Don’t worry, Black Bear fans. University of Maine football is alive and well.
That was the message Thursday from UMaine director of athletics Blake James in the wake of Hofstra University’s announcement earlier in the day that it is eliminating its football program.
The unanimous decision by the Hofstra University Board of Directors was handed down only 10 days after Northeastern University in Boston, another Colonial Athletic Association football school, pulled the plug on its program.
“Football is an important part of the University of Maine athletic program,” James said. “I’m excited about the young men that we have coming back to represent us on the field next year and look forward to competing for a championship in the CAA.”
Like Northeastern, Hempstead, N.Y.-based Hofstra cited financial concerns for its decision to eliminate football and its approximately $4.5 million budget. That didn’t make the news any easier for people such as former UMaine defensive coordinator Rich Nagy, an assistant coach at Hofstra.
UMaine head coach Jack Cosgrove was recruiting Thursday in Boston when he heard the news.
“It’s really a shock to me, a surprise,” Cosgrove said. “It’s not a good thing for college football to see this happen here in the Northeast in such a short period of time.”
Cosgrove was talking to former Northeastern players, with whom UMaine had recruiting ties, now that they’re back on the market.
“I don’t know if you can actually put into words the pain and anger the young people here at Northeastern feel,” Cosgrove said. “They just had the rug pulled out from underneath them.”
The UMaine program remains on solid footing. A young Black Bears team went 5-6 this season and finished second behind New Hampshire in the CAA’s North Division.
James said there has been no discussion about cutting football, or any other sport at the university, since UMaine studied its situation and opted to eliminate men’s soccer and women’s volleyball a year ago.
“When we went through the process last year, we evaluated everything and we decided the programs we were going forward with,” James said.
Cosgrove said he has a renewed sense of optimism after speaking with James on Tuesday about UMaine’s commitment to his program.
“I felt a great level of support from him and the university in moving forward,” Cosgrove said. “We’ve worked too hard at this for over 100 years and there’s way too many alumni and people attached to this program, its tradition and its history.”
James said UMaine’s football budget is approximately $3 million, which represents about 20 percent of the $15 million athletic budget. He explained football also brings in more than $1 million through the Football Bowl Subdivision guarantee game, ticket sales, luxury suite leases, the broadcasting and marketing contract with Learfield Sports, and private donations.
“I think there’s a real passion for football at Maine with a great number of people and I’m especially excited about the alumni support and the support of [benefactors such as] the Alfonds and the Morses,” Cosgrove said. “I know I’m looking forward to the challenge at Maine. Nothing is easy at Maine and it’s never going to be.”
Despite a sagging state economy, budget reductions and extensive cuts made this year throughout the university, including athletics, James said football remains viable.
“Comparatively, if you look at our budget compared to like institutions, our budget is very conservative,” James said.
James doesn’t anticipate any further athletic budget cuts for 2009-10, but he said he can’t rule them out. Cuts could be necessary if further reductions in state funding to the university are made in the meantime.
Hofstra’s move reduces to 10 the number of CAA schools that will sponsor football in 2010. CAA Commissioner Tom Yeager said via a conference call that the conference will realign for the 2010 season.
“We will go forward with a single league, no divisions and play the eight conference games,” said Yeager, who added such a move requires the approval of CAA athletic directors.
The league will then have to juggle its schedule each of the next two years, as Old Dominion joins the CAA in 2011, followed by Georgia State in 2012.
The short-term emphasis is on providing each team with eight conference games, four home and four away.
James said the departure of Northeastern and Hofstra shouldn’t have many deep-reaching consequences for UMaine’s football program.
There will be changes in UMaine’s CAA schedule. The Bears have lost two of their former North Division opponents, both of which could be reached by taking less-expensive bus trips.
In the future, those games will be replaced with opponents who are farther away and will require more expensive charter airplane flights.
“The cost impact is going to be most significant on the northern schools,” said Yeager, who said the changing landscape of CAA football will require more consideration.
“I think everyone is going to need a little bit of time to sort out what this does mean and what are the options and the commitment to maintain what has been universally recognized as the strongest league in the FCS the past couple years,” Yeager said. “It could mean a lot of things to different people.”