Jordan Stevens, head coach of the University of Maine football team, works out on the first day of practice in Orono on Aug. 3. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

Long, long ago, in a simpler time of regional rivalries and two-bar facemasks, there was a nice little football league called the Yankee Conference. New England’s six state universities vied every fall for regional supremacy in front of big crowds and everyone was happy. 

Changes were minimal for decades. Boston University joined in 1972 and Vermont dropped the sport two years later. But everyone stayed happy. 

Then came the 1980s and the mid-Atlantic invasion. Delaware. Richmond. Villanova. Schools with bigger fan bases and more money. These dudes meant business.

The ’90s saw the arrival of James Madison, Willam & Mary and Northeastern. (In all fairness, the Huskies had been trying to join for years and should have been added long before.) In less than a decade, the quaint little league had bulked up to 12 teams. Not everyone was happy, especially after the mid-Atlantic teams started to dominate.

Teams came. Teams went. The Yankee Conference name went kaput after the ’96 season when the Atlantic 10 Conference decided to get into the football game. Then the Coastal Athletic Association took over, and the league lineup was rarely the same in consecutive seasons. (What, you don’t remember Georgia State’s year in the league?) What was once the “Yankee” Conference had been taken over by the Deep South.


Last week, the CAA voted to admit Rhode Island’s Bryant University  as a football-only member beginning in 2024. One one hand, this is a good move because it gives the league a badly needed northeastern presence. On the other hand, it means the CAA will have 16 teams, only three of which — Maine, New Hampshire and Rhode Island — are “old school” Yankee Conference members. The current lineup is an eclectic mix of state schools, private institutions and HBCUs, but it’s also more bloated than an episode of “ESPN College Gameday.”

Maybe megaconferences work in the Football Bowl Subdivision football factories, but do we really need them at the lower-stakes Football Championship Subdivision level?

No. And this is where the America East Conference can step in and save the day.

The America East, of course, is the longtime home of University of Maine sports, along with familiar rivals such as New Hampshire and Albany and newbies such as Bryant. Those four schools also field CAA football teams. See where I’m going? 

Let’s say these four break away from the CAA and form the core of America East football. Rhode Island — which plays in the Atlantic 10 in non-football, or “Olympic” sports — would be an easy addition as a fifth school.

And this is where the challenge lies. According to, a conference needs a minimum of six teams in order to be eligible for an automatic bid to the 24-team FCS tournament. Who can fill out the sixth spot? I offer two possibilities, neither of them perfect:


  1. Merrimack. The good: The school is based in New England, and it’s a brand familiar to fans at Maine and UNH thanks to its long-standing ties to the Hockey East Association. The bad: The Warriors currently play in the Northeast Conference, which allows only 45 scholarships for football. Merrimack would have to find a away to cook up 18 extra “schollys” to join America East football, plus find an equal number for women’s sports in order to satisfy Title IX requirements.
  2. UMass. The good: The school is based in New England, is an original Yankee Conference member and its 12 years in FBS has been such a disaster it deserves its own ESPN “30 for 30” documentary. The bad: The Minutemen would rather chew on Astroturf than admit their time in FBS has been a failure. 

If no other school from New England or the Northeast (Central Connecticut? Sacred Heart?) is interested, then it’s back to square one and the CAA for now.

And another thing: A smaller, simpler conference might give Maine a breather from its annual grindstone of a schedule. The Black Bears are 14-21 since 2014 against their mid-Atlantic brethren, and their slate is brutal enough with two FBS teams and annual powerhouse UNH greeting them year in and year out. More wins mean more fans and, hopefully, more top recruits. (Maybe I should call this “trickle-down football.”)

Oh, and one final request: 

If the breakaway does happen, the America East defectors have to take the Yankee Conference records and history with them. Sorry, CAA. We were here first.

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