UMass Football's FBS Misstep

Could the curtain drop on UMass football? - Jared Wickerham

Watch what happens when college football stops being polite and starts being real.

When UMass shifted gears and transitioned from a Football Championship Subdivision program to the Mid-American Conference and the bowl subdivision, they did so with the expectation that the team would show promise. They expected to have a tough season on the field since many of the players in uniform were recruited to play against the likes of Richmond and New Hampshire instead of Vanderbilt and Indiana. But, based on their Colonial Clash fan turnouts, they expected that the vast alumni base of the UMass system would turn out and support a program that moved from McGuirk Stadium on campus in Amherst to the glittery Gillette Stadium premises occupied by the New England Patriots in Foxboro, MA, 100 miles away from school.

UMass supporters believed they'd be able to average well above the 15,000-seat minimum required by the NCAA. After all, they averaged 14,000 playing lower-level competition on campus, and they were moving into the heart of their alumni base. But instead, they averaged 10,000, including a season-low 8,000 in the finale against Central Michigan. Despite collecting nearly $800,000 from UConn and Michigan to play two road games, the Minutemen still lost $700,000 on a budget that had already inflated by nearly $600,000 in expenditures. And as Alabama defeated Notre Dame for a $22 million payout before over 20 million fans and a 17.5 rating, the second most watched cable television program of all time, the Minutemen's Faculty Senate voted on whether or not to file a motion to remove its football program from the FBS.

The move is proving that UMass football is facing a mountainous struggle to remain as a viable football program. The football budget last year was $691,966 higher than its original projection, but that wasn't built to include other costs. The UMass athletic department spent $260K on scholarship requirements to satisfy Title IX. They spent $700K to market the program, a campaign that included billboards on MBTA buses and radio commercials. And they spent roughly $2 million as they began renovations on McGuirk with the intention of making it a viable FBS facility. When all was set and done, UMass's football operating budget increased to over $7 million with revenues well below that mark thanks in part to a deal designed to satisfy their landlord at Gillette Stadium.

That wouldn't have been bad if there was an obvious light at the end of the tunnel, but the attendance woes and potential for growth are a lot dimmer this year than they were last year. Last year, UMass fans inundated sports talk radio about making Massachusetts a two-team state. They talked about how they were ready to eclipse UConn and BC on facilities alone, and that the stop in the MAC was only done to compete within football parameters. They admitted they'd have trouble growing the football program, but owing to other teams like Western Kentucky, who went from winless to .500 and in a bowl game, UMass saw the potential for growth. They figured the open coffers of the athletic department and the lower academic standards would allow football to grow and develop much in the way UConn did. Much of the talk on the sports radio talked about how this would substantially cut into recruiting for Boston College, especially if the Eagles continued down their slippery slope of decline.

One year later, the whole dynamic's changed. The faculty is sorely split; when the Faculty Senate voted on what to do with the football team (even though they have no authority to do anything over athletics), they voted 19-18 to keep the team at the FBS level with one abstention - the biggest, most vocal critic who almost assuredly would've voted against the team was in China on conference. The students are wondering why $8 million can't be sunk back into academics at a school of over 20,000 full time attendees. And they're wondering why they had to move the team, which drew well on Saturdays at home in a stadium that didn't require much renovation, to a place 100 miles away. The alumni base didn't turn out, and at the risk of trying to incite them, the school alienated much of its current student fan base, which dwindled from 35 buses to practically nothing.

The biggest issue facing UMass now is that they might not have a say in whether or not they're even in the FBS by the time McGuirk reopens next year. They have to average 15,000 people for at least one of their first two seasons or risk being tossed out by the NCAA and the FBS. To combat this, they'll bring in Vanderbilt (even though they had Indiana last year), and they've retooled a new marketing strategy that includes "personal ambassadors" taking a newer, more personal approach. For students, who didn't want to lose their whole Saturday, the school scheduled later buses and nixed a pregame tailgate. If the games are ugly or the weather stinks, the students can leave early. The school is essentially saying, "If we're getting killed, we'll drive you home because we know you don't want to watch that." And that doesn't include the nearly-two hour drive to get to the games.

