ORONO, Maine — Mark Coutts shudders to think where he might be today if it wasn’t for University of Maine football.
Coutts grew up in Auburn and starred at Edward Little High School. He knew an athletic scholarship would be his only means of attending college.
UMaine’s coach, the late Ron Rogerson, offered a scholarship and Coutts capitalized on the opportunity.
Coutts, who graduated from UMaine in 1986 with a business degree, is now the executive director of sales for the printer group of Konica Minolta Business Solutions.
“Everything that I have in my life today — I’m going to try not to get emotional on you — I owe in large part to the University of Maine and the University of Maine football program,” said the former All-America linebacker. “Without it, I don’t know where I’d be.”
Coutts’ story is one of many involving former UMaine football players who parlayed their experience as student-athletes into successful careers and productive lives.
Part of UMaine’s tradition
Football is woven into the fabric of the University of Maine. Since 1892, young men enrolled at UMaine have played the game for the thrill of competition and to enhance their education on the Orono campus.
Football continues to complement the college experience for UMaine student-athletes, but state budget woes and a sluggish economy have led to across-the-board reductions throughout the University of Maine System in recent years.
UMaine’s Division I athletic program also has been hit hard.
Football is the most expensive sport to sponsor because of its large roster and coaching staff, extensive equipment needs and travel/lodging concerns. That makes it a frequent target of institutions seeking a quick fix for their economic crises.
That reality hit home in recent weeks as two of UMaine’s Colonial Athletic Association counterparts, Northeastern University and Hofstra University, announced the elimination of football.
The moves created fear among UMaine players, coaches and fans alike, who wonder whether the league’s most geographically isolated university can continue to financially support its program.
“It is my expectation that football will continue as a component of the University of Maine, as it has been for more than a century,” said UMaine President Robert Kennedy. “Like all public institutions, we continue to face budget circumstances that require difficult decisions leading to new ways of accomplishing our broad-based mission, which includes providing a comprehensive student experience that is unique in Maine.”
With the program safe, for now, UMaine football will attempt to remain a vital part of the athletic department as it develops young men, physically and mentally, while working with a limited budget, geographically based recruiting challenges and a grueling conference schedule.
The bottom line
Football is expensive. UMaine’s budget for 2009-2010 is more than $3 million. That represents 19 percent of the entire athletic budget, which athletic director Blake James said is $15.5 million.
Scholarships account for approximately $1.9 million, nearly two-thirds of the football budget. The Black Bears award the maximum 63 scholarship equivalencies allowed for schools competing in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision.
The remaining $1.2 million entails coaching salaries (about $500,000) and all other program expenses.
“If you look at our program as a whole, I think our cost per student-athlete for football is similar and in the range of what our cost is per athlete in other sports,” said James, who explained football accounts for 90 of UMaine’s 450 student-athletes.
Head coach Jack Cosgrove pointed out UMaine continues to operate with a budget well below that of most of its CAA opponents.
For example, Hofstra’s football budget reportedly was $4.5 million. That’s nearly $1.5 million more than UMaine, which has been more successful on the field.
“We’re doing things thriftily, without excess,” Cosgrove said. “I really think that’s been standard operating procedure for us here.”
UMaine boosted its financial commitment to football in 1996. It was then the late philanthropist Harold Alfond, along with UMaine benefactors Philip and Susan Morse, donated a combined $5.25 million to rebuild UMaine’s football stadium and install artificial Astroturf.
As part of that upgrade, UMaine agreed to gradually increase the number of football scholarships in the hope of becoming more competitive. The Bears previously had been well below the maximum number of scholarships.
“Harold had the resources to provide for the stadium, and he had the vision and motivational skills to say, I’m putting the money up, you’re going to support it by doing this,” Cosgrove said of the scholarship boost.
The upgrades paid dividends. The Black Bears claimed a share of back-to-back Atlantic 10 Football Conference championships and advanced to the NCAA national quarterfinals in 2001 and 2002.
In the last 10 years, including 2009, UMaine owns a 65-52 overall record (.556) and has made three NCAA playoff appearances, the most recent in 2008.
