ORONO — It’s Joe Harasymiak’s office now but the old wooden chair is still there, the one he was sitting in when his whole life changed at the tender age of 29, sharing a grieved minute of silence with his mentor, who was about to do him the biggest favor of his football coaching career.

It was late in the afternoon of Nov. 23, 2015, a long Monday of soul-searching for a UMaine coaching staff that had just endured a 3-8 season ending with a fourth consecutive loss, 22-6 at New Hampshire. Jack Cosgrove, the head coach for 23 seasons who had hired Harasymiak and promoted him twice, texted his defensive coordinator to see if he was still in the building.

Harasymiak felt a moment of dread, then followed Cosgrove down the hall to his office, plopped into the chair just inside the door and was dumbfounded by what he heard.

“I want you to go home, sit down with your wife (Brittany), talk to her and find out what she thinks about you being the next head coach of UMaine football,” Cosgrove told him.

Both men got choked up. Cosgrove’s days on the sideline were done at age 60. He was moving into an administrative role. And he wanted Harasymiak to be his successor.

Cosgrove championed Harasymiak throughout the interview process as the Black Bears sought a football coach for the first time in a generation, although the decision was up to Athletic Director Karlton Creech. On Dec. 16, Creech revealed his choice – Harasymiak, who became the youngest head coach in Division I football.

On Thursday, Harasymiak leads the Black Bears onto the practice field for the first time for three weeks of workouts that will begin to establish the new coach’s vision.

Harasymiak revealed in a lengthy interview in his office recently how shocked he still is to find himself at the helm of the UMaine program. He said coaching got into his blood as a college cornerback at Springfield (he graduated in 2008) and has never let go, through years when he was making $4,000 at Maine Maritime Academy, swapping vehicles with his parents back in New Jersey so that he could get better gas mileage on his weekly trips to Springfield to visit Brittany, going six years between dental visits because he didn’t have benefits. And how surreal it is to be taking over for Cosgrove this quickly into his career.

“I thought he was going to be here for a long time,” Harasymiak said of Cosgrove. “I never, ever thought about being a head coach seriously. I always told myself I wanted to do it, but I never knew when my opportunity would come.”

ROAD TO COACHING

Harasymiak grew up in Waldwick, New Jersey, a small town 20 minutes outside of New York City. Athletics were in his DNA. His father, Steve, was a longtime producer at NBC Sports, jetting off for exotic assignments like the Olympics, Super Bowls and Notre Dame football. The middle of three sons – Vince is six years older, Steve three years younger – Joe was a three-sport star in high school, consumed by football, basketball and baseball.

When it came time for college, though, Harasymiak wanted to concentrate on football. At Springfield, a Division III school, he made the switch from quarterback to cornerback and was so good that he tied the school record for career interceptions with 17. He was majoring in physical education and wanted to be a teacher/coach, but Mike Cerasuolo, then the offensive coordinator, pulled him aside one summer day and suggested he would make a great college coach. Harasymiak, who had always loved working summer camps and instructing younger players, didn’t need to be told twice.

The next year he was a graduate assistant coach at Maine Maritime, making $4,000 but living on campus and getting free meals. He was hooked.

He returned to Springfield for two seasons, first as a wide receivers coach and then promoted to quarterbacks coach. A temporary job opened at UMaine and he impressed the staff enough to be hired. The next year, Cosgrove promoted him to defensive backs coach. Two years later, at age 27, Harasymiak was made defensive coordinator.

That was the signal that this profession was going to last. He could bring Brittany, a teacher, north to live with him now that he was making $53,000 annually.

Harasymiak happily drove his parents’ Nissan Altima down to New Jersey for the Christmas holidays, where he could trade it back for his beloved Jeep now that he didn’t need to trek to Massachusetts every weekend.

His mother, Jane, remembers the moment vividly.

“It was Christmas Eve and he pulls out a business card and he crosses out assistant whatever. It was a gold pen and he wrote ‘defensive coordinator.’ I just bawled my eyes out because I knew how hard he worked for this,” Jane Harasymiak said.

“I said, ‘Can I have my moment please?’ And I just broke down crying, hugging him.”

DEFENSIVE WIZARD

Harasymiak excelled in his new role despite his youth, which became an issue for the first time. He said Cosgrove did a good job of keeping the chatter away from him, but he was aware that his head coach was taking some heat for promoting a relatively untested kid to such an important role.

“I thought he was going to be all over me. But he really let me do what I needed to do,” Harasymiak said. “Maybe he did second-guess me in his head with some of my calls but he never said anything to me. He always trusted me. When I saw that, it made me want to be even better, it made me want to try harder.”

