ELLSWORTH, Maine — Brian Higgins’ coaching career couldn’t have begun more inauspiciously.
“I didn’t even finish my first game,” said Higgins, recalling the Ellsworth High School boys soccer team’s first game of the 1974 season.
“Back then the goalkeeper would be on the ground and guys would kick at him trying to get the ball away from him, so I complained. ‘Don’t say any more, coach,’ the ref told me. And I said, ‘Just protect my goalie, please.’ And then he said, ‘You’re gone.’”
Higgins watched the rest of the match from a gymnasium window while the team’s bus driver assumed coaching duties in the 5-0 loss.
“That was the first game I coached,” said Higgins. “I’d been teaching for two days, and I got kicked out of my first game.”
Thirty-seven years later Higgins has yet to be ejected a second time, and now Maine’s winningest high school soccer coach is approaching a milestone — 500 victories.
The 67-year-old Higgins currently has 495 wins, 95 defeats and 42 ties, with his team off to a 3-0 start this season after a 5-1 victory over Old Town Monday.
“He gets the most out of the kids, that’s the first thing,” said Drew Myers, an assistant soccer coach at Ellsworth who has worked with Higgins the last 18 years. “He loves soccer and he passes that on to the kids, and he motivates them to play outside of the season and they do. He’s got a formula that works, he sticks with it, and the kids buy into it and that’s a big reason he’s successful.”
Higgins’ teams have never had a losing season, leaving the man who early in his career was known as “Skinner” for having hair shorter than the 1970s norm and now is called merely “Higgins” by all who play for him, standing alone among his coaching brethren for success on the soccer field.
“I think a lot of that longevity comes from respect, respect for the person, respect for the program, respect for what you’re doing,” said Dave Halligan, who has coached boys soccer and basketball at Falmouth High School for the last 25 years and squared off against Higgins and Ellsworth in the 2007 and 2009 Class B state finals.
“As a coach you expect your kids to do the right things all the time, and you can’t change because of a few people. If it’s the right thing to do it’s the right thing to do no matter what. You’ve got to set some standards and stick with them, and that’s what Brian’s done.”
Higgins’ coaching style involves an emphasis on the fundamentals, with added attention to restart opportunities such as corner kicks and throw-ins that provide opportunities for what comes as close to instant offense as there is in soccer.
“We do a lot of work on restarts and throw-ins, we work on them all the time because in the past we’ve been able to capitalize on that,” said Kyle Haslam, a senior on this year’s Ellsworth squad. “We’ve always had good throwers, and on corner kicks we’ve always had pretty good height and athletic kids who can jump. We’ve been able to score a lot of goals on those plays.”
Those technical priorities are complemented by a smattering of tough love that has served as a motivational tool for nearly four decades.
“He has his own way,” said Ellsworth junior Josh Bean. “It depends on how we’re playing. He can be the most calm coach on Earth, then there are days when we aren’t playing that great and he knows we need to pick up the intensity so he yells at us because he knows that will pick us up. Higgins sees everything, and he notices talent at a young age. By knowing us for as long as he does, he definitely knows what buttons he can push with each of us. For me, all he has to say is I’m doing really bad and he knows I’ll just go out there and work my hardest to win.
“That’s what has helped create so much success, he just knows how to go out and push the buttons.”
Higgins, a 2006 inductee into the Maine Sports Hall of Fame, admits having a demanding side, but says it’s all in an effort to bring out the best in his players.
“I’m mean to them sometimes,” he said, “but I tell them I love them afterward and I tell them if I didn’t love you I wouldn’t yell at you. I just like kids to play hard, that’s all.”
Perhaps most surprising about Higgins’ soccer success is that he never played the sport while growing up in Hampden, where he competed in baseball, basketball and one year of high school football before graduating from Hampden Academy in 1963.
After a brief and unsuccessful stint at Aroostook State Teachers College — now the University of Maine at Presque Isle — he returned home and worked at the Chuck Wagon and Oronoka restaurants while trying to figure out what to do next.
The U.S. government made that decision for him.
