When John Huard arrived as the new head football coach at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, in 1979, he soon discovered that his players were not supplied with travel bags for their football equipment by the school.
So he had to improvise.
“I obtained some boxes of black trash bags and brought them back to the kids. I told them these would be our travel bags from now on and they could use tape to put their names or their numbers or whatever on the bags,” recalled Huard. “I told them we would be the only school in Canada to get new travel [trash] bags every week.”
They were traveling to play a game that season and a garbage truck passed them.
“There was an opening in the back and there were a bunch of black trash bags showing. One of our players said ‘Coach, look, there goes another team,” chuckled Huard.
The Axemen won the Canadian national championship that season and all of the players were supplied with beautiful trash bags the next season.
“They were the nicest bags I’d ever seen,” said Huard who guided the Axemen to their second Canadian national championship in 1981.
The 70-year-old Huard, a former two-time first team All-American linebacker at the University of Maine and NFL linebacker, has created many memories during his remarkable career but one of his crowning achievements will occur on Dec. 9 when he is inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
“I keep telling all of my friends that this is really a reflection of the teams I played on,” said Huard, who was surprised when he learned of his recent selection. “We had terrific people at the University of Maine. If you look at the people I played with at the time, 90 percent of them are still married. They are great family people. You have great educators and great business people who did a terrific job extending their athletic careers into life careers.
“We all had different journeys, but the thing that remains the same is that we were true to ourselves and true to our teammates in that we worked hard and backed each other up. We were never the biggest team or the fastest team or the strongest team but we had some great individuals and we put it all together. We had great chemistry,” added Huard, who led the Black Bears to the Tangerine Bowl in 1965.
Retirement is off the radar
Huard is still keeping busy these days running his company, Northeast Turf/Eastern Builders in South Portland, while following college football and athletics at his alma mater.
He has survived a heart attack and bypass surgery and said retirement isn’t on the radar yet.
“I’ve been really blessed in everything,” said Huard, who is surrounded by family in his business. “My son, John Jr., runs the installation/operational end of Northeast Turf/Eastern Builders, my son-in-law, Harlan Michaud, is vice president in charge of sales and my daughter, Kristi, runs the special projects.”
A former roommate of legendary kicker Tom Dempsey, Huard has been married to wife Helen for 49 years and has three children and eight grandchildren. The Huards travel constantly to watch their grandchildren play sports.
Beginning in the fall of 2015, the Huards will spend time in Orono watching their grandson, Lucas Michaud, play hockey at UMaine.
Huard said he likes the direction of college football these days, especially the fact the Football Bowl Subdivision, is going to a playoff format. However, he is irritated by the movement to pay college players.
“When they become professionals, then they can get paid. But that’s what society has come to these days … gimme, gimme, gimme,” said Huard. “People want something for nothing.”
He is pleased with his alma mater and the job coach Jack Cosgrove has done with the football program, including hosting a playoff game for the first time in school history last fall.
“Jack has done a great job keeping football at as high a level as it is right now. It has always been a tough road because of the logistics of getting to Orono. And how many kids out of Maine high schools can play at that level? Not a lot of them,” said Huard.
The turf business
During his time as a player at the University of Maine, Huard got to know Denver Broncos scout J.I. Albrecht, who wound up serving as the general manager of the Alouettes and Argonauts and became a close personal friend.
That friendship led to Huard’s involvement in the turf business as he met a friend of Albrecht’s, former Alouettes quarterback John Gilman, at a football convention in Las Vegas and the late Gilman asked Huard if he would like to check out some artificial turf he was marketing and if he might be interested in working for him.
It was FieldTurf, which was much softer and more grass-like than AstroTurf.
“It looked pretty neat. It was the best thing I had ever seen. So I called him and told him I was interested,” said Huard.
Huard became the distributor in New England and Huard figures they have installed it in over 650 facilities across New England and the mid-Atlantic states.
“It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. I knew a lot of athletic administrators and coaches. I’m a firm believer that if you do things the right way, things will work out,” said Huard. “It’s no different than coaching football. You have to know your competitors.”
Eight months ago, the open-minded Huard entered into an arrangement with GreenFields, a synthetic turf company owned by TenCate, which had been manufacturing fibers for several years.
Huard decided to leave FieldTurf to market the new product through his company.
“These new fibers are the best of the best,” said Huard. “It’s like I’m starting all over again on the ground floor.”
On the field and sidelines
Huard entered the business field after a football career that included playing in the NFL and coaching college teams.
He was a fifth-round draft pick of the Denver Broncos in 1967 and spent four seasons with the Broncos and the Saints before a torn Achilles tendon ended his NFL career. He did continue his career in the Canadian Football League with Montreal and Toronto.
The Waterville native eventually returned to UMaine as an offensive line coach and then wound up compiling an impressive list of coaching credentials that included stints as the special teams coach with the Chicago Blitz of the United States Football League where he worked for Marv Levy. Levy went on to coach the Buffalo Bills to four straight Super Bowl appearances (1991-94).
Huard said Levy was the “greatest special teams coach of all time” and he learned a lot from him.
Huard eventually returned to his home state as the head coach at Maine Maritime Academy where he guided the Mariners to a 32-30 record in seven seasons. He had other coaching stints including a brief one as the head coach of the Toronto Argonauts in 2000.
He was also a multi-sport athlete at Waterville High and then spent a valuable year at Kents Hill School.
“That was a great learning experience,” said Huard. “I had a great teacher, we called him Mr. T, who taught me how to study. He was the best teacher I ever had.”
He wound up as a teammate of Ted Alfond, son of the late philanthropist Harold Alfond.
“We went undefeated in quite a few sports,” said Huard, who grew up in an athletic family with three siblings.
His father, Roland “Zip” Huard, had been an exceptional defenseman in hockey.
“My father and mother [Rita] raised us the right way. My dad coached all of us in baseball,” said Huard. “My brother Ray played baseball at Princeton.”
Huard has already been inducted in the University of Maine’s Sports Hall of Fame, the Maine Sports Hall of Fame, and the Ring of Honor at Alfond Stadium.