“That enterprise [the Harold Alfond Foundation], they pride themselves on achieving excellence,” Cosgrove said. “That’s been a path we’ve been pursuing since that day.”
UMaine football does generate some revenue through game ticket sales, luxury box rentals and broadcast rights. However, its most significant income comes through playing an FBS team.
This fall, UMaine athletics earned $450,000 for playing a game at Syracuse. That represents almost 15 percent of the total annual football budget, although it is allocated throughout the athletic program.
“It’s an exciting event for our players,” Cosgrove said. “It’s something we’re committed to, excited about and happens fairly regularly at our level of play now.”
A rallying point
Home football games serve as the focal point of a handful of fall weekends on campus for students, parents, family, friends and alumni. This fall, UMaine averaged 4,631 fans for five home dates.
Even with the Bears coming off an 8-5 season and a playoff appearance, 2009 represents the lowest turnout in at least 12 years.
Cosgrove hopes UMaine can create a better awareness about the quality of football being played in Orono, both through education and marketing.
“The last 10 years we’ve been fairly successful, but obviously we haven’t done it enough so that people come to the games [in more substantial numbers],” Cosgrove said.
James pointed out home football games bring in significant revenue, not only to UMaine but to businesses in the Greater Bangor area.
“Teams coming and filling up hotels, bringing flights into the airport, the restaurant business that happens on game day, I think all those things have a positive impact,” James said.
UMaine football has a growing base of supporters who donate money for scholarships and other program needs. However, most of the financial burden still rests squarely on the athletic department.
“One of my goals is to provide the support necessary, with annual involvement from our alums and friends, to be able to do what we need to do to be more competitive with teams in our league,” James said.
Bridging the gap, giving back
A growing area of aid for UMaine football is its player alumni. Pat McBride, the assistant athletic director for development, said that group numbers more than 300 former players and has been increasingly active.
With McBride spearheading the effort, Black Bear players from different eras have been pooling their resources to give something back. The movement also has brought former players together to reminisce about their “glory days” while also comparing stories about how their UMaine football experiences impacted their lives.
“Our alumni group has done a good job of being proactive,” McBride said. “There has been a real rejuvenation of support from our alumni — monetary support, support at away games, communication with coach. They’re believers in this product, because they’ve reaped the benefits.”
UMaine has tied in the alumni’s financial backing with another key element of the program’s financial portfolio, a challenge matching grant to the football team by the Alfond Foundation. Each year, the foundation matches — dollar for dollar — whatever the alumni give to football.
In its first two years, the Alfond matching grant program helped UMaine purchase a new digital video computer viewing and editing system and wireless head sets, among other needs.
“Mr. Alfond loved football and both he and the trustees of his foundation have always felt that the University of Maine has demonstrated that it can be a very solid, competitive program, even with limited resources,” said Alfond Foundation spokesman Greg Powell.
He said Alfond’s affection for Cosgrove played a large part in the willingness to support football.
“He [Cosgrove] is first class,” Powell said, “and with that kind of person and with the potential the program has had and the success in the past, we’ve been very glad to support the program over the years and will continue to do so.”
McBride said once the fundraising is completed this year, the football alumni and the Alfond challenge will have raised about $1.5 million in three years.
“Without this money, we would be behind [other schools],” McBride said of the funds, which are used at Cosgrove’s discretion.
UMaine has tried to reunite alumni with events such as the reunion of the 1965 Tangerine Bowl team. UMaine football alumni share a common, unbreakable bond.
“Once you’re a Bear you’re always a Bear,” said former UMaine receiver and linebacker Malik Nichols, who graduated in 2002 with a business degree.
“It’s not just a football program. It’s more of a family type of thing. It’s near and dear to my heart.”
Hard work, persistence pay off
Nichols recalls his UMaine experience with fondness. He was part of the Bears’ NCAA playoff team in 2001.
He was the fourth linebacker on a unit that included three future NFL standouts in Stephen Cooper, Brandon McGowan and Lofa Tatupu. What did UMaine teach Nichols?
“I definitely would say the blue-collar mentality that Maine has, the program itself,” said Nichols, who lives in Connecticut and works for Medtronic as a spinal medical device representative.
