ORONO, Maine — Bitter cold enveloped the University of Maine campus again Friday, just in time to greet 20 Black Bear football recruits and their parents here for a weekend visit.
Cold and snow are inescapable realities of winter in Orono. Head coach Jack Cosgrove and his staff tackle that subject, and others related to UMaine, head on with recruits.
“We walk them in the cold. We show the young people as honestly as we can what a UMaine experience would be like,” Cosgrove said. “We want to establish a level of communication and trust.”
UMaine football has learned to work around the challenges of being in northern New England. The program has created a warm, nurturing atmosphere which has successfully attracted student-athletes to the campus, where their achievements on the field and in the classroom have helped some develop into National Football League players and others into productive workers.
Location, location, location
UMaine is among the northernmost of the Football Championship Subdivision teams. Its location skews how people view the program and the school.
“The further we get away from the state of Maine, the more people think we butt up against Alaska,” Cosgrove said, only half-joking.
Location is the biggest challenge faced by UMaine football in trying to attract student-athletes. Orono is nearly a four-hour drive from Boston, the closest major city, and the program hasn’t experienced the same level of recent success as traditional Colonial Athletic Association rivals New Hampshire and Massachusetts.
“It’s difficult when you’re not in the mainstream of colleges, when you’re not down the street,” Cosgrove said. “It’s a real challenge to get folks to come visit us.”
The best advertising
Winning is the best way for UMaine to gain regional and national notoriety. Last fall, the Bears went 8-5 and earned an a bid to the NCAA’s FCS playoffs.
That put UMaine among the best 16 teams in the country out of 123 FCS programs. The Bears were ranked No. 18 in the final poll compiled by The Sports Network.
“You gain recruiting impact,” Cosgrove said of such success. “You don’t have to say it, it’s known, and the further we get outside the state of Maine, the more our success impresses people.”
Even after the best of seasons, recruiting is a chore. UMaine seldom wins a head-to-head recruiting battle — since it doesn’t happen very often.
No stone unturned
Recruiting is a year-round process, one that involves reviewing game tapes of players and watching them play in person, if possible.
UMaine’s coaches utilize a network of coaching peers, and receive input from high school coaches, guidance counselors and principals, in identifying potential Black Bears.
More information, unsolicited, comes from scouting services and players’ parents via email and phone calls.
From all that, Cosgrove and his assistants, each of whom is responsible for a geographic area, must identify student-athletes who have not only the ability, but the academic credentials and the character to succeed at UMaine.
“You have to recruit good students, good athletes and good people,” Cosgrove said. “If you come up short in evaluating their makeup, their value system, the characteristics they possess, you’re really taking a risk. We want good leaders.”
Cosgrove said UMaine doesn’t invest time with recruits who have three or four other scholarship offers, because they opt to stay closer to home. Instead, the program aggressively pursues players whose talent may not have been recognized by other schools.
That dynamic creates an emotional bond among the Black Bears, most of whom compete with a chip on their shoulder because they came from similar situations.
“We get the guys that are just overlooked,” Cosgrove said. “Guys believe in our evaluation of them, our faith in them.”
‘Endorsed’ by the NFL
UMaine has an outstanding record of developing players. There are nine former Bears listed on NFL rosters, the most of any FCS program.
UMaine’s former standouts include Chargers linebacker Stephen Cooper, Chicago Bears safety Brandon McGowan, Jets defensive end Mike DeVito and Seahawks linebacker Lofa Tatupu.
“Nobody else recruited Brandon McGowan, Lofa Tatupu, Stephen Cooper,” Cosgrove said. “We [initially] gave Mike DeVito $1,000 [scholarship aid] to come here and now he’s in the NFL.”
UMaine also boasts Montell Owens (Jaguars), Daren Stone (Ravens), Anthony Cotrone (Jaguars, injured reserve), Matthew Mulligan of West Enfield (Titans, practice squad) and Kevin McMahan (Panthers, practice squad) among former players in the pros.
“It is a compliment to the coaching staff and the leadership of the program,” said Brian Gaine, the assistant director of player personnel with the Miami Dolphins.
“When they get kids in the program, it’s not just about signing players, it’s a plan for player development,” said Gaine, who played tight end at UMaine from 1991-94. “The players greatly improve so that when they leave, they have maximized their potential.”
A key component of UMaine’s recruiting is seeing a player’s potential. The Bears often sign high school quarterbacks, who are among the best athletes on the team, and convert them to other positions.
“[The Jaguars] saw something in me, my hunger and desire,” Owens told the BDN in 2008. “I actually developed that at Maine. I really feel that if I had never gone to Maine and learned how to work like I do, I probably would have never understood what it takes to make it at this level.”
Gaine said UMaine has a positive reputation for producing players who are hardworking, dedicated and have a passion for playing football.
“They’re tough kids both physically and mentally,” Gaine said. “It allows guys to have a chance to compete for roster spots at the NFL level when you maintain that level of intangibles.”
Bridging the cultural gap
Another challenge for UMaine football is recruiting minority students. Most of the Bears’ black and Hispanic players grew up in urban areas that make living in Maine a shock.
Most of the young men find the experience is an eye-opener.
“I had to learn a different atmosphere, different people, different ways of people,” said UMaine senior Lionel Nixon Jr. “I think it was a great experience for me, coming from a different background.”
UMaine’s athletes play pivotal roles in the recruiting process. They host recruits for a weekend and answer many questions, including being among a small number of minority students on campus.
“Young men of color can recruit other men of color in eyeball-to-eyeball fashion,” Cosgrove said. “That’s one of the biggest strides that we’ve made is our players recruit for us.”
More to life than football
Cosgrove realizes most of his players won’t play pro ball. He wants them to dream big, but UMaine is even more committed to developing them as students, campus leaders and productive citizens.
Cosgrove praised UMaine’s student-athlete academic support team, headed by Ann Maxim, and the commitment of the school’s professors in guiding the student-athletes. During recruiting visits, players and their parents are able to talk with faculty members and administrators about their desired areas of study.
Cosgrove believes the entire student-athlete experience has a lasting impact on those who are willing to commit themselves to excellence in all areas.
“I think a young person with a college degree and Division I football experience is a very marketable young man,” Cosgrove said. “Once they leave here, they’ve learned so much about leadership, teamwork, sacrifice, commitment, words that are so important in the success of our program.”
Cosgrove is confident in what UMaine offers in a college experience. Its location may be one of its most important attributes for student-athletes.
“Parents see a lack of distractions, obstacles,” Cosgrove said. “I think we get a more serious-minded student-athlete when all is said and done.”
UMaine also has top-notch facilities with Morse Field at Alfond Stadium, the Mahaney Dome and the Latti Fitness Center for weight training.
Ultimately, UMaine football and the university sell themselves on good football, excellent educational opportunities and dedicated, caring coaches and teachers.
“I think our strength is, we know who we are and we know where we are. We don’t pretend we’re somebody else,” Cosgrove said.