Monday, September 8, 2008

Flying high With heart more than size, UMaine reached glory in '65


— By
Staff Writer
They were small that year. Undersized.
They weren't particularly talented.
A 5-foot-8 quarterback and a linebacker named John Huard were their only notable standouts.
But something remarkable happened in the fall of 1965 for the University of Maine football team.
As the weeks passed the Black Bears pulled out one improbable win after the next: Massachusetts. Boston University. Vermont. New Hampshire. Connecticut. Rhode Island. Colby. Youngstown State. By November their record was 8-0.
And in December, little Maine -- its roster filled with kids who hadn't stepped foot on a commercial jet before that season -- flew out of Bangor to play in the Tangerine Bowl. They stand today as the only team from Maine to play in a bowl game.
''We weren't supposed to win all those games,'' said Huard. ''We were young and just didn't know that.''
Maine lost 31-0 to East Carolina in the Tangerine Bowl in Orlando, Fla., but it wasn't about that. How this group got there, they will tell you, was a combination of will, chemistry, naivete and some genius coaching.
Now in their 60s, some 34 players from that team will return Saturday to Orono to be honored at halftime of the home opener against Stony Brook. They are doctors, grandfathers, CEOs, retired businessmen, high school teachers. Two had military careers. Four have died.
For decades their 1965 season has stayed alive in old glossy photos filled with buzz cuts and square jaws, and a grainy black-and-white film from a lifetime ago. This weekend many of them will make the journey back to Orono for the first time in 43 years.
''You had your youth and the world in front of you,'' said Huard, 64. ''Now probably the best days have gone from what we had then. But you have a team like that, you just don't know.''
The team was coached by Harold Westerman, now 93.
He said that year remains his fondest memory from his coaching career.
''There is no question that it is,'' said Westerman. ''I'm anxious to see a lot of those fellas. They were a real good team and family. We really had lots of fun.''
Jack Butterfield, who had led the school's baseball team to the 1964 College World Series, was the running backs coach. He was an executive with the New York Yankees before he died in an auto accident in 1979.
Huard was the marquee player. He went on to play four years with the Denver Broncos and is now the CEO of Northeast FieldTurf.
Quarterback Dick DeVarney was credited with adding dimension to the program's passing game with his ability to throw on the run. He passed for 1,592 yards that year, a school record at the time.
''If I had to stand in the pocket at 5-8, you don't see too many things,'' said DeVarney, now a foreman for a printing company in South Portland. ''I didn't drop back like they do nowadays. It was mostly like a rollout, anything to get to the outside.''
Maine's offensive line was quite small.
Jerry Perkins started at left tackle at 192 pounds. He played beside Ivan Braun at left guard: 173 pounds. The right guard, he said, might have topped out at 150.
''If a lot of us stood next to the guys who play our positions today, you wouldn't even believe we ever played,'' said Perkins, before rolling into a laugh. Perkins went on to coach wrestling and football at Mountain Valley High in Rumford for almost three decades before retiring in 2000.
Maine ran a Wing-T, a ball control, run-oriented offense that relies on deception.
It suited the team's personnel.
''They developed movement and deception plays that would neutralize big lumbering defensive linemen with quicker, faster moving (offensive) linemen,'' said Dennis Doyle, a split end who went on to run a financial services business.
They weren't expected to have a particularly notable year. Maine went 5-3 in 1963 and 1964, then 4-5 in 1966 and an ugly 0-8 in 1967.
But 1965 was different.
The team's public-address announcer, George Wildey -- who later produced a film ''Maine Goes to the Tangerine Bowl'' -- said it was the 27-22 win over Youngstown State that finally made it clear something special was happening.
''They were down 20-0 or 20-7 going into the fourth quarter. DeVarney was unbelievable,'' said Wildey. ''That was certainly the key game that people said, 'hey wait a minute. This club is good.' ''
Before the Tangerine Bowl, Maine made one other trip to Florida, losing its final regular-season game on a safety against Tampa, 2-0.
''The mayor greeted us at the airport with a stovepipe hat and a basketful of cigars,'' said Westerman. ''He started handing them out and I said 'No. We don't need those. Thank you very much.' They really got on us in the paper the next day.''
UMaine was 8-1 as it prepared for its final trip south by running drills in the snow, and raising the heat in the field house to 80 degrees, hoping to simulate Florida-like conditions.
''We cranked it as high as we could get it,'' said Dennis Carey, a defensive end who went on to become an executive with General Electric, Home Depot, and now a Canadian cell phone company. ''That's one of the flashbacks that you have.''
When they arrived in Orlando, Fla., the temperature was in the 50s all week for practice.
The morning of the game it was clear a scorcher was on the way.
Perkins shared a room with the team's punter, Peter Norris.
''I can still remember it being 76 degrees at 7 a.m.,'' said Perkins. ''It was in the 80s by game time. We played really tough but just kind of wilted in the second half.''
DeVarney injured a knee in the first quarter. He said he was removed for good in the third when he dislocated his shoulder.
It was his final organized football game.
When the team returned to Maine, the players originally felt they had let the state down.
But as the years passed, it became clear the loss didn't matter. Getting to that game was what mattered.
''Before you knew it we were really playing with confidence and focus,'' said Paul Pendleton, an assistant principal at McAuley High in Portland who was a backup quarterback and defensive back.
''We had no real outstanding athletes except (DeVarney) and (Huard). But maybe the key ingredient was everyone believed in each other. It was, I think, the right chemistry.''
Echoed halfback Ron Lanza, who now works in insurance in Connecticut: ''We made it work. Everyone took responsibility for what they had to do. We weren't the best team out there but we functioned as a team. That whole process of working together made all the difference.''
Staff Writer Jenn Menendez can be contacted at 791-6426 or at: