium.

And if the Bicknell name seems familiar, well, it should.

His father, Jack Bicknell Sr., coached the University of Maine football team from 1976-80, compiling an 18-35-1 record before moving on to Boston College. Young Bicknell was also part of one of the state's great high school football dynasties at Orono High.

"Thirty-eight-and-oh," said Bicknell without prompting when asked about the Red Riots. "Never lost a game."

He says that with great pride, noting that the winning streak eventually hit 48. He remembers those days fondly, especially the friendships he formed and keeps to this day.

"I loved it," he said. "The people up there are just beyond explanation as far as how great they are. Fantastic people. It's such a tight-knit community. Life-long friendships.

"You know how it is in Maine, small-town living. The wildest thing we did was go play Trivial Pursuit at the Cobbs' house."

Among his best friends was, and is, Steve Abbott, the athletic director at Maine.

"We had a great time together," Abbott said Thursday. "Jack was just one of those guys who had such a great attitude about everything. He loved sports, but as much as he loved sports, he just loved being with his friends."

The two would work out with Abbott's father, Walt, the former Maine head coach who became, sort of, their personal trainer. He would have them run around the track, run through the woods, lift weights.

"He nearly killed us," said Bicknell, who will turn 50 two days after the Super Bowl.

But he also prepared Bicknell for life beyond Orono. He followed his father to Boston College and played there for four years. When people talk about the miracle pass from Doug Flutie to Gerard Phelan to beat Miami in 1984, they sometimes forget it was Bicknell who started the play by snapping the ball to Flutie.

"I went there to play linebacker," said Bicknell, "but I couldn't catch the running backs so they switched me to offense."

He followed his father's career path -- Jack Bicknell, 74, is now retired and living in Florida -- and has been coaching since he graduated from BC in 1985.

"He had a huge influence on me," said Bicknell of his father. "And it wasn't just my dad, but all his assistants and the people I was around who were coaches. All of the men I really looked up to and respected, they were coaches."

Mostly he's coached the offensive line. But for eight years he led Louisiana Tech, compiling a 43-52 record as one of the nation's youngest college head coaches. During that time his Bulldogs defeated Alabama, Michigan State and Oklahoma State.

He returned to Boston College in 2007 as an assistant head coach/offensive line coach. And when Tom Coughlin approached him about joining the Giants in 2009, he jumped at the chance.

"Tom Coughlin was the No. 1 reason I was interested in coming here," he said. "He worked with my dad at BC. I've always followed him and respected him, and you were talking about the opportunity to learn from one of the greats in the game."

And that's what intrigued him the most. As a head coach, he said, you sometimes lose touch with the fundamental base, the details of football. As an assistant, you can get right back in there and work on the things that make a difference.

"I think Jack has proven himself everywhere he's gone," said Steve Abbott. "First as a player at BC, then as a coach, first at UNH (where he was a line coach), then at Louisiana Tech and now with this opportunity.

"Every place he has gone, he's done a great job. And I'll tell you why he's a great coach. It's because he has a great way with people. He has a love of the game, but he also has a great love of life and it's that human touch that makes him a great coach."

Bicknell thinks about Maine often. He considers Maine Coach Jack Cosgrove -- who was his father's quarterback for the Black Bears -- one of his best friends and an exceptional coach, noting, "that's going to be a tough act to follow."

The respect, said Cosgrove, is mutual.

"I can't say enough about Jack and his family, and what they represent," said Cosgrove. "He's just a guy I think the world of. He's grounded deep in the substance of Orono, Maine."

Whether he ever becomes a head coach again remains to be seen. It's not something Bicknell is seeking. He loves what he's doing now. And what he's doing this week, amid the chaotic buildup to the Super Bowl, is a whole new learning experience.

"They talk about how you have to stay focused and all that, but that's a big part of it. You look what's going on around here," he said, waving his arms at the hundreds of interviews being conducted. "Then you've got to get right back into the biggest game of your life."

And when the game starts, there will be some fans with mixed emotions back in Maine.

"I love Jack, I really do," said Abbott. "But I've got to cheer for the Patriots."

School ties only go so far.

Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at:

mlowe@pressherald.com

Twitter: MikeLowePPH

 

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