Times admittedly have changed for Dan O’Connell.
As a lineman for Bangor High School and later at Bates College in Lewiston, he lived for bad weather on game nights — part of the DNA of any old-school player who made his football bones in the trenches.
But a couple of decades later, youthful enthusiasm perhaps has given way to creature comforts, or at least a more learned sense of event management.
That’s part of the reason O’Connell is among the Big 11 Conference administrators who voted to approve moving this year’s Class C North football championship game from the home field of the highest-seeded finalist to a neutral site — the Weatherbee Complex at Hampden Academy, where new artificial turf is scheduled to be installed next month.
That game is scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 10.
“Ten years ago, 15 years ago, when I was a player, I would have said, ‘Let’s play in the mud, let’s play in the snow, let’s play in the cold,’ that kind of rough-and-tough football lineman mentality,” said O’Connell, the head football coach and athletic administrator at John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor.
“As I’ve started to get older maybe I’ve grown softer, but it seems to me the more variables you can take out of the game, including the weather, and let the student-athletes showcase themselves on the field in front of as big a crowd as possible, I think it’s worth it,” he added.
The Big 11 Conference is believed to be the first Maine high school football league to schedule its regional championship game at a neutral site. Some postseason football games have been shifted to neutral sites due to unplayable conditions related to the weather.
While playing state championship contests at neutral sites is the norm in Maine, scheduling regional championship games at neutral locations also is not uncommon in many activities.
The Maine Principals’ Association stages its high school basketball tournament — except for the Class AA quarterfinals and preliminary-round games in other divisions — at neutral sites. The same is true for regional championships in such sports as baseball, cheering, cross country, field hockey, ice hockey, softball, tennis and wrestling.
Football is unique in that postseason play is conducted by the various conferences, rather than through the MPA, until the state championship games. Those are run by the MPA at Fitzpatrick Stadium in Portland and Alfond Stadium on the campus of the University of Maine in Orono.
“First and foremost when you’re trying to promote a particular sport, in our case football, anything you can do in terms of creating a buzz and creating a showcase I think is good,” O’Connell said.
Other factors that played into the Big 11’s decision to play at a neutral artificial turf site on a Saturday afternoon included the quest to play in better weather conditions than have been the backdrop for many title games on recent mid-November Friday nights. Also, the C North champion advances to play on artificial turf the following weekend in the state championship game.
“The last three years our game has been a night game, and it’s been very cold, so we decided as a league to be more fan-friendly by moving it to Saturday afternoon,” said Bunky Dow, Mount Desert Island High School activities director.
“And then people want that home-field advantage, but at the same time it’s good to play on a neutral field where there’s (artificial) turf because the next game the winner plays will be on turf, too. We figured we could save that school some money by playing our game on turf so that going into the next week they wouldn’t have to pay (to travel) to go practice on turf,” Dow added.
Dow said playing the championship game in the middle of Big 11 territory may attract more spectators from communities throughout the league and more football fans.
“I think a lot more football people will be more likely to go to a place in the Bangor area than to come to my place on the island or to go down to Winslow or Waterville,” Dow said. “There were a couple of schools who felt they should be able to play on their home field, but overall the strong sentiment was to move it and playing on the turf that week was the driving force.”
Last year’s Class C North final, in which Maine Central Institute of Pittsfield defeated MDI in Bar Harbor, was played on a windy, chilly Saturday night on MDI’s grass field.
“We had pretty good attendance,” Dow said. “But I wonder what it would have been like if it was in the afternoon at a place where all football fans could go, and not just those with a vested interest because their schools were playing.”
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