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Fans or phantoms?

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Let me start by telling you that I am completely biased regarding my subject this week. This is a column about University of Maine football, and I am the play-by-play broadcaster for that team and have been for over 15 years. During that run of over 175 games, I've seen some of the greatest moments in team history. As a matter of fact, among the recently-compiled list of 'Top Ten Maine Football Moments,' I've been behind the microphone for seven of them. I've also witnessed some colossal low points, from heartbreaking losses to jaw-dropping blunders. The point is, I've got a dog in this fight, but I also feel eminently qualified to talk about Maine football, being one of an incredibly small group of people (me, color analyst Bob Lucy, equipment manager Steve Jones and Coach Jack Cosgrove) to have seen every game since 1997.

Maine plays in the Colonial Athletic Association, which transformed from the Atlantic 10 several seasons ago. The CAA is the premier conference in the nation at the FCS (Football Championship Subdivision, formerly 1-AA) level, annually producing more playoff teams and eventual champions than any other league around. Since 2001, the Black Bears have made four trips to the NCAA playoffs, winning first-round road games in three of those appearances in the final eight in the country. In at least a couple of those post-season runs, the Bears were within a play or two of advancing further, perhaps as far as the national championship game.

Maine has also produced more than its share of National Football League players, from guys like Stephen Cooper, who led the Chargers in tackles several seasons, to two-time Pro Bowl selection Montell Owens of the Jacksonville Jaguars, as well as regulars like Mike DeVito of the Jets, Kansas City's Jovan Belcher, Matthew Mulligan of the St. Louis Rams, Mike Flynn (who won a Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens) and recent Green Bay draft pick Jerron McMillian, who scored his first NFL interception last week against the Chicago Bears.

You might think a frequent playoff contender which sends more guys on to the pros than any other team at the FCS level would draw the fans to Alfond Stadium in record numbers, but that's where you'd be wrong. The last few years, the Black Bears have averaged less than 6,000 for their home games, though there was a slight uptick in numbers last season. The conventional wisdom says that fans will support winners, but that argument holds little water when it comes to Maine football. Despite those playoff trips and the high level of talent on display from both the Bears and their opponents, the fans are more like phantoms.

I hear all sorts of reasons for the lack of love for this team. The laundry list includes bad weather, poor promotion, high ticket prices, limits on tailgating, disappointing play in home games, competition with high school sports, and hunting season. Look, if that many people were out in the woods in blaze orange, there wouldn't be a deer left in the state.

There are elements of truth in all of these reasons, but if you're a sports fan and especially a football fan, you're missing out by not being there. This is the only Division 1 program in Maine, and the truth is, they're good. Several NFL scouts were at Maine's 51-7 blowout of Bryant last Saturday, ostensibly to see the Bulldogs' Jordan Brown, who led the nation in rushing last year. Instead, they came away shaking their heads at the skills of Donte Dennis, Michael Cole, Chris Howley and several other Bears who will likely have a shot at playing Sundays before too long.

Do yourself a favor and come watch Maine host future CAA league member Albany this Saturday at 6. If you don't have a good time, you have my permission to go hunting next month.

Last modified on Friday, 21 September 2012 13:26

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