The University of New England in Biddeford announced on Thursday it will offer football and rugby as athletic programs, with a goal of the football program opening its first season in the fall of 2017.

According to the school, one of the purposes of starting a football program is to even out the school’s student population. The sports programs alone show its unevenness. The Nor’easters have nine female varsity programs (basketball, cross country, field hockey, ice hockey, lacrosse, soccer, softball, volleyball and swimming). There are six male programs (basketball, ice hockey, lacrosse, cross country, golf and soccer), eight after the addition of football and rugby.

What wasn’t announced was what really sets UNE apart from any college in the southern Maine area thanks to addition of football. It’s a major win for the football community throughout the state, as it provides another school for local athletes to pursue their football dreams. It’s also the only Maine college south of Brunswick to have a program.

With respect to the area’s community colleges (Southern Maine Community College, York County Technical College), southern Maine is divided by three major colleges: UNE, the University of Southern Maine in Portland and Saint Joseph’s College of Standish.

More than a decade ago, USM tried to put together a football program together, which would have been played at the school’s campus in Gorham. Plans fell through when not enough money was raised — and no attempt has been raised since. With the current financial troubles of the institution, which includes cuts to academic programs and faculty, it’s highly unlikely the Huskies will have a football team anytime in the near future. Saint Joe’s is relatively even in its sports programs (eight men’s teams, nine women’s teams), but does not currently offer football.

We may not realize it, but we in central Maine have been spoiled with college football for years. The top program in the state is, of course, at the University of Maine in Orono, where the Black Bears, a school in the Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division IAA). The Black Bears currently have 12 former Maine high school players on its roster of 91 players (13 percent), most of whom are recruited from football hotbeds like Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey.

Under Maine there are five current football programs in the NCAA’s Division III area, all within a 100-minute drive from Augusta: Bates College of Lewiston, Bowdoin College of Brunswick, Colby College of Waterville, Husson College of Bangor and Maine Maritime Academy of Castine. Bates, Colby and Bowdoin are all members of the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC), otherwise known as the “Little Ivy League,” putting the schools in comparison to the actual Ivy League schools like Harvard, Yale and Dartmouth. As such, recruits at each school have to meet academic requirements (i.e. be an all-A student) in order to have a chance to attend. Of those three programs and its 225 players — recruited all over the United States — 16 are from Maine, a rate less than one percent.

In comparison, Husson and Maine Maritime are Maine-heavy schools. Of the 188 players between the two schools, 121 are former Maine high schoolers, a 64 percent rate. Maine Maritime has the highest between the two, as 53 of its 73 players (73 percent) come from Maine.

UNE would fall in line with Husson and Maine Martime as far as its recruitment area, involving kids from both Maine and out of state. Being in the southern end of the state, the Nor’easters can offer a shorter distance from home for many local athletes. The UNE campus in Biddeford is also closer to Maine’s entertainment epicenter, Portland, where shopping, sports and the Old Port (when of legal drinking age) are within a 20-mile drive up I-95. Those offerings would cut into the numbers for both Husson and Maine Maritime, offering a natural rivalry. The Nor’easters will spend their first year as a Division III independent, but can join a conference a year later, meaning UNE could join the New England Football Conference (NEFC) with Maine Maritime or the East Coast Football Conference (ECFC) with Husson. Thanks to being able to schedule both conference and non-conference teams on its schedule, UNE could play both teams in the same year and take the recruitment rivalry onto the playing field. With a team of 80 players, it’s 80 more opportunities for Maine high school football players to continue their careers at home, instead of venturing out to other New England DIII schools.

Three key factors will be needed in order for UNE to be successful on its way to starting its program:

1. Financial backing: UNE would play its games on their all-purpose blue turf field, titled simply “The Big Blue Field,” so no field construction will be needed. Bigger sets of stands will need to be built, along with the appropriate locker rooms and a bigger laundry facility and equipment storage as noted in UNE’s press release. Each cost money, but is minimal when a school does not need to worry about field construction. There are obviously no football alumni at UNE, but as football is a popular sport, alumni may jump at the chance to help support the program.

2. Coaching: UNE will need to find a coach who must realize they will not see a playing field for at least a year. During that time, they will need to look at high school juniors, make the drive to different high schools to recruit players and talk up the exciting possibilities that come with being a new program. Both the coach and the university will need patience. The coach will need patience with the fact that the program will likely open with 65 or 70 freshman out of 80 players (there’s always the possibility of transfers), which will lead many, many bumps in the road. The university in turn must be patient with the coach, knowing winning will not come overnight. A five-year commitment to a coach should not be out of the question, at a minimum. An experienced coach with a winning background would help add a face to the program. However, a younger, less experienced coach may be hungry enough to put in the hours and travel needed to recruit the right players for a winning team.

3. Recruiting: This is the most important aspect. The team will only be as good at the recruiting effort of the coaching staff. It will be up to that staff to travel throughout New England to talk up the program. UNE will be in recruiting contention with all other New England DIII schools. It has no past of losing, but it has no past of winning, either. Setting the tone of the program and being the first to have success at the school should be big selling points, as well as the obvious academic education and location of the school.

The opportunities are endless for UNE with this decision, but it’s now up to the school and the athletic department to direct where this goes. As of today, the future looks promising.

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