ORONO — In the moments after the University of Maine football team defeated Weber State to advance to national semifinals for the first time in program history, the Black Bears head coach stood among his players in a crowded locker room.

His voice cracking with emotion, he ended his postgame speech by saying, “I’ve got two words. Final Four!” And then he leaped into the air to join his players in celebration.

This is Joe Harasymiak. At 32, he’s the youngest head coach among the nation’s 125 NCAA Football Championship Subdivision programs. He’s young enough to remember what it’s like to be a player, but tough enough that his players know better than to cross him.

“I’ve said this before,” sophomore quarterback Chris Ferguson said, “he’s a bad man in the best way possible.”

Harasymiak coaches with a swagger. He expertly motivates his players for the challenges they face at college football’s northernmost outpost on the East Coast, a school often overlooked by top high school recruits.

And he has the Black Bears reaching new heights. Maine (10-3) plays at Eastern Washington (11-2) at 2 p.m. Saturday for the chance to advance to the FCS championship game on Jan. 5.

‘HE’S A MOTIVATOR’

Joe Harasymiak talks with his team after the first practice of the 2016 season, his first as the Black Bears head coach.

Harasymiak, in his third season as head coach, has been the catalyst for a surprising run by the Black Bears this fall. Maine won the Colonial Athletic Association championship after being picked to finish eighth of league’s 12 teams. They won two playoff games against favored teams and are an 10-point underdog Saturday.

“He’s got that team playing with a purpose, playing with such energy and emotion,” New Hampshire head coach Sean McDonnell said. “Kids are magnetized to him. You watch the energy he brings to coaching on the sidelines, you see him get after people and coach them hard. And the kids are responding to him.”

“He’s a motivator, an inspirator and a leader,” Maine senior wide receiver Micah Wright said. “Come Saturday, he’s going to have 62 young men ready to battle on that field for him. He does a great job instilling confidence and belief in us.”

Harasymiak was born in Ridgewood and raised in Waldwick — both in New Jersey — and played football at Springfield College in Massachusetts. That’s where he met his wife, Brittany, who was a soccer player at Springfield. She said he began to talk about coaching in his senior year. “He told me that was the route he wanted to go,” she said.

To him, it was not just a job, it was a lifestyle he wanted to follow.

“For me, my best relationships, aside from my family, my wife, are with the coaches that coached me,” he said. “So that’s why (coaching) has had such a profound effect on me. I just wanted to do that, to give back. I’ve always loved the environment of the competition, the stress, everything that goes with it. I love it all so much. And when you have young people, and get them to believe in themselves, and you change their lives, it’s such a rewarding experience.”

‘AN EASY DECISION’

Harasymiak was an assistant coach at Maine Maritime Academy in 2008, then spent two seasons as a graduate assistant at Springfield before former Maine head coach Jack Cosgrove hired him as a defensive backs coach in 2011. Three years later, Harasymiak was promoted to defensive coordinator. When Cosgrove resigned at the end of the 2015 season, Harasymiak was hired as the head coach at age 29 – with Cosgrove providing a big push. “It was an easy decision,” Cosgrove said, “made with a lot of enthusiasm.”

Earnest Edwards, left, and Jaquan Blair give Black Bears coach Joe Harasymiak a Gatorade shower as the clock runs out against Jacksonville State on Dec. 1.

Maine went 6-5 in Harasymiak’s first season, missing the FCS playoffs because of a last-second loss to New Hampshire in the season finale. Then the Black Bears went 4-6 last season.

Harasymiak was undeterred because he saw the program moving in the right direction.

“I just go back to our brand and our culture and what we’re trying to do here,” Harasymiak said. “We’ve prepared to be a team like this. We’ve prepared to be a championship team. That’s why I think we’re playing so well.”

Harasymiak will joke around with his players and share their highs and lows. But “if you mess up, he’s the first one at you, to hold you accountable,” senior linebacker Sterling Sheffield said.

‘THROUGH THICK AND THIN’

Wright and sophomore placekicker Kenny Doak said Harasymiak helped them overcome adversity. As a freshman, Doak struggled early in the season and was eventually replaced as the starter. Yet Harasymiak never gave up on him. “He kept preaching to me that they still had trust in me,” Doak said. “It was all positive.”

Doak responded this year with game-winning field goals on the final play of successive games in October.

Wright said Harasymiak stood by him while he served two suspensions for off-field incidents. “He was there through thick and thin for me,” Wright said. “He’s done his best to make me a better man and I can’t thank him enough for that.”

Harasymiak said becoming a father – his daughter Sophie was born in May 2017 – has certainly provided him with a different outlook. “I’ve always respected my players and treated them the right way,” he said. “But even more so now, it pops up in my head sometimes to take care of them extra special because they’re someone’s son.”

And that’s why the death of freshman defensive back Darius Minor affected him so much. Minor, an 18-year-old from Locust Grove, Virginia, died during a supervised workout in late July. As the team grieved, so did Harasymiak. And they grew stronger because of it.

“They leaned on each other,” Brittany Harasymiak said. “And Joe leaned on Darius’ mother. They were all going through the same thing. It’s not like they couldn’t relate. It was their reality. And they found a way to lean on each other.”

As Maine has progressed through the playoffs, Harasymiak has become a hot prospect for open coaching jobs. His name surfaced in recent weeks for head coaching positions at the University of Massachusetts and James Madison before those schools made hires.

Harasymiak would certainly get a raise if he moves on. He is the fourth-highest paid employee in the Maine athletic department, making $150,000 a year, and is under contract to Maine for two more years.

“When those things, if ever, come up, I’ll have to see what happens,” Harasymiak said of possible job offers. “I’ve had conversations with (Cosgrove) about that, and with guys who have been in that position here. But right now my No. 1 focus is that I want to win that game Saturday.”

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: MikeLowePPH

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