Saturday was a fun night to be a Maine-born football fan in Kentucky.
Western Kentucky University played the game that’s familiar to Football Bowl Subdivision programs of all shapes and sizes. The Hilltoppers paid the University of Maine Black Bears $300,000 to show up at (deep breath) Jimmy Feix Field at Houchens Industries-L.T. Smith Stadium and serve as a sparring partner.
Alabama, Ohio State and Florida State all do it. The pursuit of near-perfection — necessary to earn a spot in the college football playoff or some other major bowl tie-in — demands such a presumed breather every now and then.
The strategy usually is rewarded with a better-than-a-bye-week light workout and a win, one that doesn’t kill your computer ranking but doesn’t pose a threat, either.
Sometimes the little guy bites you back, though, adding defeat to the six-figure debit in your gridiron budget. Maine’s done it three times in the past 15 seasons, punctuated by the latest party-pooper performance, a 31-28 victory in Bowling Green.
Mississippi State and Massachusetts previously feasted on a heaping helping of humble pie, served up by the Little Program That Could.
Each win over those artists formerly known as Division I-A programs was special in its own way. Mississippi State, while in a wretched place at the time, represented the Southeastern Conference, cradle of more national champions and future NFL stars than most other leagues combined. UMass and WKU are not long separated from I-AA/FCS glory but understandably coveted their squeeze of the cash cow that is big-time college football.
The common denominator: All three schools have physical, territorial, financial and numerical advantages over Maine that make a level playing field unimaginable. That Maine beat them all, not to mention stood cleat-to-cleat with the likes of Nebraska, Iowa, Pittsburgh and Boston College without embarrassing itself, is an accomplishment I wonder if the casual fan truly comprehends.
Admittedly, I haven’t visited every D1 plant in America, but I cannot imagine a football program at that level getting by with less. I’ve already stood in the center of a dozen high school complexes in Kentucky and Ohio that are larger than Morse Field at Alfond Stadium.
That the Black Bears’ football facilities are tucked away in corners at Memorial Gym — a place that stopped being suitable to host basketball in the Reagan administration — is laughable because it beats crying. But it’s no secret why there has been no great rush to modernize. Frankly, on a statewide level there is infinitely more interest in women’s hoops and what is now a consistently subpar hockey program than football.
Haven’t even mentioned recruiting yet, and that’s the greatest disparity of all. It’s great to see homegrown talent such as Joe Fitzpatrick of Cheverus and Gunnar Docos of Oxford Hills making a significant splash in Orono, but they’re increasingly the exception. Jack Cosgrove then and Joe Harasymiak have been charged with landing most prospective Black Bears from Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania.
Which, of course, means the Black Bears are getting overachievers with chips on their shoulder pads, because the top high school recruits from those states assuredly aspire to play for a larger program in the backyard.
Schools down here deal with that issue, too. Even my state’s flagship university, which historically finishes middle-to-bottom in the SEC, has lost recent, in-state, blue-chip recruits to Alabama, Virginia Tech and Purdue. UK finally beat Florida for the first time in more than 10,000 days Saturday night, and yes, oddsmakers saw the Wildcats as twice the underdog in that game than were the Black Bears in theirs.
But the pool of options for UK and WKU is so much deeper than Maine’s. Kentucky shares a border with seven states. That easy access makes the status of playing second fiddle to basketball much easier to swallow.
Maine shouldn’t be able to hold Western Kentucky scoreless on a dozen consecutive possessions, overcome a 21-0 deficit, block a field goal at the end and win. Then again, it probably shouldn’t have beaten Appalachian State twice in the FCS playoffs over the years. It’s a minor miracle that they’ve been such a thorn in the side of Villanova, Richmond, James Madison and Delaware for so long.
And if you’re looking for a reason why these watershed wins keep happening on a semi-regular basis, that’s probably it.
Against all odds, in the no-excuses netherworld between the dreamers who say Maine should upgrade to FBS (good Lord, how?) and the realists who recommend a lower-tier FCS conference, the Black Bears continue to test themselves against the toughest feasible competition, year after year. Even if many of the players and coaches aren’t native to Maine, their passion for pushing through the obstacles and pursuing excellence without fear mirrors the state’s strongest quality.
Whether you’re a lifer and loyalist or just a grumpy old man who left it all behind for bluer pastures, the way this football program represents its unique home is something that should make you proud.
Kalle Oakes spent 27 years in the Sun Journal sports department. He has been sports editor of the Georgetown (Kentucky) News-Graphic since July 2016. Keep in touch with him by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @oaksie72.