UMass remains committed to building a winning FBS football program

The immediate outlook for the UMass football program is uncertain — but its future as an FBS entity is not.

UMass has struggled to compete since moving up to Division 1 in 2012, initially as a football-only member of the Mid-American Conference and as an independent the last four seasons.

The Minutemen have gone 19-77 since making the upgrade from the Colonial Athletic Association (2007-2011), where it competed successfully as an FCS program and won the Division I-AA title under coach Mark Whipple in 1998.

Despite the inability to gain traction at the FBS level, athletic director Ryan Bamford and chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy remain steadfast in their commitment to building a competitive football program.

“We are committed to playing Division 1 football,” said Bamford, who is beginning his fifth year in Amherst. “Anything else hasn’t crossed my mind or the chancellor’s mind and we’ve had accurate discussions.

“We are committed and if you are going to compete at this level you have to be totally in. “

The Ivy league and the Patriot League, two FCS conferences, have already canceled their fall football schedules even though their institutions are primarily located in states with declining rates of infections.

Bamford spent part of his early career at Yale so he was not surprised that the Ivy League pulled the plug on fall sports ahead of the rest of the nation. The league took a similar action back on March 10 when it canceled its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.

The revenue-generating Power-5 football conferences, with the exception of the Big 10, are trying to run out the clock on the coronavirus and play a full slate of games.

That appears to be a fool’s errand with COVID-19 cases spiking throughout the south and west. UMass is a member of the Atlantic 10 in all sports except football and ice hockey. The A-10 has already postponed its fall sports to the spring.

“There are a lot of conferences and schools out there looking to see what the landscape is and obviously this could be the tipping point in some respects,” said Bamford.

“I think everybody, us included in the A-10, are looking to understand what this is going to do to the entire industry and environment for Division 1 athletics come the fall.”

Minuteman coach Walt Bell, along with his coordinators, assistants and staff, are on campus and planning ahead despite the coronavirus disruptions that rocked the terrain of college athletics.

The players are working out at McGuirk Stadium under the assumption they will conduct training camp in August and open the season at UConn on Sept. 3.

“Right now, we have our student athletes back and the football student athletes are the only group back here and they have been quarantining for the last couple of weeks,” said Bamford. “We can start voluntary workouts and they will go into camp on August 3.

“I told Walt and we talk regularly, two or three times a day, to continue and progress as if we are going to play a football game against UConn on Sept. 3 until we know more.

“We want to be smart and strategic about the way we continue to advance our guys every day in a healthy environment and we’ve been able to do that so far.

“At the end of the day for us, the fall football season is extremely important if we can get it in. But we also missed spring football because of the pandemic in late March and April.”

UMass is one of seven Independent programs in the FBS. The others are Notre Dame, Brigham Young, UConn, New Mexico State, Liberty and Army.

UMass and its six siblings are in the unique position to call their own shots on football because they are not subjected to edicts issued by some league’s board of governors. UMass is scheduled to play UConn and New Mexico State and has done some home and home scheduling with Brigham Young in the past.

“It is my decision in concert with the chancellor, our public health officials here on campus, and our medical staff,” said Bamford. “We obviously want to make the right decisions that are in the best interest of our student athletes and our staff, but also our institution.”

Former AD John McCutcheon spearheaded the push to UMass into the FBS, lured by the guaranteed revenues for playing at Power-5 destinations and greater television exposure.

He negotiated a deal with the Patriots that would allow UMass to play its home games at Gillette Stadium, which caused an immediate surge in season tickets and enhanced the Minutemen’s credibility.

But McCutcheon made the most unforgivable mistake an A.D. can make. He hired the wrong football coach. McCutcheon introduced Notre Dame offensive coordinator Charley Molnar as the Minutemen’s new head coach during a splashy press conference at Gillette Stadium.

Molnar was a disaster. The Minutemen went 2-22 overall and 2-14 in the MAC before he was fired on Dec. 26, 2013, after two seasons. There were grumblings that UMass football had gotten in over its head playing the tough non-league opponents while being the laughingstock of the MAC.

There was talk about UMass returning to the FCS or eliminating football and redirecting the savings toward its basketball, hockey and lacrosse programs. Those rumblings are what greeted Bamford when he was hired in March 2015.

“I think there were people that were challenging that but not in the recent past,” said Bamford. “When I got here five years ago that was a topic of discussion.”

The UMass football program accounts for $9 million of the athletic department’s $40 million budget. The football program generates about $5 million in revenue with $2 million coming from student fees and the other $2 million from general operating funds.

UMass spent $18 million toward upgrading the facilities at McGuirk Stadium that included a training facility, an end zone lounge and an indoor practice field. The school raised $9 million of that through private donations.

UMass is set to earn $1.9 million for playing at Auburn in November, but that money could be lost if the SEC follows the Big 10’s lead and elects to only play conference games.

“One of things we are trying to understand is, if the SEC decides to play games, we are potentially ready to play that game,” said Bamford. “If they decide they are just going to play conference games, that means they are still playing football and not playing us.

“I think Auburn has an obligation to pay the University of Massachusetts because they are going to play football games and it was their choice not to participate against non-SEC schools.

“If they cancel games altogether, we lose the 1.9 (million). If they decide to play games, we’ll have discussion with them on what that impact would be.”

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