Oh, fill the steins to dear old Maine. Shout ‘til the rafters ring.

Then promptly tip those glasses and imbibe enough to transport yourself to a time when University of Maine athletics collectively provided cause for such exultation. It’ll be a while.

It would be shocking to anyone under the legal age who was born and raised in Vacationland to swig from those mugs, but there was a time not long ago when the Black Bears were pretty stout at everything.

By everything, I mean the major, headline sports that make a casual fan’s give-a-darn meter dance, and by stout, I mean in the national conversation for at least a week or two almost every year.

What we celebrate now: When the football team occasionally overachieves in a brutal, Southern-based conference. When the hockey team holds serve in a January weekend series. When the baseball team salvages a split of a doubleheader against a conference opponent that probably didn’t exist when Dr. John Winkin was in his heyday. When the women’s basketball team beats a bottom-feeder from a power conference. When the men’s basketball team, um, wins at all.

Denial and apathy are the prevailing moods in relation to the state’s flagship athletic program. The other is grave disappointment. I fall snugly into that category.

Usually when I pen a missive bemoaning the substandard state of something (yes, such a rare occurrence!) there’s a sincere attempt to serve up some answers. I don’t pretend to have a solution to UMaine’s middling athletic achievement in recent years. I’m not even sure it’s fixable. Rather, it’s a reflection of the way the world and the sports landscape have changed in my adult life.

Maine’s biggest obstacles in the fishbowl of Division I sports are time-tested real estate talking points of location, location, location. The state’s geographic isolation is an almost impossible mountain to climb. Fun and serious as high school sports are in the Pine Tree State, few Division I athletes emerge.

The Black Bears are dependent upon commitments from afar, and few can find Orono, never mind pronounce it. And unless an athlete is from a remote outpost in Canada, getting him or her to attend school many hours from home in a place where off-campus entertainment options are limited is a tough sell these days.

Notice I said “few” Division I athletes are native to that neck of the woods. Certainly there have been enough, particularly in basketball, to strengthen the Black Bears’ homegrown identity. But where do those athletes go to school? In this century, the answer increasingly has become not Maine. Worse yet, the more specific answer is typically one of Maine’s conference rivals.

That defection gets blamed mostly on coaches’ recruiting abilities, tactics or personality, but realistically they’re at a staggering disadvantage. Social media and technology have made it easier for schools elsewhere to sell their opportunities and amenities. Virtual tours of Maine’s athletic facility are almost embarrassing. Most of the improvements made in my years covering games up there were of the lipstick-on-a-pig variety.

The ever-migrating rift between the “Two Maines” hasn’t helped. Most of us recognize the socioeconomic line between rural, traditionally industrious Maine and its neighbor, Northern Massachusetts, aka, Cumberland and York counties. UMaine tries every year to market its hockey and basketball programs in Greater Portland, but the overall response is tepid.

Some of that is due to lack of winning, of course, but much of it again is a reflection of an evolving populace. Kids in that area identify more closely with UNH, BU or BC — each closer to home than UM. Adults appear more loyal to the Sea Dogs or Red Claws brand than that of the Black Bears.

It’s also worth noting that New England rivalries have withered. College conferences now favor growth and economics over geography and tradition, and the leagues in which Maine competes are no exception. The football team recently rattled off a surprising five-game winning streak against schools you probably don’t even recognize, then lost to Villanova. Of course they did. It’s freaking Villanova. You might remember the Wildcats just won a national championship in another prominent sport.

So much enjoyment in sports is a product of dislike for our rivals. Maine sports has lost much of that ingredient. It’s hard for me to get excited about Maine football, basketball or baseball when so many age-old enemies either play in different leagues or no longer sanction the sports at all.

Here in my new home state, it’s impossible to adequately explain the ever-presence of the University of Kentucky’s logo and its blue paraphernalia. Even with rivals Louisville, Indiana, Cincinnati and Ohio State all less than a tank of gas away, even in a state where people identify strongly with being from the Northern, Eastern, Central or Western parts of the territory, UK is ubiquitous.

That’s branding, baby. Now, Maine will never fully achieve that status for a variety of reasons. All mid-majors struggle in that regard. But it’s almost as if the university doesn’t know where to start.

Which might explain why the athletic program appears perpetually stuck in neutral, and why the steins are half-empty.

Kalle Oakes spent 27 years in the Sun Journal sports department. He now works as a writer and editor in Georgetown, Kentucky. His email is [email protected]


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