According to multiple sources, the University of Massachusetts football team is leaving the Mid-American Conference two years after they abandoned the Football Championship Subdivision and McGuirk Stadium for Gillette Stadium and the promise of "doing nothing but great things."
Before I continue, I need to step aside for a second.
Okay I'm back. Sorry about that.
Here's the deal - in April, 2011, UMass announced they were moving to "big boy football" by leaving the Colonial Athletic Association for the Football Bowl Subdivision. They fired head coach Kevin Morris, hired Charley Molnar, and decided it was a good idea to renovate McGuirk Stadium since it didn't meet minimum FBS standards. The next two years resulted in two wins, countless sellouts where fans dressed as empty seats at Gillette, and arguments that they made a misstep in the way that they handled the situation.
Now it's potentially gone.
The Mid-American Conference invoked the right to offer UMass a two-year associate football membership or require the school to jump to the league in all sports. UMass declined the offer, choosing instead to exit at the conclusion of the 2015 football season.
According to multiple sources, MAC invoked right to offer UMass a two-year term agreement or full all-sport membership. UMass chose to exit— Matt Vautour (@GazetteUMass) March 26, 2014
What's that mean? It means UMass is doomed to play out '14 and '15 in the MAC, then compete either as an independent team or head back to the football championship subdivision. It means the program is in flux, and it means they're heading to a crossroads for their program.
Let's start at the beginning for what this means. UMass is currently a lame duck, a team potentially heading into an era without a league. They essentially have to beg into a league that will allow them to compete at the FBS level since they invested so much money in moving to Gillette Stadium. The ACC is not an option, nor will it ever be (if BC can block UConn, you think they'd get UMass in?). The school's stadium is too small, and attendance and performance makes pre-last year's Duke program look like the 1980s Miami Hurricanes.
That leaves UMass with the following options: the American, where Rutgers and Louisville are departing and the most probable target for UMass to attempt for membership; Conference-USA, where they don't fit geographically and competitively would get slaughtered worse than they did in the MAC; or the Sun Belt, where they don't geographically fit and what might actually be a step down from the MAC. They can also play out as an independent until some league comes calling.
One thing's for sure - the MAC went to force the Minutemen hand, and UMass absolutely could not leave the Atlantic-10 Conference for the league. The A-10 just sent six teams to the March Madness tournament, including their basketball program as a #6 seed (although Tennessee did very bad things to them), and that's something that can't be taken lightly. Jumping to the MAC would be an absolute step down for the basketball program, and with that as the flagship program at the school, there's no way they could do that move and sell out the best of its teams.
But what happens to UMass is dependent, now more than ever, on their decision making ability. They made a bad decision in moving to the FBS because the MAC was never a permanent solution. The MAC is a bad football conference, possibly the worst this side of the Sun Belt Conference, and UMass is now left as a team without a league. Independency cannot be an option; that's an essential death sentence because they won't have any league affiliated television deal, no shared revenues, and, worse, no way to recruit. They'd be joining independents who have some type of base - Notre Dame is Notre Dame; Army is Army; and BYU is even BYU. There's a demographic that will always want to go to those schools. UMass is a team with two wins in two years, a failed head coach and right now, a failed transition to the FBS. To play as an independent would be to banish them to Aggievision type games for the next x amount of years. It also means that Mark Whipple has two years to start making progress with this program, or they're really in some deep water.
UMass football fans are going to talk about how they want to end up in the American, and the AAC would certainly benefit by getting a replacement team for Rutgers and Louisville. But a move to the AAC would set the on-field product so much further back; they can't compete with those teams like UConn or South Florida. They can't compete with Houston or Southern Methodist, and the costs of playing in that league would skyrocket their expenditures on football even more than they already are. I doubt the university, which is already leery because of what's been going on the last couple of years, is willing to crunch numbers and inflate even more spending on UMass football when they've won two games in two years and turned into the worst team in the FBS. They're simply not at that level, and if that were the ultimate goal, then they're a long way from getting there because Molnar pushed this program further back by his inability to put McGuirk Stadium number of fans in a 60,000-seat Gillette. And if BC can block UConn from getting into the ACC, I'm sure UConn can block UMass from the AAC, especially since they were one of the architects of the league's founding.
If anything, this highlights a couple of very real facts. Number one - UMass football made a horrible decision in the way they approached the move to the FBS. I documented the inflated costs, and I took a substantial amount of flack for daring to insinuate a school foolishly and irresponsibly spent money for an ill-advised move. But those facts are very real. UMass football was very good in the FCS, and they had a solid reputation. But instead of being happy with where they were, the university thought it could get away with hastily moving up in tip-toes.
They should've waited, done the renovations, and barged into the FBS with heads held high and a program worthy of a true Massachusetts rival. Instead, they rushed, made the move to jump in, moved to the MAC even though it was clearly a temporary move, and failed to excite anyone through two years because the team simply wasn't ready. At the same time, they moved off campus, 100 miles. Sure, people talked about it on the radio when it happened, and, yes, there were articles written by UMass grads who wanted to see their school take on the big boys and win. But they glossed over the facts staring them in the face - in the modern era, they were set up to fail because they sold out for alumni and in turn alienated students who wouldn't travel.
Number two - if they go back to the FCS, which this move does not indicate (not yet, at least), they can never return, at least not for the foreseeable future. I'm pretty sure there aren't any teams that go back to FCS, nor are there teams that jump up, test the waters, fail, and go back. Going back would mean no conference would be willing to take them on, and it would severely damage their reputation in the athletics community. They can't go back, which means they have to limp forward in the FBS with an uncertain future.
Number three - we should be very grateful to have Boston College in the position it's in. When Division I split into the two subdivisions, BC made a conscious decision to get on the train and ride it from the beginning. They made shrewd business practices throughout the years in the best interest of the program, and despite some problems over the years, they've by and large done a great job managing the program. They're secure in the ACC, and they never have to focus on these things off the field. Throughout the fluctuating climate of college football, now more than ever, Boston College is the preeminent program in New England, and it's a stronghold made even stronger by the addition of Steve Addazio and his popular and fiery style. Is BC the best in the land? No. Not by a long shot. But it could be worse. We could be UMass.
If nothing else, we need UMass to stay so we can watch BC get one easier win closer to bowl eligibility each year. #Elon'd.
Number four - we're going to find out just how good Mark Whipple is. Like I said, I'm a Whipple guy. I rooted for him to get the BC job all those moons ago. I loved the Whiplash offense in the 1990s at Brown, loved watching him do good things for UMass in the Division I-AA tournament. I always liked him, and I think he's a good coach. We're going to find out how good because instead of being hailed with a tagline as the guy "brought in to save UMass football," he's literally the guy now trying to save UMass football. And he has two years to make headway in the MAC to do it.
Ultimately, we don't know what the future holds for the UMass football team, and, to BC fans, we probably shouldn't care. But come August, Boston College will head to UMass to play at Gillette in what will amount to a virtual Eagle home game. UMass may be a team with a new league, may be a team without a league, may be a team trying to head down to the FCS. We simply don't know. But one thing we do know is that they're slowly but surely ending up on the wrong side of a business case study that will haunt investigations of FBS solvency for years to come.