Head coach Nick Charlton addresses his players after UMaine first preseason practice on Aug.1. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

ORONO — Nick Charlton was 5 years old and knew what he was going to do with his life. He was going to become a politician.

“I swear to God,” he said, “that’s what I wanted to do.”

But Charlton received another calling later in life, one that put him on the path to the University of Maine. After four years as assistant coach, he was promoted in December to take over the Black Bears’ football program.

Charlton isn’t your typical football coach. He didn’t play college football and never has been a head coach at any level. At Boston College, he majored in philosophy. And now, at 30, he’s the youngest of the nation’s 256 Division I head football coaches.

“To be honest, his age kind of helps,” said senior defensive lineman Kayon Whitaker. “He can relate to the players a little more, he’s a little more accommodating to our culture. We kind of have a big brother/little brother relationship with the head coach.

“He talks to us about music, video games, new rappers. Rappers you wouldn’t even think he knew about? He has a list of their songs. Sometimes you don’t even feel like you’re talking to the head coach and that just makes you want to play for him even more.”

In Charlton, UMaine is hoping to capture lightning in a bottle again.

Three seasons ago, the school hired 29-year-old Joe Harasymiak, who at the time became the nation’s youngest Division I head coach. After posting a 10-11 record in his first two years, Harasymiak broke through last fall. The Black Bears (10-4) won the Colonial Athletic Association title and advanced to the Football Championship Series semifinals for the first time.

Harasymiak resigned Dec. 20 to become an assistant coach at the University of Minnesota. Charlton was promoted from offensive coordinator to head coach the next day.

But unlike Harasymiak, who took over a team coming off back-to-back losing seasons, Charlton faces high expectations from the start. Maine returns 15 starters and is ranked seventh in both FCS national polls entering its opener Friday night against Sacred Heart.

In turn, Charlton places high expectations on his team. The players are all in.

“I felt his leadership my first three years here even though he wasn’t the head coach,” said senior cornerback Manny Patterson. “I’d listen to his speeches to the special teams, the fire he brings.

“I see a great leader.”

‘SMARTEST KID ON THE FIELD’

Nick Charlton was 2 when his family moved from Virginia Beach, Virginia, to Salem, Massachusetts. His dad, Scott, a Navy diver, retired and wanted to go back to his home state. Nick was a three-sport athlete at Salem High. Basketball, where he was a small forward, was his favorite sport.

As the quarterback on the football team, he led the Witches to a 5-5 record as a senior. His coach, Scott Connolly, saw him as a tough kid, a good athlete.

“He knew how to control a game and lead, and make people around him better,” said Connolly, now the school’s athletic director. “He was, by far, always the smartest kid on the field. His football IQ was through the roof. I knew he would make a good coach down the line. What he has done since high school to be in this position is pretty amazing.”

Charlton committed to play football at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire, even putting money down and picking a roommate. Then he was accepted into Boston College and everything changed. Charlton went there but didn’t play football. He planned to be a politician after all, it seemed.

“A month into school I realized something was missing in my life,” he said.

It was football.

Charlton thought about walking on as a player at BC. He thought about transferring to a Division II school to play. Ultimately he stayed and joined the football coaching staff as a student assistant, starting with equipment, moving to scout teams and on up. “I ended up carving a little niche with the coaching staff there,” he said. “And once I saw what the path I was on was, I stuck to it.”

At Boston College, he met his wife, Maria, at a dorm social their freshman year. He told her one day that he wanted to be a football coach. “I sort of encouraged it,” she said. “I didn’t know what we were getting into, the long hours and him being away from home, but it’s hard to care about stuff like that when you see someone doing something they love.”

And Nick Charlton said the philosophy degree continues to pay dividends.

“(Philosophy) is about thinking and problem-solving and critical thinking, and dealing with people and the things that you learn throughout life. (Coaching) is all about relationships and making decisions, things like that,” he said. “And that’s what I think I do pretty well.”

RAPID RISE AT UMAINE

After graduating in 2011, Charlton joined BC’s coaching staff as a graduate assistant, working with recruiting and the offense. He earned a Master’s degree in administrative science in 2013. Charlton spent three years with the Eagles, then joined the Black Bears’ staff in 2015 as the wide receivers coach, hired by the former coach, Jack Cosgrove, who’s now at Colby College.

Cosgrove didn’t know Charlton but two guys he respected did: Barry Gallup, the former BC and Northeastern head coach, and Kevin Lempa, a former UMaine and BC assistant. “Those are guys I have a tremendous amount of respect for,” said Cosgrove. “And it wasn’t hard for me to hire Nick based on their recommendations.”

Last year with Nick Charlton as the offensive coordinator, UMaine averaged 26.5 points, its most since 2013. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Charlton’s rise through the coaching staff was rapid. He became the special teams coordinator in 2016 and the offensive coordinator in 2018.

“I was only with him for one year,” said Cosgrove, “but he was a guy who would do anything he was asked to do. And that’s important for a young guy going into this profession, to make yourself as comprehensively sound as anyone.”

At Maine, Charlton has coached 12 all-conference selections. As special teams coordinator, his group was ranked in the top five among the 12 CAA teams, with Earnest Edwards becoming perhaps the league’s most dangerous kick returner. Last year with Charlton as the offensive coordinator, Maine averaged 26.5 points, its most since 2013.

And when it comes to recruiting, Charlton said he’s been involved with perhaps 80 percent of the roster, personally recruiting Edwards, quarterback Chris Ferguson, linebacker Jaron Grayer and others.

