Maine coach Joe Harasymiak coaches against Jacksonville State during the FCS playoffs earlier this month in Orono. (Portland Press Herald photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette)

Joe Harasymiak took the University of Maine football team to new heights this fall. And now he’s moving on after three years as the Black Bears’ head coach.

Harasymiak, 32, is leaving Maine to become a defensive assistant coach at the University of Minnesota. The news Thursday came just five days after the Black Bears lost to Eastern Washington University in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision semifinals in Cheney, Washington. The semifinal appearance was the first for the UMaine football program.

Harasymiak was traveling Thursday to join the Golden Gophers, who will play Georgia Tech in the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit on Dec. 26, and was unavailable for comment.

One possible successor, Maine defensive coordinator Corey Hetherman, also left the program Thursday to become defensive coordinator at James Madison.

Harasymiak informed his players of his departure in a video message Thursday morning. Many of them already had left campus for semester break.

“I’m sure he would have liked to tell us in person, but that’s the way it goes,” said sophomore quarterback Chris Ferguson, a two-year starter. “We appreciated he sent the message. Now we’ve got to stay positive. That’s all we can do.”

Harasymiak had become a hot commodity with Maine’s unexpected success this season — the Black Bears were picked to finish eighth in the Colonial Athletic Association and won the league title — and was considered as a candidate for head coaching positions at Massachusetts and James Madison before those positions were filled.

Harasymiak was praised for the way he handled the death of freshman Darius Minor, who collapsed and died during a supervised workout just days before training camp opened. Players said the tragedy helped to unite and focus the team during its unprecedented season.

Harasymiak’s salary at Maine was $153,000 a year, low among NCAA Division I head football coaches. Full-time football assistants at Minnesota made at least $210,000 in 2018, according to a report in the Twin Cities Pioneer Press. So Harasymiak can expect a raise.

But UMaine athletic director Ken Ralph said money was not the reason the coach is moving on.

“There are so few spots available in the Power 5 programs, for him to make the jump to a Power 5 program is a big deal,” Ralph said. “It did not come down to money; it came down to the opportunity to be at a Power 5 program. He’s a talented young coach with a bright future. And while we’re sad to lose him, we’re happy for him.

“Joe has been very open with me the entire process. I knew this was a strong possibility.”

Minnesota plays in the Big Ten, one of the Power 5 conferences. Those schools play in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision and feature programs with bigger budgets, rosters and coaching staffs than Maine.

While Harasymiak is leaving Maine before his contract expires, he will not have to pay a buyout clause because he did not leave for a head coaching position.

Ferguson, who was recruited by Harasymiak, said the move was not a surprise.

“It’s college football,” he said. “That’s the business. When you have success, then you kind of lose those guys you had success with. That’s the way it is. I’m happy to have been recruited by him and play for him. I think he has a really bright future. I’m really happy for him, he’s taking the next step.”

Harasymiak will be joining a Minnesota program that has a 6-6 record this season. Golden Gophers defensive coordinator Joe Rossi was formerly the defensive coordinator at Maine, from 2008-11 under Jack Cosgrove.

In an interview Thursday with Minnesota media, Rossi said he did not know exactly what role Harasymiak would take with the team’s defense, but that the team was getting “an impressive, impressive coach.”

“I have a tremendous amount of respect for him,” said Rossi, who left Maine shortly after Harasymiak joined the staff there in 2011. “He’s an elite coach, an elite person. He has high energy and he’s able to relate to the players.”

Maine will return 16 of 22 starting players — as well as its kicking specialists — when it defends its CAA championship in 2019.

“A lot of people know we have a lot of talent coming back,” Ralph said. “And our freshman class was excellent, so we think we can sustain it for a while.”

Ralph said Maine would move as soon as possible to find his replacement. He noted that he had calls for the position within minutes of Harasymiak’s notice that he was leaving. Ralph also stressed that he wanted to keep the rest of the football staff together, if possible.

“I think one of the things you have to remember is that the head coach is only one piece of the puzzle why a team succeeds,” Ralph said. “We have an exceptional young staff and a lot of talent and as much as possible we want to keep that group.”

While Hetherman is leaving, there is at least one other candidate on staff.

Offensive coordinator Nick Charlton oversaw a group that returns eight starters, including Ferguson, running back Ramon Jefferson and wide receiver Earnest Edwards. And Ralph said several of the position coaches were attractive candidates as well.

“There’s exceptional talent there,” Ralph said. “We’re hoping to come to a decision sooner then later.”

Ralph said that while Maine’s program has become more attractive because of its success, its financial restrictions could limit who is hired.

“One of the things we’re looking for is young up-and-comers ready for that move,” he said. “Someone demonstrating a high aptitude for this. That’s the nature of who we are and what we are. We can’t afford to make mistakes like some schools. We have to do our due diligence and get it right.”

Meanwhile, the college football recruiting season is in full swing. On Wednesday, Maine signed four recruits during the early signing period. The Black Bears hope to sign more when the regular signing period begins Feb. 6. Ralph said it was important “to keep the recruiting class together.”

Harasymiak came to Maine as a defensive assistant coach in 2011, eventually becoming the defensive coordinator in 2014. He was hired to replace Cosgrove in November 2015. In three seasons, Harasymiak compiled a 20-15 record.

He was named the CAA coach of the year this year, the Jack Grinold University Division coach of the year by the New England Football Writers Association and the Region 1 coach of the year by the American Football Coaches Association. Harasymiak was a finalist for the STATS FCS Eddie Robinson Award, given annually to the best coach in the FCS.

“We did everything we could to keep him,” Ralph said. “I really wanted to see him stay another year, but … how do you begrudge someone who’s taking the next step in their dream? It’s sad for us, but we’re thrilled for him. UMaine football will go on.”