August 15, 2010

CAA is where Maine belongs

By Travis Lazarczyk
Staff Writer

Jack Cosgrove was angry, and could you blame him?

click image to enlarge

POWERFUL WORDS: University of Maine football coach Jack Cosgrove spoke passionately about the future of his program and its future in the Colonial Athletic Association at Maine’s media day Wednesday in Orono.

Maine Sunday Telegram photo by John Ewing

The University of Maine football coach went to Baltimore for the Colonial Athletic Association's football media day on July 28, expecting to answer questions about his football team. The Black Bears have a pair of talented quarterbacks battling for the starting job, tailback Jared Turcotte is back after losing the 2009 season to injury, and a young offensive line that gained a lot of experience last season.

Cosgrove answered questions about his team's future, just not the immediate future.

Is Maine considering dropping football? Cosgrove was asked. When is Maine leaving the CAA?

"I really was offended when I spent most of the time at the CAA meeting talking about the future of our football team rather than the upcoming season," Cosgrove said on Wednesday.

Maine is the victim of actions taken by other CAA teams. Over the winter, Northeastern and Hofstra both cut football. The University of Rhode Island announced it's considering dropping football to a lower level.

Cosgrove said Maine has no intentions of leaving the CAA.

"We're in a great, great league," Cosgrove said.

As far as the Football Championship Subdivision (aka Division 1-AA) goes, the CAA is the SEC. The league has produced four national champions in the last seven seasons, including Villanova last season and Richmond in 2008. Two other CAA teams played for the national championship in 2006 and 2007.

Against this competition over the last decade, Maine has at times excelled. Most of the past decade, however, you can say Maine has held its own.

In the last 10 seasons, Maine made the postseason three times. In 2001 and 2002, the Black Bears were one of the last eight teams standing. Maine also reached the playoffs in 2008.

Maine also had five losing seasons in the last decade, although none of those were of the crash and burn variety. The Black Bears went 5-6 four times, 4-7 once. Even playing against the top competition they see in the CAA, as well as one game a season against a Bowl Subdivision opponent each year since 2004, the Black Bears are steady.

Maine belongs in the CAA. Whatever happened at Northeastern and Hofstra (and at Boston University 12 years ago), or whatever is happening at Rhode Island, it's not happening in Orono. The recruits are still coming from places like New Jersey and New York to field a competitive team (Sorry, as much as we love the players from Maine, the fact is there's just not enough of them to put a solid FCS team on the field).

There's no doubt the CAA is changing. James Madison University recently renovated its football stadium, and Richmond moves into a brand-new facility this season. Old Dominion and Georgia State will join the league in the coming years. The league's ties with the old Yankee Conference are disappearing into the Mid-Atlantic.

"There are challenges, but ones we're ready to meet," Cosgrove said. "Travel, that's our problem. We'll fundraise... It doesn't bother me at all."

The question Maine's next athletic director needs to ask is, does the school want a football team that occasionally rises to the top of the toughest league in the country, or does it want a team that will collect more wins and travel less in an easier league?

Judging from the attendance figures, Maine fans don't seem to care. According to the NCAA, the Black Bears ranked 85th in FCS attendance last season, averaging just 4,631 fans for each home game. That's not even half of Alfond Stadium's capacity of 10,000. Last season's biggest crowd was 6,087, for defending national champion Rchmond. Only three CAA teams drew smaller average crowds. Two of them cut football after the season. The third is Rhode Island, so we shouldn't be surprised that Cosgrove was hit with the line of questioning.

"It would be awful nice to line up against William & Mary or Villanova and have 10,000 people here," Cosgrove said.

Just from the population base around Orono, that might be tough to ask. But would 7,500 fans be an unreasonable goal? How about 6,500? According to Cosgrove, 37 players who went on to the NFL have played at Alfond Stadium in the last 10 years.

"I don't know if that's been embraced in this state," he said.

There might come the day when Rhode Island either drops football or drops to a lower division, or UMass decides to follow Connecticut to the Bowl Subdivision. Or the southern schools in the CAA just get tired of long trips to Orono and Durham, N.H.

For now, Maine belongs in the CAA. Talk to the contrary should stop.

Travis Lazarczyk -- 861-9242

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