Dan O’Connell vividly remembers the day he became a New York Giants fan.
The second-grader was on a school bus when he was asked to reveal his favorite NFL team. A few older kids helped O’Connell decide.
“You can imagine what a school bus floor is like this time of year,” O’Connell said, laughing. “A couple guys literally held me under a seat until I said I liked the Giants.”
O’Connell, the football coach at John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor, has been a fan of the New York Giants ever since. The man who also roots for the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Lakers likes the Giants’ chances Sunday in Super Bowl XLVI against the New England Patriots.
“I think it’s going to be a hell of a game, my kind of game, because it’s going to be won in the trenches,” said O’Connell, a former lineman at Bangor High School and Bates College. “It’s going to be the Pats’ O-line against the Giants’ D-line.”
Most of the Maine football coaches contacted about the Super Bowl follow the Patriots and believe they will prevail. Through their involvement in the game, the coaches have good insight regarding the Giants-Patriots matchup.
Though Tom Coughlin and his New York staff are respected, Patriots coach Bill Belichick has earned an extra measure of admiration for his accomplishments with New England.
“I really think Coughlin’s a good coach, but Belichick is a genius looking at teams and knowing how to attack them,” said Waterville High coach Frank Knight. “And he’s had two weeks to prepare.”
Knight’s affinity for the Patriots began as he grew up in Lynn, Mass., watching what was then the Boston Patriots, who played at Fenway Park.
“I got an autograph from Jim Nance, who led the league in rushing in 1966,” he recounted.
Veteran Bucksport High coach Joel Sankey grew up in the Midwest before coming to New England. In those days, he cheered for the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears.
His allegiance later switched to the Patriots, the team of choice among his children.
Perhaps the most intriguing dynamic of Sunday’s game is whether New England’s offensive line can handle the pressure of New York’s formidable front four.
“They all talk about the rush of the Giants’ defensive line, but if we know about it, they [the Patriots] know about it,” he said. “You give Belichick two weeks,” and he’ll figure something out.
Orono High coach Bob Sinclair got a firsthand look at New England’s offensive line in a September game in Washington, D.C., against his favorite team. The Redskins gave Pats quarterback Tom Brady some problems.
“When you’ve got [Justin] Tuck and [Osi] Umenyiora and [Jason Pierre-] Paul coming after you, I’m not sure the Patriots’ offensive line is going to be able to keep those guys out of there [the backfield],” Sinclair said.
He conceded Brady may go down as the best quarterback in NFL history and that Belichick and Co. are likely to have some answers for the New York pass rush.
Joe Rossi, the defensive coordinator at the University of Maine, is a Pittsburgh native and an avid Steelers fan. He would like to see the Giants win.
“The reason I like the Giants is because I’m a defensive coach,” he said. “Early on, I became upset when I heard the [TV] commentators saying that defense no longer matters and you just win with offense.”
Rossi was pleased to see NFC offensive powers Green Bay and New Orleans get knocked out of the playoffs. Even so, he believes New England’s offense will prevail Sunday.
“I think Belichick will come up with ways to move the football and contain the Giants’ offense,” he said.
Another critical issue from the New England perspective is the injury to versatile tight end Rob Gronkowski.
While his health status is up in the air, the high ankle sprain may severely limit his ability to run routes. With Gronkowski slowed or sidelined, the Patriots’ offense loses a major weapon.
UM offensive coordinator Kevin Bourgoin grew up in New England and followed the Patriots. He has only seen a couple of games involving the Giants and Pats this season — after the Black Bears closed out their 9-4 season in December in the NCAA national quarterfinals.
UMaine was forced to reconfigure its offense last fall after injuries to three top receivers, including tight end Derek Buttles. Bourgoin draws a parallel to the Gronkowski situation.
“There’s not another tight end that they go to that plays that role for them,” he said. “He had 90 catches and 17 touchdowns. That’s crazy. That’s what wideouts do.”
Bourgoin said without Gronkowski, New England’s red-zone offense (inside the opponent’s 20-yard line) also will be drastically affected.
“You want your tight end to get matched up on linebackers and safeties, but who do you go to now, if he can’t go?” he said.
Bourgoin thinks New England will have two different offensive game plans depending on Gronkowski’s availability.
O’Connell said the Patriots are likely to rely more on bubble screens and throwing to a back coming out of the backfield. Sankey said Brady’s ability to deliver throws quickly also could help negate New York’s pass rush.
Bangor native Jeff Guerette, the coach at Westbrook High, is a low-key Patriots fan.
“I was never really a die-hard Patriots, wear-the-jersey, paint-your-chest kind of guy,” he admitted.
What keeps his interest is New England’s diverse offensive attack.
“I personally like watching good offense instead of good defense,” Guerette said. “I like to watch Brady. It’s unbelievable how precise they are.”
Husson University head football coach Sean Murphy, who grew up in southern Maine, also follows the Patriots.
“I think it’s going to be a great game,” Murphy said. “I want the Pats to come out on top in this one, especially given the [Super Bowl] game four years ago.”
That need for redemption, and a subpar effort in the AFC title game, could be the push Brady and the Patriots need to win another Lombardi Trophy.
“He’s so strong mentally that he’s going to will this team to a win,” Knight said. “He’s a pretty incredible guy. I’ve just got a feeling that he’s going to get it done.”