December 5, 2013

Steve Solloway: NCAA playoff game matters to UMaine football

Does it matter to you?

Saturday’s football game matters a great deal to the players who wear Maine on their uniform jerseys. Beat rival New Hampshire and the next round of the NCAA playoffs beckons. Lose the game and a season of unexpected achievements ends.

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Maine Coach Jack Cosgrove pats the shoulder of Maine wide receiver John Ebeling after the loss to New Hampshire on Nov. 23. The Black Bears will be home for a playoff game against New Hampshire on Saturday.

The Associated Press

NCAA FOOTBALL

WHO: New Hampshire (8-4) at Maine (10-2)

WHEN: 2 p.m. Saturday

WHERE: Alfond Stadium, Orono

RADIO: WLOB-1310 AM

Which begs the question: Does Maine football matter to you?

If it does, you’ll don your warmest clothing and sit in the grandstands Saturday. If it doesn’t matter, you won’t. Think of this first-ever Football Championship Series playoff game played in Orono as a non-binding referendum on the future of Maine football. You’ll vote with your feet.

If this game can’t draw you to the state’s only Division I campus, what football game will? If a crowd of close to 10,000 shows up to watch New Hampshire play Maine, the message should refute those who don’t believe this level of college football has support in this cash-strapped state.

A much smaller crowd gives the faction that would downsize or drop Maine football the ammunition it needs. You think I’m crying wolf? Go talk to those who once played football at Vermont, Boston University and Northeastern, and their fans. The three schools eliminated football to better fund other sports.

Maine is not actively discussing dropping football. That doesn’t mean it won’t.

Does Maine football matter to you? It should. Coach Jack Cosgrove has invested some 20 years of his life to build a program that has done more with less. It begins with identifying talented athletes overlooked by other football schools to convincing those players that this outpost will become their island of success. Think Lofa Tatupu, Stephen Cooper, Mike DeVito, Montell Owens, Matt Mulligan and others who earned their way onto NFL rosters.

Don’t play the Jovan Belcher card. The face of the former Maine linebacker who murdered the mother of his child one year ago isn’t the face of Maine football.

There’s not enough money in the Maine budget to reward the assistants on his staff so there’s frequent turnover. Cosgrove would match his starting 22 players with any in the country but inexperienced backups can struggle to fill bigger shoes.

He doesn’t turn around and count heads in the grandstand on game day. He looks at the attendance numbers when he’s handed the sheaf of statistics during postgame press conferences. Two years ago I saw the dismay when he looked at the attendance for a late-season game with Towson. Fewer than 5,000 came to watch an important Colonial Athletic Association matchup. You can count at least that many fans at Maine championship high school games.

Later that afternoon I passed Cosgrove in the corridor near the football offices. I suggested he move on, go somewhere where his integrity, credibility and style would be better appreciated. He shook his head. No.

His fear is that the university would downsize or drop the football program if he leaves. It’s what motivates him to keep building, keep strengthening the program and hope you’ll notice.

Have you?

The high school football season has been over for a couple of weeks, deer hunting season is done and gas prices are down. The 21/2-hour drive from southern Maine is a stretch but you drive to Gillette Stadium in the same time to watch the Patriots. Yes, it will be cold but this is a state of ice fishermen, snowmobile riders and skiers. Sitting in the upper deck at Gillette enduring a stiff December wind is Arctic-like but you’ll do it at many times the cost of Saturday’s game.

But who set kickoff for 2 p.m. in Orono with the sun setting in the fourth quarter? Let me guess. Television? Gametime in Durham, N.H., for the end-of-season game with New Hampshire was noon.

Does Maine football matter? This team finished at 10-2 overall, 7-1 in the CAA. Marcus Wasilewski, Cabrinni Goncalves, Ricky Stevens, Tyler Patterson, Trevor Bates and their teammates should have earned your attention.

Saturday, they and the football program need your appreciation. Go to the game. Don’t go to the game. Just understand how you’re voting.

Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:

ssolloway@pressherald.com

Twitter: SteveSolloway

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