“Maine really helped me develop that mentality that you’ve got to work hard and no one’s going to give you anything,” he added. “Once you get out into the world, you see that it’s a dog-eat-dog world and you’ve got to really compete out here.”
CAA: The nation’s best
UMaine football enjoys the luxury, and the challenge, of playing in the CAA. It is widely regarded as the nation’s best FCS conference.
The CAA, which is anchored by Yankee Conference charter members Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, provides the deepest, most talented group of teams among 122 FCS programs in 14 leagues.
While the FBS has most of the best players at the major schools, the FCS features high-caliber football among longtime rivals.
“The University of Maine is playing the highest level we’re ever going to play at. We could not be in a better conference,” Cosgrove said.
While NCAA championships in men’s hockey garnered national attention in 1993 and 1999, the football program has been the standard-bearer for UMaine this decade.
There are seven former Black Bears on National Football League rosters this season, including West Enfield native Matt Mulligan, a member of the New York Jets practice squad.
UMaine, often the only school to offer its recruits a full athletic scholarship, has produced some of the NFL’s top players. They include San Diego linebacker Cooper, Seattle linebacker Tatupu and New England safety McGowan.
Others include special teams standout Montell Owens of Jacksonville, linebacker Jovan Belcher of Kansas City and defensive end Mike DeVito of the New York Jets.
Their success points to the opportunities provided at UMaine and their willingness to buy into the system and make it work for them.
“They’re byproducts of this institution, this college town, this football program,” Cosgrove said. “It speaks to something that maybe they learned here about hard work and discipline and sacrifice, those value things.”
James said the public relations value of having successful players in the NFL being talked about on national TV is more far-reaching than athletics.
“The recognition it creates nationally, as great as it is for our program, is even better for our university,” James said. “It’s creating an awareness that there are a ton of great things going on at our university.”
Bears hitting the books
UMaine football players have a set of goals placed in front of them once they join the team. Perhaps the most important is, earn a degree from the University of Maine.
It is no easy task monitoring the academic progress of 90 student-athletes, but that is a key part of the mission for Cosgrove, his coaching staff and UMaine’s student-athlete academic support team.
Cosgrove pointed out UMaine has had two CAA Student-Athlete of the Year winners in the last three years (Ron Whitcomb, Ryan Canary). And UMaine performed well in the most recent Academic Progress Rate report issued by the NCAA.
The report, which covers academic years 2004-2008, gave UMaine a score of 969. That ranks in the 80th-90th percentile among all NCAA college football programs.
“They’re here to get their education. I’d like to think we’ve done a good job in the classroom through the system that’s in place here,” Cosgrove said.
Football diversifies UM campus
One key component of football’s impact on campus is its contributions to the diversity of the UMaine community.
During 2009-2010, there are 43 minorities, almost all of them black, on the 90-man roster. That represents almost one-third of the university’s black students.
“You look at the challenges this area has with diversity and what a great opportunity it is to have a football program that’s going to bring so many cultures into our community and allow us to grow as a community,” James said.
Cosgrove pointed out the importance of the racial dynamic in helping the players make a smooth transition into society.
“It speaks to a part of the education that these young men are getting here,” Cosgrove said. “That’s what the world will present them…. We have guys of different races, creeds or colors developing that family-like bond as teammates.”
A legacy of success
In spite of recent events, UMaine football appears to be on solid footing for the foreseeable future.
While the Black Bears have enjoyed modest success on the field, the UMaine student-athlete experience also has helped many former football players achieve success in their professional and personal lives.
“First of all, I got a top-notch education. I walked out of there with a four-year degree and it gave me instant credibility to go get a job,” Coutts said.
“Then I got this amazing education on the football field. And I use it every day in my personal and my business life.”
Coutts and his wife Laura met at UMaine. They have four children and reside in her home state of New Jersey.
Coutts admits he frequently finds himself “coaching” his employees, trying to motivate them and keep them focused on the task at hand. He said in that way, UMaine indirectly impacts the lives of many people.
“By the University of Maine giving me that education, both in the classroom and on the field, I’ve been able to pass those lessons on to lots and lots of people who, hopefully, will take them and pass them along to somebody else.”