It remains to be seen if this will work. Quite honestly, UMass has two marketable home games this year - Vanderbilt and Maine. Vanderbilt is an SEC school that's been to bowl games recently (remember when their punter was MVP of the bowl against BC?), and Maine provides the regional rivalry that drew 20K to the Colonial Clash. Both of those games will be unopposed by Boston College games - the Vanderbilt game comes on September 21st when BC is on an off week, and the Maine game is September 7th, a day after BC plays Wake Forest at home on national television (#TheRivalry!!!!).

On the flipside, UMass hosted Indiana last year, a B1G team that represents to football what Vanderbilt represents to the SEC. And if they're banking on Maine, why did they even go to the FBS in the first place? Their only other marketable home opponent is NIU, a team that went to the BCS last year. But that game's opposite a BC home game - against Virginia Tech. Hard to fight with that type of star power. If they're banking on Maine to sell tickets, they probably should've stayed in the FCS and scheduled teams like Holy Cross at that point.

The fact remains that Charley Molnar can call UMass "Massachusetts' college team," but they aren't. Amherst might as well be on another planet from the schools in Boston (seriously, western Mass might as well be another state), and his team averaged less fans per home game than Harvard did in the Ivy League. They're nowhere near competing with Boston College, and UMass could be heading for a disaster when they host BC in 2014. BC could be turning things around from a dismal 2012 season, and their recruiting classes are among the top 25 in the nation. If UMass hosts BC, gets blown out and embarrassed, and more importantly has it turned into a virtual road game on their "home field," which is closer to Chestnut Hill than Amherst, it could be the straw that breaks the campus back, if they even get to that point.

The harshest reality is that UMass fans, at least the ones outspoken in public, assumed they'd be able to come in and compete with BC in some capacity. They didn't think they'd be able to do it on the field, at least not right away, but they assumed they'd be able to compete for the hearts and minds. What they didn't assume or predict was that BC is still New England's college football team (sorry, UConn). They play Florida State, Notre Dame, Virginia Tech, Clemson, Miami, and other teams that can be seen on national television every week. They've been in that position where they were the #2 team in the nation (whatever the argument against BC as a #2 team, they still ranked that high). They averaged 30,000 fans in a season that was horrendous with an unwatchable team by their standards. BC's operating budget is well over $10 million, but their revenues push $20 million during a bad season. And now rumors are swirling that the MAC isn't thrilled with having an albatross football team as a part-time member of their league. Combined with the Red Sox, Patriots, Bruins, Celtics, Harvard, BC, the Revolution, national tv games, and the overall options to do something in Massachusetts, there might be just too much to overcome.

And that doesn't include that UMass is a team paid to get wailed on by BCS teams. Last year, they played at Michigan. This year, it's at Wisconsin. In the future, they'll play at Florida and Notre Dame. UMass can point to those games and say, "We're competing with the big boys," but the majority of sports enthusiasts will see those games for what they are - paydays so the big boys can plump their records and stats. Appalachian State only happens once in a lifetime.

As a last point, everyone has said that a BC-UMass rivalry would be beneficial to both parties, that it could create a rivalry along the lines of Clemson-South Carolina or Virginia-Virginia Tech. But that's just false; BC gains nothing from having a knock-em-down battle with UMass except a loss in reputation; they have a trophy game against Clemson, and they have Notre Dame, Florida State, and others that are circled on the schedule. Hey, we have the #TheRivalry! UMass has...well... not a whole lot right now.

It's an admirable endeavor to watch, UMass trying to compete at the FBS level. And maybe one day they will succeed; it would certainly be beneficial for the game to have another successful team anywhere. But the fact remains that they transitioned by inches at a time when leagues and teams need to do it by charging in, with their heads held high. Instead of trying and testing the waters, they needed to punch someone right in the mouth on their first day in the yard. But they didn't, and here they are. UMass fans expected their team to lose; they never expected them to become irrelevant.

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