Jack Cosgrove was University of Maine football coach for such a long time that it is easy to forget what he inherited.

After a brief period of national prosperity during the Mike Buck era, the Black Bears’ coaching office was equipped with a revolving door. Perhaps you watched with detachment on Friday as Iowa held off Nebraska to complete an undefeated regular season. Unless you’re a man of a certain age, you probably didn’t make the connection that Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz cut his head coaching teeth in Orono from 1990 to ‘92.

Jack Bicknell. Ron Rogerson. Buddy Teevens. Tim Murphy. Tom Lichtenberg. Like Ferentz, they utilized Maine as a step on their professional ladder, as coaches in the Football Championship Subdivision or the mid-major tier of the Football Bowl Subdivision are well within their rights to do.

By the early 1990s, that lack of continuity wreaked sufficient havoc with Maine football. Two of Ferentz’s three teams went 3-8. Upon taking over in 1993, Cosgrove matched that dubious record for three consecutive seasons.

In an era that saw similarly sized schools in New England reevaluate and eventually retire their football programs, either to meet Title IX requirements or to balance the books in a disastrous economy, Maine was a mediocre program playing on weather-beaten turf in a ramshackle stadium. It didn’t require a degree in physical education or economics to conclude that the century-old football program was an endangered species.

That’s when a coach, a school and its extended community pulled together, in the face of forces that conspired to pull them apart, and reinforced the value of loyalty and persistence. Not coincidentally, those are two qualities football teaches in abundance.

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Maine stuck with Cosgrove, even as he guided the Black Bears to only two more winning seasons prior to the turn of the century. Thanks largely to the boundless, legendary generosity of the late Harold Alfond, the school upgraded Morse Field with artificial turf and made the surroundings look at least plausibly like a Division I stadium.

Then came the payoff. Five postseason berths, three Atlantic-10 and Colonial Athletic Association championships and two trips to the FCS national quarterfinals. Cosgrove accomplished it all against the likes of Massachusetts, Georgia Southern, Appalachian State, Northern Iowa and others who were either headed for the elite level of Division I football or already were capable of consistently competing with those schools.

The Black Bears played the role so convincingly that it was easy to forget the relative disadvantages they faced. Any objective view of Maine’s athletic facilities and its GPS location tells us that Cosgrove must have been blessed with mad recruiting skills. He developed Maine into the Little Program That Could.

To put it more bluntly, I don’t see any way Maine could play it straight and finish in the Top 25 year-in and year-out. Given the freedom to be himself, Cosgrove picked his spots and cleverly sorted through the remnants on the recruiting trail. Every second or third year, he would find a way to inject his team into the national conversation.

He adored the guys who knew rejection. Players who were just an inch too short, 10 pounds too light, or a blink of the eye too slow. Young men who eat, drank and slept the game and couldn’t understand why that return phone call from Penn State, Boston College or Rutgers never came.

Cosgrove made his living courtesy of dark horses; players who arrived in his camp as 18-year-old boys with a chip on their shoulders. Under his tutelage, they became motivated men. It was no accident that for several years, Maine was the FCS school with the most players on active NFL rosters.

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They were free agents or late-round draft picks, unwanted and accustomed to it. Cosgrove taught them how to beat the odds. He shepherded Stephen Cooper, Mike DeVito, Montell Owens, Jovan Belcher, Mike Flynn, Matthew Mulligan, Brandon McGowan, Jerron McMillian, Lofa Tatupu and Justin Perillo into professionals.

That’s the 23-year legacy of Jack Cosgrove: Getting the most out of his resources. He lost six more games than he won, yet he was given the leeway to create culture and the courtesy to walk away on his own terms. In a universe where Mark Richt is fired at Georgia and Les Miles is made to squirm for two weeks before getting a vote of confidence at LSU, despite contending for championships almost every year, it is a standard of which Maine should be proud.

My hope is that the university and the state will show that same loyalty to Cosgrove’s successor. Not merely in terms of employment, but behind the scenes. Maine’s athletic program already faces those famous real estate strikes of location, location, location. When the sports complex and the football offices still look like something out of 1979, it makes the next coach’s job almost impossible.

Coach Cos showed an entire state the value of a college football program when one man is fully invested. It would be a joy to watch the results if all the stakeholders followed suit.

Given the state of our state, and the status of the program before Cosgrove took over, I won’t hold my breath.

Kalle Oakes is a staff writer. His email is [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @oaksie72 or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/kalleoakes.sj.


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