Huddle Up: Another Haley tribute is due

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Last Saturday’s memorial service for Mike Haley featured a number of amazing speeches remembering the legendary football coach and administrator. I felt privileged to hear all of them, and wish I could have stuck around after the service to hear more stories being swapped.

The memorial didn’t lack for stories, or laughs, and certainly not for tears.

Edward Little coach Dave Sterling spoke eloquently on behalf of those who played for Haley. Pete Cooper, another coaching legend and former teammate of Haley’s at the University of Maine, recalled his long friendship in the most moving remembrance. All 11 of the speakers, from his daughter Michele to former Oak Hill coach and Leavitt principal Dave Wing, echoed the man’s piercing wit and joy for life. 

The words will stick with me and the mourners who filled the Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School auditorium for a long time. But the indelible image that will linger is seeing Leavitt coach Mike Hathaway and Maine Central Institute coach Tom Bertrand talking shop before the service started.

Approximately 16 hours earlier, Hathaway and Bertrand were on opposite sidelines of Libby Field in Turner, guiding their teams as they slugged it out in a potential preview of November’s Class C state championship.

The conversation started as soon as Bertrand had taken his seat, a couple of rows in front of me and across the aisle from Hathaway. I didn’t hear a lot of it, but I heard enough to know it probably followed the transcript of so many conversations I’ve either directly witnessed or eavesdropped between football coaches: Compliments for players and plays, schemes and strategies. Discussions of key plays where the winning coach (in this case, Hathaway, 28-0) thought his team might be in trouble and the losing coach (in this case, Bertrand) knew his team was, in fact, in trouble.

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I couldn’t help but imagine Coach Haley looking down and smiling.

For whatever reason, the fellowship among Maine football coaches is as genuine as any high school coaching fraternity/sorority I know. It almost certainly goes back to a time, really not that long ago, when coaches would meet somewhere off I-95 (often at Dick McGee’s house in Fairfield) to exchange 16-millimeter game film the Sunday before they played the following weekend. And it is as strong now as I ever remember it being, even as, or perhaps because, Maine high school football faces some daunting challenges.

Haley, who passed away last week at age 75, loved the camaraderie among football coaches, and fostered it whenever he could. He played a lead role in starting the Maine Coaches Association (now the Maine Football Coaches Association) and mentored countless young football coaches over four decades in education.

Thanks to the internet and game film warehouses such as Hudl, coaches don’t have film swaps anymore. They still shake hands and have a brief chat on Friday nights or Saturday afternoons in the fall. Off the field, they still cross paths at conference meetings, rule clinics, award dinners, maybe the occasional Lobster Bowl and, on more somber occasions, when they gather to honor one of their own.

As Maine high school football deals with declining numbers and increasing pressure and meddling from parents, the scenes and sounds of last Saturday reminded me the coaches are keeping Haley’s spirit alive, supporting each other while still promoting the game and keeping kids first.

With that in mind, it is time for someone, be it the MFCA or the Lobster Bowl, to create a coach’s award in Haley’s name.

Perhaps the MFCA could annually recognize a coach who has gone out of his way to mentor young coaches or young people. On the other hand, I could think of nothing more fitting than the halftime festivities at the Lobster Bowl, which Haley proudly presided over for a number of years, to include an award for one of the coaching volunteers, some of whom give their time annually to the Shriners’ fundraiser. 

High school coaches, regardless of sport, don’t get enough recognition for what they do, in part, because so few of them seek it. But I’m willing to bet a Mike Haley Award would find a prominent place on any coach’s mantle, or in his school’s trophy case. 

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