“His work ethic is outstanding,” said Ken Ralph, UMaine’s athletic director. “He’s going to be where he needs to be and he’s going to put in the effort. That’s a huge part of being successful. Football coaches, the hours they put in are dramatic. He knows what it takes and he’s willing to do the work.”

Charlton must balance the work with a young family. He and Maria have two children. Their daughter, Maddie, will be 2 in October. A son, Scott, was born June 9.

“A coach he used to work for always said good things happen to people who work hard,” Maria Charlton said. “That’s one of the reasons Nick is where he is. He always pretended he was the head coach, always carried himself that way.”

CONNECTS WITH THE PLAYERS

The same day in late December that Harasymiak departed for Minnesota, the Black Bears lost their defensive coordinator, Corey Hetherman, to a CAA rival, James Madison.

Ralph, the athletic director, knew he had to act quickly. The holidays were approaching. With the national signing day in early February, a recruiting class might have been lost. If the school conducted a national search for a head coach, it might be mid-February before one was hired. The Maine assistant coaches, not knowing where they stood, might have scattered.

Given the team’s success last fall, Ralph anticipated that Harasymiak might leave for a bigger program and already was looking at Charlton as a possible replacement.

“There were a couple of parts to that,” said Ralph. “First of all, anybody who’s spent any time with Nick knows he’s head coach material and it was only a matter of time before he got that opportunity. We would rather it were here than somewhere else. Second was the timing.”

So on Dec. 21, the day after Harasymiak left, the school signed Charlton to a five-year contract worth $153,000 a year. It was also the day after Charlton turned 30.

Of the four new head coaches in the CAA this fall, Charlton is the only one without previous head-coaching experience.

Curt Cignetti at James Madison was the head coach at Elon the last two years and a Division II head coach the previous six. Mike London at William & Mary was a head coach at Richmond, Virginia and Howard. Tony Trisciani of Elon was a head coach at a Pennsylvania high school and an assistant at four Division I colleges.

“Nick is very systematic, has a very well thought-out approach,” says Ken Ralph, UMaine athletic director. “But he’s still approachable as a person. You can talk to him and he’s going to spend time with you and get to know you as a person.” Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Charlton’s salary – the same as Harasymiak’s when he left – is also the lowest for a head coach in the league. At least three CAA coaches make $400,000 or more. Ralph cited Maine’s budget constraints when news broke of Harasymiak’s departure.

“One of the things we’re looking for is young up-and-comers ready for that move,” he said at the time. “Someone demonstrating a high aptitude for this. That’s the nature of who we are and what we are.”

Charlton fit that description. “Nick is very systematic, has a very well thought-out approach,” Ralph said, “but he’s still approachable as a person. You can talk to him and he’s going to spend time with you, and get to know you as a person.”

That’s important, especially to his players.

“He makes the effort to understand us and what we’re doing, our culture and the things we’re involved with,” said Ferguson. “I think that’s important. If you understand people more, you know what we want.”

“He’s a big player’s guy,” said senior running back Joe Fitzpatrick. “He checks in on you, has one-on-one talks with you, jokes around. We all understand how serious Division I football is, but if you’re not having fun it’s going to be harder to play for someone and work harder as a team. I appreciate Coach Nick because he makes sure we’re getting our jobs done but having a good time while doing it.”

But, said Ferguson, once you’re on the field or in a meeting room, it’s clear who’s in charge. “He’s going to get on you on the field to make sure you know what you’re doing, and in the film room. He’s going to coach you hard and he’s going to love you hard.”

‘WE’RE GOING TO STEP IT UP A NOTCH’

One of the first things Charlton told the team after he was hired was he would turn Maine into a real Division I program. That opened senior defensive tackle Charles Mitchell’s eyes: “I’m like, ‘I thought we had a real Division I program before.’ OK then, we’re going to step it up a notch.”

It’s been little steps. The entrance to the locker room and offices is undergoing renovation so team trophies can be displayed, bringing a sense of pride.

Charlton also has worked with New Balance to secure apparel for the team when it goes on the road: a polo shirt, zip-up jacket and windbreaker pants with high-end sneakers. “That may not seem to be a big thing to his generation,” said Ferguson, “but it means a lot to us.”

Even when players are in meetings, he wants them wearing the same outfits. “We’re a team, we should look like a team,” said Charlton. “That’s what a real Division I outfit will do.

“They may be little (things) but they show our players that we’re willing to invest in them. Our players are our No. 1 commodity. I want to do those little things to take care of them and then I can challenge them a little harder, demand more of them.”

The Black Bears haven’t had back-to-back winning seasons since 2002-03, but this year’s goals are much higher. Charlton talks to players every day about elevating the standard set by the 2018 team, of creating a legacy that will define the program.

To do that, he said the Black Bears have to become more disciplined, something he’s stressed since his job interview. Maine averaged 80 penalty yards a game last year, second-worst in the CAA. But the Black Bears led the league – by large margins – in penalties (120) and penalty yards (1,120).

Charlton set the tone early. Last spring he removed two running backs from the team for a violation of team rules even though the Black Bears were thin at that position. “When I was asked what would be my biggest change to the program, and this isn’t a knock on anyone, my answer was we need to change the discipline.”

The players understand this. And they’re ready to follow.

“I like everything that he’s bringing to the program,” said Mitchell. “Me and Coach Nick, we’ve always had this relationship, even though I was on defense and he was wide receivers coach, or special teams coach, or offensive coordinator. Now that he’s my head coach, I can see why (receivers) Jaquan (Blair) and Andre (Miller) and Micah (Wright) love him so much. He brings so much to the table and he wants to make you better.”


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