From "Blue Cheese State" to the Super Bowl.
That is how far Mike Maser, a former Boston College offensive line coach who now serves in the same capacity on John Fox's staff with the Carolina Panthers, has come to reach the pinnacle of his profession.
"He started out at Bluefield State College in West Virginia, but we called it `Blue Cheese State,' " said Kevin Lempa, BC's defensive backs coach, who worked with Maser on Jack Bicknell's staff at Maine and BC, carpooling with Maser and former BC head coach Tom Coughlin when they were together for the first two years of Bicknell's 10-year tenure at The Heights. "He did everything there. I think he was an assistant head coach, recruiting coordinator, offensive coordinator, and offensive line coach. He did everything, but I suspect he most liked working with the offensive line."
It was only natural for Maser to gravitate to the trenches.
After all, Maser was a former O-liner himself, having played as a three-year starter at guard at the University of Buffalo. After his graduation in 1970, Maser embarked on his 34-year coaching career by working as a graduate assistant to offensive line guru Jim McNally, learning those things -- solid fundamentals, technique, and repetition (always repetition) -- that turned Maser into a master motivator and molder of offensive linemen, college or pro.
"I've been very lucky in my career and I've been involved with some pretty good people and that's been part of it, a big part of it," Maser said. "My influences? Jim McNally has been a guy I've known for years. Jimmy and I basically are compatriots in a lot of respects. I talked to him and he talks to me about different things. He's probably the No. 1 guy I've leaned on and tried to follow and be like and emulate, as far as coaching is concerned.
"I've kind of just gone along here and gone out and work hard and get better at my craft and study and that kind of stuff. Like I've said before, I've tied myself to some pretty good people -- Jack Bicknell, Tom Coughlin, and now John Fox -- so I've been pretty lucky in that respect."
After being ousted when Coughlin was fired by the Jacksonville Jaguars at the end of the 2002 season, Maser didn't have to wait long to land another job. Some of his old players rallied to Maser's aid, one promising him work if he needed it. But Maser was able to land on his feet in Carolina, where he helped give fangs to a Panthers' rushing attack that averaged 99.1 yards per game in 2002 and this season improved to a gaudy 130.7 yards per game.
"The chemistry on this football team is phenomenal," marveled Maser. "And that's a tribute to John Fox."
Now, one year after enduring the low of being shown the door in Jacksonville, Maser will savor the high of coaching in the Super Bowl when the Panthers face the Patriots Feb. 1 at Reliant Stadium in Houston.
"A year takes up a lot of time and there's a lot of water that goes under the bridge," Maser said. "But to get to where we are now from where we were is impressive, and that's all part of it. Right now, I just don't have time to reflect on it. We're continuing on with the business at hand and doing the job we need to do in order to prepare these players for this game."
It is the same approach Maser has taken from the time Bicknell gave him his first big break by hiring him to coach the offensive line at Maine in 1979.
"I basically hired him sight unseen, but he came highly recommended," Bicknell recalled recently. "He was very enthusiastic, outgoing, and demanding, but demanding in a way where the players didn't resent him. At BC, I had two line coaches. I had Mike and I had Vince Martino. They were a great combination.
"Vince coached the tackles and tight ends and Mike coached the guards and centers. I thought it worked out perfectly and they were direct opposites. Vince was low-key and Mike was very enthusiastic, always screaming and hollering, and demanding a lot. He got a lot out of his players."
One of those players was Bicknell's son, Jack, who played for Maser as an undersized 6-foot-1-inch, 220-pound center during BC's Doug Flutie heyday from 1981-85.
"I know Jackie enjoyed playing for him," Bicknell said. "It was a great experience for me to have my son play for him. Jackie was the same way in practice, very intense."
A stickler for detail, technique, and fundamentals, Maser was known for being a stern taskmaster in practice.
"We never had a flat practice, because he wouldn't let anyone take a practice off," Bicknell said. "The key to any offense is the offensive line, and he took great pride in that. If he felt like the O-line was going through the motions, he'd go off if I didn't go off first."
Said Jack Bicknell III, head coach at Louisiana Tech, "He could yell at you -- and believe me, he's yelled at me -- but you'd still love the guy. It was one of those things that once you realize where he's coming from, you'd understand.
"We went into some tough places when we played at BC. Now looking back on it, he did some amazing things with some guys who were really in way over their heads. It's one of those things now as a coach, I have a greater respect for him as a coach because I know what he did and I know that all the things he taught me really are true."
Then, noting how much his old O-line coach had aged, Bicknell III said, with a laugh, "He's got to get rid of those bifocals he wears on the sideline. He's got to get contacts or something, because it makes him look old."
Apprised of his former player's remark, the 56-year-old Maser replied, "Well, I wear 'em because I am old."
The lessons Maser taught on the gridiron, though, have proven ageless. They left lasting impressions on his pupils. Several went on to play in the NFL, including Steve Trapilo (a fourth-round pick of the Saints in 1987), Joe Wolf (a first-round pick of the Cardinals in 1989), brothers David (a fourth-round pick of the Cowboys in 1988) and Doug Widell (a second-round pick of the Broncos in 1989), Ron Stone (a 1993 fifth-round pick of the Cowboys), Tom Nalen (a seventh-round steal of the Broncos in 1994), and Pete Kendall (a first-round pick of the Seahawks in 1996).
"In his own way, he's just a great motivator," said Bicknell III. "The guys who've played for him, in the NFL or wherever, you always know what you're getting from him and he's always going to be honest and he's going to care about you and you really end up wanting to play hard for him."
While BC has developed a reputation of late as being "O-Line U," those roots can be traced to Maser's 13-year tenure at The Heights, the longest of any BC offensive line coach. Since his departure in 1993 to join Coughlin's staff with the Jaguars, BC has had five offensive line coaches: George Warhop (1994-95), Terry Malone (1996), Jeff Jagodzinski (1997-98), David Magazu (1999-02), and now Don Horton, who switched from tight ends coach when Magazu left Tom O'Brien's staff to go to the NFL with the Panthers.
"When you go back and look at it," said Lempa, "there have been some great O-line coaches at BC. There was Jim McNally, and he's considered one of the best in the league. Ron Guenther, who's the AD at Illinois now. Bill Bowes [the former New Hampshire head coach]. Some really great ones. But Mike put more guys in the NFL than any of them."
Maser deflected any praise.
"It's helped that I've had great players," he said. "The better players you have, the better coach you become."
So many of his proteges have gone on to the NFL, some even reaching the Super Bowl. Now, fittingly, Maser, the beloved taskmaster to his former BC players, will be going to his first Super Bowl, but not before attending the wedding of his 27-year-old son, Brian, today in West Palm Beach, Fla.
"It's exciting, it's something I've never had happen before," Maser said of his Super Bowl trip. "I've been close a couple of times and we never made the final step. This is all new territory for me. I've been trying to go along and I'm trying to keep my eyes and my ears open and try to soak in as much as I possibly can. I also realize that I have a job to do and I can't get caught up in all the hoopla."