Like the rest of his teammates, Joshua Thrasher never saw the news coming.

“I was about 12 miles offshore tuna fishing all day Friday,” Thrasher said. “I didn’t get the news until about 5 (p.m.) when we finally came to shore and had cell service. I actually didn’t find out from an email, I found out from a teammate of mine. The message just said ‘We’ve been calling it since year one.'”

Thrasher and the rest of the Maine Maritime Academy football team — as well as the student body, parents and alumni — were blindsided by the news Friday that the program was indefinitely suspended. Not just for the season, which had been canceled weeks prior due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but for the foreseeable future. Maybe it comes back next year. Maybe it’s longer.

The notice for the Mariners came in a 149-word statement from the university, 70 of which came in quotes from Dr. William J. Brennan, Maine Maritime’s president.

“The football program is our most expensive non-academic program,” Brennan said in the statement. “As the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are already mounting and with the prospect of a 10% curtailment in state funding, we need to review the program’s overall impact—and the impact of all programs—on our ability to continue to operate the institution.”

And just like that, within a couple of paragraphs, Maine Maritime football — a program that dates back to 1946 — was put to bed. At least for now.

Thrasher, a senior running back, said he had heard the remaining coaching staff were told of the news Friday just 30 minutes before the announcement was made. As mentioned above, the players found out at the same time as everyone else, with the statement, sent via email. Both players and alumni had no problems voicing their displeasure with the move over the weekend. Some found it to be a rash decision to quickly overcome funds lost over the past semester due to the pandemic. Others said the decision was a well-timed administrative hit job, finally coming through on rumors that had made its way through the Castine campus for years.

There’s no question the timing of the move is…convenient. It’s no secret the Mariners have struggled mightily over the past nine years. Maine Maritime has a 13-69 record over that span. The Mariners have two wins in the past four years. In 2018 and 2019, the team was winless, owners of an 0-19 record.

But despite the current streak of losing, Maine Maritime has a long and proud football tradition. The Mariners won the New England Football Conference (NEFC) championship nine times, including back-to-back conference titles in 2009 and 2010. Over 71 years, MMA has an overall record 391-323-9 (a .547 winning percentage). In 2009, the Mariners made a trip to the NCAA Division III tournament.

The players finally had a Zoom meeting with the administration on Monday, in an effort to answer questions. Attending the meeting were Brennan, as well as Elizabeth True, the vice president of student affairs and enrollment management, and athletic director Steve Peed. Thrasher gave credit to the administration for being open about its financial situation, as they explained it costs $400,000 per year to run the football program (it should also be noted that wrestling and rugby — both club sports at Maine Maritime — are under review but have not officially been suspended, and no other current varsity sport is under review). The school is also prolonging its deferment/refund deadline, which had already passed, to give incoming freshmen and incoming players the opportunity to leave school if they choose.

Thrasher argued the administration will already save $400,000 this season alone, as they have laid off the coaching staff and will not have a season. He said that would have bought the school another year to make up its mind.

“If you look at the figures they gave us (Monday) night, in 2018, the football program cost in upwards of $400,000 for operational costs for a full calendar year,” Thrasher said. “When they told us they were suspending (the program) because of financial reasons, we found out that they had laid off the only two coaches that we had left on staff. So, the seniors are sitting here wondering ‘What kind of expenses would there be this year if you’re not paying two coaches on salary? If we’re not traveling in buses and staying in hotels and having team dinners?’ Our equipment is already being refurbished, that happens over the summer, in order to be ready for the season… We were very, very confused. What are the expenses this year if there is no football season? Why would you make the extreme case to cancel the program when there would be no money spent this year? It’s a decision we think, as the players, could have waited. It’s something they could have sat on and talked about.”

Thrasher said the administration also conveyed in the meeting that the term “indefinite suspension” does not mean forever, that instead they are evaluating their options. I’m curious if the administration actually knows how difficult it can be to start, or restart, a program from scratch. If you need an example, just look down the road at the University of New England in Biddeford, which started a football program in 2016. Knowing it would take time and patience, the UNE administration hired its football coach — then 29-year old Mike Lichten — two years before its first game (the Nor’easters did have a junior varsity schedule in 2017, going 2-6). Over that span, it gave Lichten the proper time to hire a staff, pound the pavement with recruiting, and prepare a VERY young (just six juniors, with the rest of the team full of sophomores and freshmen) roster for college football play. Credit certainly goes to UNE for doing it the right way, as the Nor’easters have improved each season, going 2-7 in 2018, and 4-6 last year.

Maine Maritime would have to do all of that, as well as convince prospective student athletes that it’s taking football serious again. And if you don’t think the dropping — or even a lengthy absence — of a program comes back to haunt a school when it comes to recruits, you are sorely mistaken.

Thrasher is not going down without a fight. He started a petition at Change.org, urging the administration to reverse its decision. At press time, the petition has received 1,000 signatures. It’s unlikely to change minds at the top, but it at least shows that players and alumni will go down swinging for the sake of tradition.

“I feel like we’re being stripped of our identity,” Thrasher said. “Being a football player at that school is an identity, just like being a soccer player or member of the ROTC, it’s part of who you are as a collegiate athlete, or just as a Mariner in general. I think a lot of our frustrations are coming from that fact alone.

“This is our program, we’ve poured everything we can into this. For us to be the only varsity sport to be looked at, that doesn’t seem to be fair.”

In 149 words, Maine Maritime cut loose over 70 years of history. In just a couple of paragraphs, it took a dagger and cut out a piece of its soul.

 

Dave Dyer — 621-5640

[email protected]

Twitter: @Dave_Dyer

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