“My draft papers came,” he said, “so it was either go in the Army or sign up somewhere else.”
Higgins opted for the Navy, where he served as a hospital corpsman with a tour of duty in Vietnam with the 1st Marine Air Wing in Chu Lai before being discharged with the rank of Petty Officer, 2nd Class.
Higgins subsequently spent two years at Mitchell College in Connecticut, then went on to Springfield College in Massachusetts, “where I always wanted to go in the first place because it was a phys-ed college,” he said.
After graduating from Springfield in 1974 it was back to Maine, though not necessarily by design.
“I would have loved to have stayed in Connecticut or Western Massachusetts,” he said, “but that wasn’t where the jobs were. There was a job in Ellsworth, and I also applied at Narraguagus but they wanted a guy with more experience.”
Higgins ultimately got the physical education teaching job in Ellsworth, but he didn’t get the varsity basketball coaching job he also sought — that went to Rick Simonds, who led the Eagles for five years before moving on to Saint Joseph’s College in Standish. Instead, Higgins became the junior varsity coach.
But there was another varsity opening available.
“When I came back to talk to [superintendent] Dale Higgins [no relation] after he hired me, he said ‘Brian, what do you know about soccer?’ I told him I had taken a course in college. ‘Ever played?’ he asked. ‘Nope, but I’ll coach.’”
So it was that fall that Higgins became Ellsworth’s third boys varsity soccer coach, following Jack Scott and Buddy McKenney.
“They always say if you go to Springfield you can coach anything, you’ve been trained in every level and I had taken the soccer coaching course with a legend by the name of Irv Schmidt who’s now in the soccer hall of fame.
“So I said, ‘Yes, I can coach soccer.’”
If getting ejected from his first game as a coach wasn’t bad enough, things got worse for Higgins and the Eagles.
“All the kids could do more than I could,” he said. “I had taken one course, and I probably had gone to the national convention once, so I read a couple of books and I played five forwards, two midfielders, three backs and a goalkeeper. We got killed.”
After a loss at Nokomis of Newport that dropped Ellsworth to 0-3, Higgins didn’t return home with the team. He drove directly to his alma mater in search of solutions.
“I had taken my car to the game, and afterward off I went to Springfield College to talk with the freshman soccer coach who I had helped a little as part of a class. The first thing he said was, ‘What are you doing playing five forwards? You didn’t learn anything in that class.’
“So I switched to a 4-2-4, I put more people in the back, and after that we went 7-1-1. Then the next season we were undefeated.”
The improvement, indeed, was rapid, both for the team and its coach. By 1976 Ellsworth won the first of its 17 Eastern Maine soccer championships.
“We beat Fort Kent in the final after getting outshot by Nokomis in the semifinals 37-2 but beating them in overtime 1-0,” Higgins said. “They said Fort Kent had its best team ever, but there was wind and ice and snow as high as a countertop around the field. The ball skidded on the ice, and it skidded twice for us and once for them so we beat them 2-1 with a very, very young team.”
Ellsworth won a second regional title in 1978, preceding up to a remarkable run during the 1980s, a time when the number of soccer programs statewide proliferated and as a result the Eagles were reclassified to Class B midway through the decade.
The Eagles reached the Eastern Maine championship game every year of the ‘80s, winning seven regional crowns and state championships in 1985, 1988 and 1989.
“The ’89 team was pretty good,” said Higgins when pressed to consider the best teams he has coached. “Chad Sattler, Steve Bemiss, Chip Taylor, all had been varsity players since they were freshmen.”
The 1989 team also was the first to experience what has become a rite of passage for Ellsworth soccer players — a trip to Europe.
The summer before that season, Higgins arranged through correspondence with the father of an exchange student attending Ellsworth High School for the team to travel to Belgium where they played a few games, toured the region and learned a lot.
“Those were the best experiences,” Higgins said. “It didn’t matter if we won or lost. We’d play for an hour and a half and then go off kayaking or go into Brussels or Amsterdam. They came over here the next year and stayed with us.