Harasymiak’s first game as defensive coordinator set the tone. Maine’s defense, nicknamed the Black Hole, stuffed Norfolk State, allowing a paltry 100 yards in a 10-6 win on Aug. 30, 2014. Cosgrove gave Harasymiak the game ball.

Harasymiak produced defensive units that ranked second in the Colonial Athletic Association in 2014 and third last year. A 33-20 victory over eighth-ranked Richmond in November 2014 was among Harasymiak’s finest moments. The Black Bears forced five turnovers and yielded only 58 yards rushing. After the Spiders scored on their opening possession, Harasymiak seemed to have every answer.

“I really like being in the game, in the moment. I don’t know what it is but I feel like I can call a game. It was something that just came natural to me,” he said. “A lot of guys will sit there and stare at their call sheet. There were times I didn’t even look at it. I could always feel the game and see the game.”

Harasymiak’s low point came after a 10-7 loss to Towson last November, his defense undone by a sputtering offense that has been Maine’s downfall the past two autumns.

After that game Cosgrove called him, sensing his frustration. It was the only time his head coach made such an overture.

“That was the one time when I couldn’t look my guys in the eyes,” Harasymiak said, “because they were working so hard and not getting rewarded. What could I tell them?”

Things came to a head at season’s end. Cosgrove stepped aside, Harasymiak took over and both knew it was time for offensive coordinator Kevin Bourgoin to be shown the door. Cosgrove felt that was his responsibility and handled the situation, said Harasymiak, who hired former Massachusetts quarterback Liam Coen to replace Bourgoin.

But there was one more coaching change that Harasymiak felt compelled to make, and this one was even more personal. He cut ties with Shawn Demaray, who was his roommate in that 2008 season at Maine Maritime and who had spent five years working alongside him in Orono as the team’s tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator.

“I couldn’t sleep the night before,” Harasymiak said. “I wanted to surround myself with people that I really trusted and really thought that had the same beliefs as me. I know Shawn really well but it just was something I had to do for the direction of this program, just from observing what I’ve observed over the last five years. Right now I think those were the right decisions. We’ll find out.”

CREATING AN IDENTITY

There have been happier moments for Harasymiak, who signed a five-year contract that pays $150,000 annually. He and Brittany were married last July. She is teaching in Old Town. His Jeep is paid for. They’re still living in the same apartment but are exploring buying a house in Hampden. They enjoy trying new restaurants but frequently find themselves at Paddy Murphy’s in Bangor, where they get a booth and play card games like rummy or IRS, the competition sometimes so intense that other patrons glance over at the young couple.

Harasymiak also has become an avid golfer and is enjoying closer links with his two brothers, both still living in New Jersey. They recently returned from an annual outing to Florida.

His mother comes to all his games, his father also attending when his job with the MLB Network allows. They insist on sideline passes to be closer to the action. Jane is a notorious pacer, although she is quick to point out that she holds her tongue and is not a distraction. If you look at film of Joe from a game, he jokes, one of his parents is almost certain to also be in it.

But mostly Harasymiak is excited about his new job. He wants to brand the Black Bears as the toughest kids on the block after they went 8-14 the past two seasons. He carries around Post-It notes so he can jot down thoughts as they occur to him. When he speaks of the future, it’s in a rapid-fire delivery that forces the listener to keep up.

“I’d be the dumbest coach in America to go forward and not change things,” Harasymiak said. “I think Maine football is toughness, it’s running the ball, it’s play action, it’s playing great defense. Those are the kids we have. We have tougher kids, we’ll breed tougher kids, we’ll breed a style of play that fits our guys. We’re not a spread team that runs a thousand miles an hour. That’s not how we’re going to win games. I want people to walk away from games and go, ‘Wow, that team is tough. They beat us up. They’re physical.’ ”

His toughness, Harasymiak said, comes from his mother. Jane Harasymiak has been getting up at 4:45 a.m. each workday for 39 years to make the trek into Manhattan, where she is an executive assistant at McGraw-Hill. She helped chauffeur and referee for three rough-housing sons. She left them each morning with a message, one she will repeat to Joe before his first game as head coach, Sept. 1 at Connecticut.

“We have a joke around here, when I go out to work in the morning, ‘Strap it on, boys, we’ve got a new game,’ ” Jane Harasymiak said, starting to laugh. “That’s what I’m going to say to him. ‘Strap it on, baby, we’ve got a new game.’ ”

And for the first time since 1993, the Maine football team has a new boss.


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