BIDDEFORD — As the University of New England began its search for the school’s first head football coach, Athletic Director Jack McDonald had some specific ideas about what type of coach he wanted.

After narrowing the 200-plus initial candidates down to five finalists, there was one in particular that he liked. “I was really hoping that he was as impressive live as he was on paper,” McDonald said.

Apparently he was.

Mike Lichten was introduced as UNE’s head football coach Thursday in a press conference at Harold Alfond Forum. Lichten, 29, was the head coach at Becker College in Worcester, Massachusetts, for the last five years. His team had a 7-3 record in 2015, when he was named the Eastern Collegiate Football Conference coach of the year. That was the best record – and first winning season – in program history, which began in 2005.

“All of the finalists were great,” said McDonald. “Mike was just a step better.

“From the very beginning of the search process, we received numerous nominations and recommendations for Mike, and not only from excellent football people, but from university student affairs and many other non-athletic staff,” said McDonald. “He has excellent experience in building a Division III program that is committed to athletics, academics and community service.”

Lichten, a native of Newton, Massachusetts, and a 2008 graduate of the University of New Hampshire, said it was difficult leaving Becker but that he felt that UNE was the right move.

“From the moment I arrived, I felt at home, that this was a place where I’d probably want to be,” he said. “Every day since then, as I’ve got to know this place, that feeling is intensified.”

The Nor’easters will play a sub-varsity schedule in 2017, then join the Commonwealth Coast Conference as an NCAA Division III varsity program in 2018. UNE’s first varsity game will be on Aug. 30, 2018, against Coast Guard at New London, Connecticut. With the CCC, UNE will have a six-game league schedule. It has four-year agreements with both Coast Guard and Husson University in Bangor for non-conference games.

UNE also introduced Ashley Potvin as its first varsity women’s rugby coach at the press conference. Her hiring was announced on Wednesday. The Nor’easters will join the National Collegiate Women’s Varsity Rugby Association and begin next September.

SCHOOLS ADDING FOOTBALL

UNE announced its intent to start a varsity football program 14 months ago, looking to enhance the school’s athletic offerings and to boost enrollment. A football program could bring as many as 100 male students to the campus. At the time, UNE President Danielle Ripich called football “a community builder.”

While football has come under fire in many circles over head injuries, colleges continue to add the sport. According to the National Football Foundation, four colleges began football programs last fall (including one at the Division III level, Finlandia University in Hancock, Michigan) and eight more intend to add football within the next two years, including UNE.

Lichten had previous experience at UNH, where he was a student intern working under head coach Sean McDonnell, and at Northeastern, where he was an assistant for two years.

“Mike’s a good man,” said McDonnell. “He came here and worked for peanuts when he was working to get into coaching. He was around the office all the time, doing extra stuff, watching tape, asking questions. He was like a sponge. He absorbed everything we gave him. I’m happy for him. He works extremely hard at everything he does.”

Lichten sees UNE as a great starting place for a program. Its location on the banks of the Saco River is appealing. The school has a strong academic reputation and offers a variety of majors, including communications, sports management and physical therapy. “Those are all majors that football players tend to gravitate to,” he said.

The school’s academic requirements should not hinder his recruiting, he said.

“I don’t see that as a challenge, I see that as a weapon in recruiting,” he said. “I want players to come to play football here not because of football but because football is at this place.”

He plans on tapping into Maine’s high school football programs to build the foundation for his roster. Lichten said he plans on meeting as many of the state’s coaches as he can.

“I cannot stress enough how important southern Maine high school football is going to be to this program,” he said. “It’s essential that I build relationships with (the high school coaches). Coaches need to trust who they’re sending their players to.”

FACILITY UPGRADES COMING

Both Lichten and McDonald stressed patience for those looking for immediate success. The school still needs to build locker room facilities and offices for both of its new sports, and possibly add new fields. “We have a plan in place for some expansion,” said McDonald. “There are other phases of this yet to come.”

JB Wells, the head football coach at Bowdoin, knows a little about building a program. He was the first head coach at Endicott College in Beverly, Massachusetts. The Gulls are now one of the top Division III programs in New England.

“The biggest thing is being patient,” said Wells. “It’s hard to be patient. You want to get things going. But it does take time.”

Endicott also started with a junior varsity program the first year, which Wells said was vital. “You get a chance to get some things with the program up and running and on your feet without getting knocked to your knees every week playing with freshmen,” he said. “You’re going to be younger than anyone you play. … If you start out (as varsity) right away and you’re getting your tail kicked every week, it’s hard to feel good about that.”

Lichten was a three-sport athlete at Newton High School, playing football, basketball and baseball. He did not play football at UNH, but realized after his sophomore year that he wanted to coach. A history major, he planned to teach and coach in high school. “I was sitting in a Steak ‘n Shake in Springfield, Missouri, with my cousin and told him my plans,” said Lichten. “He said, if you want to coach football, why not just do that?”

So he returned to UNH for his junior season and asked McDonnell what he could do to help the program. He would break down game films for the staff, attend meetings and organize recruiting visits.

“I knew I wanted to coach football wholeheartedly,” he said. “But I really knew that when, on my 21st birthday, I wasn’t in a bar. I was breaking down spring practice film.”

UNH COACH A BIG INFLUENCE

Lichten said McDonnell was a strong influence in his career.

“I learned how to be a professional coach from him,” said Lichten. “And I still learn things from him every day.

“I learned something new every day, and not just the nuts and bolts of it but the way you approach work, the way you relate to your co-workers and the way you treat people who work with you or for you. I learned all that from Coach Mac.”

After graduating, Lichten spent two years at Northeastern University as an assistant, coaching wide receivers and then defensive backs.

He joined Becker in 2010 as the defensive coordinator. The next year, at age 23, he was hired as head coach. His overall record was 15-37 but the Hawks broke through with a 7-3 record last fall.

Leaving Becker – especially the team – was not easy.

“I am so thankful to all the people at Becker, but most importantly the players and their families, for the impact that they’ve had on my life,” said Lichten. “I told the players Monday when I said goodbye that I became a man with them. From when I came in at 23 to where I am now at 29, I became the man that I am going to be with my kids and my family. That was the hardest part of this process, walking away from those guys.

“The reason to leave is the people here. This is family. It was a family at Becker, a family I was honored to be the head of. But with Jack and President Ripich and everyone else I met, from the second I met them, I felt as though I belonged.”