ORONO – Has the University of Maine football team, with its magical run to the NCAA playoffs, been playing for its future this season? Steve Abbott says no, Black Bears football is assured of its place on campus.

Jack Cosgrove says he doesn’t know. If Maine has a vision or a blueprint of where it wants its teams to be, he hasn’t seen it. The athletic director and the head football coach certainly talk to each other. They just haven’t had that conversation.

It’s overdue and not just between Abbott and Cosgrove.

“I remember my campus visit here as a high school student,” said Cosgrove, speaking of a time more than 35 years ago. “I went to a basketball game in The Pit when that was the place to be. I remember the crowd and the noise and it sold me that night. This place is awesome. It can be awesome again.”

No one needs reminding that these are hard times, especially at a state university funded by tax dollars generated in a relatively poor, rural state. If more cuts are necessary, who feels the pain this time?

The football team is leaving campus this morning to play Georgia Southern in the NCAA quarterfinals.

With its 9-3 record and gritty finishes, Maine football is the feel-good story of the fall.

“This team has sort of been our secret,” Abbott said during a short conversation in his campus office. “We have great coaches, great players, a great academic program, and now we have a chance to show it off.”

He’s right. Everyone loves the underdog, and Maine football is always that.

In the world of the Football Championship Series, once known as Division I-AA, the Black Bears are this year’s Cinderella. No marketing campaign could have produced a better image or a better storyline of the team that kept picking itself up after getting knocked down.

Too bad that story didn’t resonate on campus. Maine’s last two home games drew crowds of about 5,000 and 4,400.

“We are more appreciated for what we do the farther away we go,” Cosgrove said earlier this week.

Sitting in his office, he asks if I heard the end of the broadcast after Maine beat Appalachian State last Saturday.

“I’ve got the tape right here. I couldn’t believe it. (The commentator) said Maine is the only place in the country where H comes before F in the alphabet.”

Meaning hockey comes before football.

Before Abbott took over and when budgets had to be cut, coaches who once worked as a team fought to protect their turf.

Has Maine football been playing for its future? The Little Engine That Could story that Cosgrove can pitch is always powerful. The more talented players will still probably look elsewhere first. The hungrier players with more to prove will listen more closely. Benefactors may write more and larger checks.

Had Maine played to another 4-7 season, the fear was the administration might de-emphasize or downgrade the program. Cut more, move to a less competitive conference and effectively end the dream of winning more playoff games.

Without a vision or a blueprint, that fear never completely goes away.

Maine has the chance to beat Georgia Southern on Saturday and become one of the last four FCS teams playing in December. “We have the foundation,” said Abbott. “We have good support but we want great support from the campus and the community to take the next step. At the end of 2013 we should know more what the conference picture will look like.

“Football is very important. It’s the anchor sport that sets the tone for the beginning of our school year. I just can’t imagine not having football.”

Abbott is right again. Abbott parachuted into a wildnerness of lost everything. He’s been asked in 18 months to fix things that took nearly 10 years to come undone.

Football has set the tone this year. It’s time to think big.

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

[email protected]

Twitter: SteveSolloway