ONCE THE SAYING WENT: As Maine goes, so goes the nation. But no more. Now as Maine goes, so go the NFL scouts—to Orono, the last outpost of civilization before you hit the Canadian border, 150 miles to the north. Orono is the home of the University of Maine Black Bears, the No. 4-ranked team in Division 1-AA football.
Orono is a place where, for excitement, folks drive around and watch dying foliage turn red and orange and yellow before the dullness of deep winter sets in. Author Stephen King lives near there, which may explain his writing. Orono is also where, on Saturday afternoons, they turn loose the Misfits, a crew of big, talented football players who fell through the nets of the major-college recruiters. Last week, for example, the Misfits manhandled the University of Connecticut, a good Division 1-AA team, 30-8 and ran their record to 8-0.
The glamour names at Maine are Buck and Smith, as in Mike Buck, a 6'4", 223-pound senior quarterback with a rifle arm, and Carl Smith, a fleet sophomore tailback who is as hard to collar as a hyperactive puppy. So far this fall, 13 NFL scouts have come to Orono to take a look at them. "Buck is one of our high-rated prospects," says Dick Mansperger, the director of college scouting for the Dallas Cowboys, who already have a couple of quarterbacks named Troy Aikman and Steve Walsh. "He has the size and the arm and all the other things."
Buck ranks second among all Division I quarterbacks this season, with a passing efficiency of 171.2. He has completed 112 of 165 passes for 1,516 yards and 13 touchdowns. Incredibly, his next interception will be his first. No starting pro-style quarterback has played an NCAA season without an interception.
Buck is the guy who dubbed his team the Misfits, and as is true of most of his teammates, there is a story behind his coming to Maine. While Buck was in his senior year at Sayville High, on Long Island's south shore, his coach decided to run the veer offense. It was like asking a 265-pound offensive tackle to play flanker. "I wasn't very good," says Buck. Of the big schools, only Syracuse maintained an interest in him. The coaches there told Buck that if he wanted to walk on, they would try him as a linebacker. "Maine was my only offer," he says. "I knew it was a state, but I didn't know they played football."
Smith, another Long Island product, from Riverhead, was the New York State 100-meter champion—his best time was 10.43—but he had trouble with his SATs. When he finally hit a combined 770 on his third try, only Maine had held a scholarship open for him. Against Connecticut he ran 22 times for 116 yards and one touchdown. The week before, against Rhode Island, he ran for 245 yards and four scores. For the season, Smith has rushed for 1,268 yards and 17 touchdowns.
Three other Maine seniors have also drawn NFL interest: 6'6", 290-pound offensive tackle Scott Hough; 6'6", 290-pound tight end Mike Bittermann; and 6'5", 275-pound defensive tackle Justin Strzelcyzk. "Just some more of our bump-and-dent athletes," says athletic director Kevin White with a grin. "They all came out of high school with at least one thing that turned off the major schools." Hough, from Newton, Mass., attended a small private school that went 0-7 his senior year. Strzelcyzk weighed only 205 pounds coming out of West Seneca (N.Y.) High as a tight end. Bittermann's love of basketball turned his recruiting suitors off. "It didn't help when my high school coach [in Fort Lee, N.J.] told all the football scouts that I was only going to play basketball in college," says Bittermann. In fact, he went to Maine on a basketball scholarship; he switched to football his sophomore year.
"The talent was here when I came," says first-year coach Tom Lichtenberg, who apprenticed as an assistant at Notre Dame, Iowa State and Ohio State. "I guess I just turned the right key. You know, there isn't much to do around here in the winter. Our kids just go to the weight room and to study hall. They just get bigger and smarter." There are 12 seniors on Maine's team; all are on schedule to graduate.
That may come as a surprise to some of the recruiters. Smith was not the only player to come to Maine as an academic question mark. Junior flanker Mark Dupree, an all-New Jersey split end at Passaic High, was rated the best receiver in the state. "But everybody backed off because of my grades," he says. He came in this year from Highland Community College in Kansas. Again the big schools backed off, not because of grades this time, but because of his timing. He graduated in June. The big schools like their J.C. athletes to get out in December so they can make spring practice. Dupree has become Buck's prime target, having caught 35 passes for 527 yards to date.
Redshirt freshman Bill Curry, an all-New Jersey cornerback who was chased by West Virginia, Iowa, Iowa State and Michigan, was late taking his SATs. "When I looked up," he says, "there was only Maine." Sophomore tailback Ben Sirmans from East Orange, N.J., had to repeat his SAT tests; again, Maine was the only school with the patience to wait for him. He has to be the finest reserve tailback in the country. In 95 carries this year, he has rushed for 396 yards and six touchdowns. "Until I came here," says Sirmans, "I had never seen two trees standing side by side. I love it."
"You know, a lot of schools recruit by looking at paper," says team captain John Gibson, a 6'1", 220-pound senior linebacker. "We call them paper tigers. You can't measure heart or desire. That is what this team is all about."
Maine has three more games in its regular season: against Delaware, Boston University and Northeastern. If it wins all three and wins the Division 1-AA playoffs, the Bears could conceivably finish 15-0. But winning isn't the only thing that's getting to be familiar in Orono. "When I came here, somebody asked me if I had ever been to Maine," said Lichtenberg. "I told them no, but I felt like I had. My wife buys a lot of stuff from the L.L. Bean catalog."