It’s a shame when someone from any walk of life walks away prematurely from what he or she was clearly born to do.
Yes, there is inherent selfishness in that statement. It’s actually none of our business when one of our heroes puts health or other interests ahead of playing another season, writing a new book or recording some original tunes.
We’re hard-wired to wonder what might have been, however. That’s why it does our heart good when Sugar Ray Leonard comes out of retirement and dances circles around Marvelous Marvin Hagler, or when Guns N’ Roses embarks on a U.S. tour and Axl takes the stage soberly and on time every night.
Following that train of thought, perhaps my favorite piece of Pine Tree State sporting news since leaving almost two years ago is that former University of Maine football coach Jack Cosgrove has ended his retirement to take the same post at Colby College.
There’s a sense that all is right with the world. Cosgrove, 61, but perpetually projecting a much younger image, is a still-fertile football mind that deserved a better fate than some emeritus title or ceremonial front-office job.
Cosgrove was walking, talking evidence of how hard work and continuity could foster over-achievement. His sub-.500 record in two decades of leadership at Maine was more deceptive than political campaign rhetoric.
The Black Bears made not one, not two, but five appearances in the FCS playoffs. Maine even won three first-round games while competing against schools that were merely buying time before making the often ill-conceived leap to an FBS conference.
Three times, Cosgrove’s team won or shared the regular-season title of an Atlantic 10/Colonial Athletic Conference in which it had zero business competing. Maine was surrounded by programs – James Madison, Richmond, Villanova, even dastardly UNH – with championship pedigrees. Not to mention better weather, superior facilities, and infinitely more bells and whistles.
Countless individual players under Cosgrove’s tutelage channeled the program’s knack for the whole exceeding the sum of the parts, parlaying low-round draft picks or free-agent training camp invitations into meaningful National Football League careers.
All this unfolded while the big-picture athletic program at Maine was in the midst of an avalanche toward mediocrity.
Hockey will never reach the rare air it breathed under Shawn Walsh. Sorry to be the one to break it to you, but you can take that to the bank. It is no longer a destination program, and many of the teams that now fit that description didn’t even own a block of ice in the 1990s.
Men’s basketball peaked under Dr. John Giannini and the late Rudy Keeling, one game shy of the NCAA tournament on multiple occasions. The state doesn’t have the prep talent base to sustain a serviceable program, and Orono’s location-location-location can’t compete with the likes of Florida Gulf Coast or, ahem, Eastern Kentucky for mid-major bodies.
Likewise, the sport of women’s basketball evolved exponentially after the heyday of Rachel Bouchard, Cindy Blodgett and Heather Ernest. There’s too much competition to keep the few elite players in Maine or to attract big fish to a smaller pond.
Baseball? Child, please. The idea that John Winkin’s program regularly shared locker space in Omaha with the likes of Miami, Texas and Arizona is something we can no longer adequately grasp or fully appreciate. It was truly a miracle of time and space.
Yet Cosgrove overcame the challenges of changing times and social forces and served up a year-in, year-out product that wasn’t embarrassing. He did it without gimmickry on the field and without being an insufferable jerk away from it, which in this era of football is a miracle in itself.
We saw signs that the rat race was taking its toll on the coach’s health, however. And five losing seasons in seven years indicated that Cosgrove and the Black Bears were having a harder time turning that wheel.
Division I football has become a young man’s game. Turn on the TV tonight and watch Dabo Swinney, Kirby Smart and Lincoln Riley if you don’t believe me. So whether it was by his own admission or a not-so-gentle nudge from higher on the food chain, Cosgrove decided after the 2015 season that it was time to hand the baton to a then-29-year-old Joe Harasymiak.
No, he wasn’t done coaching, any more than I was done sports writing when I moved out of state. Sometimes you just need a break, or a dose of perspective, before you can rediscover your first love.
Just as basketball’s Bob Brown and Gary Fifield found their way back to their roots at Cheverus High School, I assumed we would see Cosgrove on a sideline again someday. The game has changed, but it hasn’t. The face and voice of Maine football had plenty left to give in an environment more conducive to 120-over-80 blood pressure.
Colby is the perfect soft landing. Mayflower Hill is an academics-first Division III environment, but one with football facilities comparable to its conference rivals. It also shares the same Massachusetts-to-Pennsylvania and New Jersey recruiting map that Cosgrove cultivated at his previous address.
Jack Cosgrove was meant to be coaching football, not seeking donors or giving motivational speeches or whatever else schools require to keep their distinguished ex-leaders on the payroll.
A program at which wins have been alarmingly scarce just pulled off one of its biggest in my lifetime. Well done, Mules. Go get ’em, Cos.
Kalle Oakes was a 27-year veteran of the Sun Journal sports department. He is now sports editor of the Georgetown (Kentucky) News-Graphic. Stay in touch with him by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @oaksie72.