Maine football energized by D-I's youngest head coach

(STATS) - If scenes from "Rocky IV" turn up in the game film of the Maine football team, the players will know who edited them in.

Their new head coach, Joe Harasymiak, often references how the Black Bears are suited for training in a cold, raw, even snow-covered wilderness - as the fictional movie hero did.

The Black Bears wouldn't even be surprised if the youngest head coach in Division I college football mandated such training. With Harasymiak (Hahr-uh-sim-ee-ak) only 29 years old, they seem to relate to him quite well, although it probably has as much to do with his coaching style as their relatively close ages.

"I know a lot of coaches have energy, but you have to use that energy in the right way, which I think I do," said Harasymiak, known to run up and down the sidelines during games. "And I think I get the guys to play hard. I guess that would be what I was most proud of the last two years, is those guys played hard. And that's what I'm trying to translate over into the entire team now because that will develop that will to win that I'm talking about - that hunter's mentality."

The FCS offseason has been one full of young coaching hires, with Austin Peay's Will Healy (30), Southern Illinois' Nick Hill (30) and Fordham's Andrew Breiner (31) also under 32 when they took over their programs. But Harasymiak, a native of northern New Jersey who played collegiately at Springfield College, is the youngest of all - he won't hit 30 until June 23.

He's ingrained in the Maine program, having been an assistant over the last five seasons, including the last two as defensive coordinator and linebackers coach. His promotion to head coach was supported by Jack Cosgrove when he retired following a 23-year run at the helm and 34 years overall with the program.

"Obviously, Coach Cosgrove, he is Maine football," Harasymiak said. "He built this rich tradition that is here. Structurally, there are things that work here. This place is a very unique college football setting, and he really built it up to be what it is."

The Maine campus is the northern-most among eastern FCS schools, so selling four or five years in Orono isn't necessarily a recruiter's dream. To say it gets cold in the Pine Tree State is like saying Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have had pretty good careers.

But that's also part of the reason Harasymiak embraces the blue-collar work ethic that he says Cosgrove instilled within the CAA Football program. Harasymiak feels the Black Bears have to outwork the competition - indoors, outdoors, in all parts of their grind.

Under Cosgrove, Maine compiled a 129-135 record with three conference championships and all five NCAA FCS playoff appearances in school history. Five of his six best records - 7-4 or better - followed a losing season, so there's a quiet confidence that the Harasymiak era can have a similar start.

The Black Bears will return an experienced lineup with senior leadership after they went 5-6 in 2014 and 3-8 last year. Prior to that, Harasymiak coached on Maine's two most recent playoff teams, in 2011 and its 2013 conference championship squad.

"I thought the team really jelled together those (2011 and '13) years, it didn't in the other years," Harasymiak said. "We were young last year. I'm not using that as an excuse, we still had a chance to win many games. But that year should help us getting out ... and moving forward.

"I also believe that the quarterback position will play a very big role in that. Those two years, we had two great years from quarterbacks - 2011 was Warren Smith, and obviously Marcus Wasilewski in 2013 led us to the CAA championship. I think the development of that position with hiring a new offensive coordinator will be key."

The new coordinator, Liam Cohen, is a former quarterback, so he will try to help juniors Dan Collins and Drew Belcher become more consistent as the Black Bears switch to a pro-style offense. They averaged only 15 points per game last season, but with leading rusher Nigel Beckford and leading receivers Micah Wright and Jordan Dunn among nine returning starters on offense, there is expectation for improvement.

Opposite the offensive struggles, the defense played on a high level under Harasymiak, ranking third in the CAA and 19th in the FCS in fewest yards allowed per game. Defensive line coach Corey Hetherman has been promoted to defensive coordinator, and his unit will be led by end Patrick Ricard, who as a junior racked up 16.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks.

Harasymiak is "a player's coach and he gets the best out of all of his players and I'm a living testament to that," said Randy Samuels, the leading tackler as a senior last year. "He made me an all-conference linebacker and I'm grateful for that. He's a great guy with an easy-going personality, but he's all business at the same time. He's a winner and he expects to win."

Harasymiak received a four-year contract with a base salary of $150,000 to take over for Cosgrove.

"When you're a young coach, you have the energy," Harasymiak said. "But what (Cosgrove) taught me is really the player-coach relationships and how to deal with those because everyone is different.

"Obviously, I'm really excited to use some of that knowledge and really carry it with me, along with some of my own stuff."

Cosgrove is just a tap on the ceiling away as he's taken on the role of Maine's senior associate director of athletics and moved into an office directly above Harasymiak's.

The Black Bears will need a mix of the old-school values and young blood when Harasymiak's head coaching career begins. They open at FBS programs Connecticut and Toledo. After a bye week, the Black Bears' home opener will be against James Madison, one of the defending CAA champions.

"I believe in playing a strong schedule. I think it goes a long way because it gets us prepared," Harasymiak said.

"I think these kids these days are probably motivated a little bit differently than they were back in the day. I just think that's the way now and being able to relate to that is very important because, obviously, the most important thing when you're the leader of a team, you've got to get them to play for you."