When the four remaining National Football League playoff teams play their conference championship games on Sunday, there will be a common thread.
With a Super Bowl berth on the line, five men who played or coached at the University of Maine represent all four organizations: Buffalo, Kansas City, Green Bay and Tampa Bay.
Brian Gaine is the senior personnel advisor for the Buffalo Bills, where Jeremy Kelley is the alumni manager. Steve Spagnuolo is Kansas City’s defensive coordinator, Joe Gilbert is the offensive line coach with Tampa Bay and Ben Sirmans coaches the running backs for Green Bay.
Gaine, Sirmans and Kelley played at UMaine, while Spagnuolo and Gilbert served as assistant coaches for the Black Bears.
Sirmans was a senior running back in 1992, when Gaine was a freshman tight end. Spagnuolo’s two-year stint included one season as the defensive coordinator in 1994, while Gilbert was the offensive line coach, then offensive coordinator, from 1994-99.
That productive era came during the rise of Jack Cosgrove from offensive coordinator (1989-92) to head coach in 1993.
Sirmans, UMaine’s Most Valuable Player in 1992, ranks 10th in school history with 2,025 rushing yards. Gaine was chosen UMaine’s Outstanding Offensive Player in 1994.
“A lot of my foundation, everything I learned about football and my passion for the game, started at Maine,” said the 47-year-old Gaine, a New Jersey native whose NFL career spans more than 22 years.
“I always reflect on how impactful my time at Maine was on my career,” he said. “I learned the value of hard work, preparation and teamwork. I’m extremely grateful for that.”
Gaine has held prominent scouting and player personnel jobs with the New York Jets, Dallas Cowboys, Miami Dolphins, Houston Texans and the Bills. He was the general manager for the Texans in 2018 when they went 11-5 and made the playoffs and also served as the assistant GM for the Dolphins.
“In college, I started to take an interest in how teams were built and how rosters were put together. It’s more than talent. It also has to do with the character of the players,” Gaine said.
Gaine is proud of his affiliation with UMaine and said he always receives positive feedback from people when they learn he played at UMaine.
“It is a highly respected program,” said Gaine who praised former NFL head coach and general manager Bill Parcells as having a major influence on his career.
Parcells hired him as scout for the Jets after Gaine had spent time on the Jets’ practice squad. He followed Parcells to the Cowboys and then to the Dolphins.
Buffalo is playing in its first AFC Championship game since 1993.
“I feel very fortunate to work in this organization and to work with people like [coach] Sean McDermott and [general manager] Brandon Beane,” Gaine said. “We’ve had a great season.”
Cosgrove praised Gaine as general manager material and said he is a great person whose incredible work ethic has enabled him to have a noteworthy NFL career.
“He has great interpersonal skills,” Cosgrove said.
Cosgrove said he will never forget Gaine, who made a game-winning touchdown reception in the final seconds of a 30-27 victory over Buffalo in his first game as the UMaine coach in 1993.
Sirmans is in his ninth season as an NFL running backs coach and his fifth with the Packers after four years with the St. Louis Rams.
The former UMaine assistant tutored Todd Gurley when he was the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year for the Rams in 2015 and, two seasons later with the Packers, he helped Jamaal Williams (556 yards) and Aaron Jones (448) become the first two rookies in Rams history to rush for more than 400 yards in the same season.
“He had his eyes on being a coach the first day he stepped on campus,” Cosgrove said. “He devised his own playbook.
“He is one of my favorite stories of all time. He was an outstanding coach and recruiter. He’s a great person with an infectious smile,” he said.
Cosgrove and Spagnuolo were roommates when they coached together at UMaine.
Spagnuolo coached at six different colleges and in NFL Europe before his NFL career, which has included stops with six teams. He was the head coach for the St. Louis Rams from 2009-11 and the defensive coordinator for both the 2007-08 Super Bowl champion New York Giants and 2019-20 Chiefs.
“He was committed to getting to the highest level he could. He is a real student of the game and has great communication skills. He has had an unbelievable carer,” Cosgrove said.
Gilbert was the offensive coordinator at UMaine in 1996, when the team set 11 school records. He coached at 10 colleges before working from 2012-17 as an offensive line coach with the Indianapolis Colts before moving on to the Buccaneers in 2019.
Kelley was a hardworking receiver at UMaine who has found his niche working with former Buffalo Bills players and their families.
Cosgrove, a former UMaine quarterback who is now the head football coach at Colby College in Waterville, said having so many former players and coaches reach the NFL level is a source of pride for him and the UMaine program.