“It was really kind of emotional. We’d go over there and they’d call us Belgians and they’d come here and we’d call them Mainers.”
Since then the Ellsworth Soccer Club has returned to Europe every other year, playing in England, Italy, Germany, Holland, Scotland and Ireland while also visiting San Marino, France and Luxembourg.
Plans call for the Ellsworth contingent to make its 12th trip to Europe next summer with a return to Belgium.
“Those trips really bring the team together,” said Haslam. “It’s a really good bonding time for everyone and you get to play together in the off-season, which is great because when you get to the high school season you already have the chemistry going.”
Supporters spend two years raising funds to subsidize each trip, but the memories that stem from those excursions make the work that make the trips possible an easy sacrifice.
“He takes that trip with these kids and sometimes it’s the only trip they’ll take anywhere, they’re Down East Maine forever afterward,” said Myers. “It’s a great trip, it’s very good bonding, we play tremendous competition.”
Ellsworth has continued to rank among the best in its class since the 1990s, capturing six more Eastern Maine championships and the Class B state title in 1993.
That 1993 crown, however, marked the last time an Eastern Maine boys soccer team has won it all in Class B. Southern Maine teams led by Falmouth and Yarmouth have since dominated the division, including last year when Yarmouth handled a previously unbeaten Ellsworth team 5-0.
An Eastern Maine boys team hasn’t scored a goal in a Class B state final since 2003.
The southern dominance can be linked to several reasons, Higgins suggested, among them, easier access to year-round soccer opportunities, the proximity between strong soccer programs, and more single-sport athletes who focus on soccer.
“I really think Yarmouth and Falmouth are the two best programs in the state regardless of class,” said Higgins. “It really is different. Those Yarmouth kids were already talking about what they were going to do the next day for soccer during the game last year, either playing AAU or going to Howard [Sports] to play in a tournament. Our kids were all thinking basketball, and ‘I can’t wait to get my hands on a basketball.’”
It’s no surprise Higgins encourages his players to play multiple sports, as he has coached three sports a year throughout most of his tenure at Ellsworth.
He has coached the boys and girls tennis teams since they came into existence at the school in 1980, guiding the Ellsworth boys to a state championship in 1996 and six Eastern Maine Class B titles while his girls squads have won seven regional crowns.
Higgins also has continued to coach sub-varsity boys basketball at the school save for a few years during the 1980s.
“It just shows his passion for coaching, he loves doing what he does,” said Haslam. “That’s why he’s still doing it. To be coaching long enough to have 500 wins — hopefully we’ll be able to get that for him this year — is amazing, plus he has several championships in tennis and coaches freshman basketball. That’s just incredible.”
Higgins also has witnessed many other changes in the state’s soccer world, particularly its growth to the point that nearly all high schools in Maine field varsity teams.
“When we first started out we’d go to Howland one day, then we might go to Waterville, then Mount View, Camden-Rockport, Washington Academy, Nokomis and Caribou,” he said. “Back then you‘d just play whoever had a team, then the new teams started coming in and that’s probably been the biggest change, the proximity of teams to play.”
The style and quality of play also has evolved.
“It’s more defensive now I think,” said Higgins. “We only play two forwards now, four midfielders and four backs. We probably started doing that 10 years ago, before that we always played 4-3-3.
“And I think everybody is better now. I don’t care if it’s a team with a losing record or a team with a winning record. There really aren’t any pushovers anymore like there were back in the ‘80s.”
One constant since the mid-1970s has been Higgins’ presence on the sideline, though he did consider retiring after this season, perhaps to provide more time for his other passions, which include gardening and scouring yard sales.
It was a short-lived consideration.
“I was thinking of stopping this year,” he said. ”Then we had 13 freshmen come in who are good kids, one of our best classes ever in terms of being good kids first. So I told them at the cuts that I like you guys so much that I might have to stay three more years. Even if I have a losing season with you, I’ll stay.
“Now if I had losing teams, it probably wouldn’t be the same, but as long as you’re winning it’s a lot of fun.”