John Bonamego has fond memories of Orono, Maine.
It was 30 years ago that he got his coaching start as a graduate assistant at the University of Maine under Tim Murphy. Bonamego was there from 1988 to 1991 and was promoted to full-time assistant during his tenure.
Bonamego is now the fourth-year head coach at Central Michigan University. On Saturday, his 0-3 Chippewas — who compete in the Mid-American Conference of the Football Bowl Subdivision — take on 2-0 UMaine in Mount Pleasant, Michigan.
Bonamego coached under Murphy for one year and remained on the staff for coach Tom Lichtenberg’s only season, then stayed on when Kirk Ferentz took over the program.
“I loved it at Maine,” the 55-year-old Bonamego said Thursday. “I always loved the campus. The campus had a lot of energy. It had a unique vibe. It looked like what a college should look like.”
After UMaine, Bonamego moved on to Lehigh University and Army before spending 16 seasons as an assistant in the National Football League. He returned to his alma mater, Central Michigan, as the head coach in 2015.
Bonamego said he learned a lot at UMaine and was fortunate enough to work under three different head coaches, which gave him a variety of philosophies and styles to emulate.
All three of his bosses at UMaine moved up in the football world. Ferentz is the head coach at Iowa, Murphy is the head coach at Harvard and Lichtenberg, who died in 2013, coached at Ohio University.
Bonamego landed the UMaine job thanks to former assistant Bill Sheridan. They played golf together after working a University of Michigan summer camp. Former Morehead State assistant John Harbaugh, now the head coach of the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens, also was in their foursome.
Sheridan recommended Bonamego to Murphy.
“I put every belonging I owned in the back of my old Ford Mustang and headed to Orono,” he said.
Bonamego also earned a master’s degree at UMaine, and he said former UMaine head coach Jack Cosgrove, who was an assistant coach at UMaine before taking the head job in 1993, was helpful.
“I had a chance to help install the game plan under the watchful eye of Cos,” Bonamego said.
“Jack entrusted me, and stepped up and spoke on my behalf. He recognized that I was ready for that responsibility,” Bonamego said.
Bonamego still keeps tabs on Black Bears and appreciates the opportunity he received at UMaine to grow as a person and develop as a coach.
He had a lot of memorable experiences in Maine, including one at a convenience store on his way to a recruiting visit to Skowhegan High School.
Bonamego stopped at a convenience store at 5:30 a.m. looking to buy a USA Today newspaper.
“The guy said do you want yesterday’s USA Today or today’s USA Today? I said today’s. He said, sorry, if you want today’s you’re going to have to come back tomorrow,” he recalled.
Lichtenberg’s 1989 team went 9-5, won the Yankee Conference title and earned a berth in the NCAA playoffs. UMaine lost 38-35 at Southwest Missouri State. That team included four All-Americans: offensive linemen Rob Noble and Scott Hough, running back Carl Smith, and defensive lineman Justin Strzelczyk. Mike Buck was the quarterback.
“We were loaded that year,” Bonamego said.
He said UMaine and Central Michigan have a lot of similarities, including that each is the northernmost outpost in its respective conference.
“We each recruit a different type of kid: Kids who are mentally tough because they have a chip on their shoulder. They have something to prove,” Bonamego said.
Central Michigan has played in bowl games in each of his first three seasons, but he has been impressed by the Black Bears.
“We aren’t going to take them lightly. Maine is talented. There isn’t a player on their two-deep [depth chart] who couldn’t play for us, or for one of the schools in our conference,” Bonamego said.
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