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UMass Football's Growing Pains

Last Saturday in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a crowd of 113,511 watched their beloved Wolverines drop a heartbreaker to arch rival Ohio State.

That’s pretty much a routine attendance number for one Michigan home game in a stadium they call The Big House.

At UMass, they’d call that one-game figure a season’s worth. Happily.

UMass just concluded its second season as a member of FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision), the crème de la crème assemblage of college football teams. The Minutemen set a program attendance record, averaging slightly more than 15,830 fans per game. A $34.5 million Football Performance Center is set to open soon, a complex that includes offices, weight rooms, locker rooms and a new press box.

That constitutes the good news.

The overarching theme in all of this is, basically, that UMass is going against history. We live in the only part of the country that doesn’t give a hoot about big-time college football. We just don’t.

It was two years ago that UMass made the announcement that it would move from the FCS (the group of schools immediately below the FBS which includes many natural rivals from its Yankee Conference days) to the big-time FBS. The announcement also included UMass’ move to the Mid-American Conference, a puzzling one even in this age of weird conference/geographic affiliations. The closest MAC school is the University of Buffalo. Eleven of the 13 MAC schools are in Ohio, Michigan, Indiana and Illinois. There is not a natural rival in the bunch.

“We seek greatness in all we do at UMass,’’ the school’s chancellor, Robert C. Holub, said that day. “We promise national excellence and prominence to the citizens of the Commonwealth, and we deliver on that promise. Moving to the FBS is consistent with our upward trajectory, as Minuteman football becomes part of our overall move toward national prominence."

Hmmm.

The only national prominence UMass football is getting these days is for its pathetic program. The 2013 team went 1-11 for the second straight season. It was outscored 396-140. In its final game last Saturday, it lost 51-23 to a team (Ohio University) that had been outscored 123-16 in its previous three games. It played its home games in Foxboro at Gillette Stadium, a move it had to make to draw an average of 15,000 fans a game, per NCAA stipulations.

The decision to move to the FBS was fueled by — spoiler alert! — money!! Once that decision was made, the school had no choice but to move its home games to Foxboro, not exactly a convenient spot for its students based in Amherst.

At the time, the hope was that the large contingent of UMass alums would flock to Foxboro. But the school drew less than 11,000 per game last year playing at Gillette (which seats nearly 70,000) and barely got to the mandated 15,000 this year. The stadium in Amherst, outdated McGuirk Stadium, can hold as many as 17,000 and, according to reports, will host three games next season.

Massachusetts head coach Charley Molnar during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Western Michigan at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013. Western Michigan defeated Massachusetts, 31-30. (Stew Milne/AP)
Massachusetts head coach Charley Molnar during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Western Michigan at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013. Western Michigan defeated Massachusetts, 31-30. (Stew Milne/AP)

The overarching theme in all of this is, basically, that UMass is going against history. We live in the only part of the country that doesn’t give a hoot about big-time college football. We just don’t. We never have (maybe one exception could be made for the Doug Flutie BC teams but that’s it) and we probably never will. Boston College has a Heisman Trophy candidate this season who is largely unknown in the region.

Our sports allegiances in New England range from the dominance of the pro teams in the Boston market to the quaint and quirky institutions of the Ivy League and Division III conferences spread out across the six states. There’s nothing wrong with aspiring to be among the best, which clearly is what UMass is trying to do. But you also have to be realistic and be a student of history to recognize that, right now, this sure looks like a fool’s errand.

How is UMass going to get blue-chip recruits, even with future games against BC, Notre Dame, Penn State and Florida on its schedule? (The BC game is at Gillette next season, the others on the road.) How can it compete in a conference where the closest school is a six-hour drive — and where a “home” game is hours away? How can it talk about prominence and do little to nothing to upgrade its own stadium?

A more sensible approach might have been to continue to play football in the FCS and keep its successful basketball program in a bigger conference (it plays in the Atlantic 10.) New Hampshire and Maine do that. They play each other this Saturday in an FCS playoff game while fielding top-flight hockey programs, equivalent to UMass’ top-25 ranked hoop team.

But UMass football has crossed its Rubicon. Simply, it is more profitable to be a lousy FBS team than a good FCS team. For one thing, UMass will share in the revenue from MAC champ Northern Illinois’ likely appearance in an FBS Bowl game. It also can expect to receive generous stipends from other FBS programs looking for an easy opponent at home. UMass reportedly received a $900,000 guarantee from the University of Wisconsin for that every purpose this year. UMass showed up, dutifully lost 45-0, and gladly accepted the check.

But UMass football has crossed its Rubicon. Simply, it is more profitable to be a lousy FBS team than a good FCS team.

The operative words are “time” and “patience.” UMass has said it is probably going to take between five to seven years to make the transition and — hopefully — be a successful team. The Minutemen have only had two seasons in the FBS.

Ideally, playing in the same conference with UConn would make more sense, but, for now, the future schedule is dotted with a lot of Michigan- and Ohio-based opponents. It’s a tough sell, tougher for a bad team.

And the man who spoke glowingly about upward trajectories and national prominence two years ago? He is no longer the school’s chancellor.


Related:

This program aired on December 5, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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