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UMass Bolts for the MAC

(Graphics Credit: College Sports Info)

The announcement didn't come as a particularly great surprise to anyone who had followed the situation, but it looks like UMass, the 1998 I-AA National Champions who squeaked by Lehigh in the second round of the playoffs, will be upgrading to FBS and playing in the MAC football conference in 2012.

Sources say the Minutemen will give the league two associate members (Temple is the other), and will allow the MAC to expand the league to 14 members. As an added bonus, UMass will be required to play two home and two road basketball games with MAC men's and women's teams every season, according to Elton Alexander of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer.

It's not an earth-shattering deal in the world of FBS football, for those declining number of people who care about FBS football beyond the BCS conferences that actually have a chance at making money. Where it is an earth-shattering deal, however, is in the world of FCS football, where their departure leaves a yawning gap between the northern and southern tips of the CAA. (more)

"While the merits of UMass/Ball State, UMass/Buffalo or UMass/Temple games in football to the campus thoroughly escape me given the costs of moving up and maintaining FBS membership - not to mention no realistic shot at a BCS bowl or championship - nonetheless, it seems like an announcement is due very soon that UMass will be leaving the CAA as an affiliate member," I reported just last month.

The Minutemen's quest for FBS, arguably, had started all the way back in their 1998 title run, when then-athletic director Bob Marcum chose to moan about costs rather than celebrate their championship.  Though Marcum is long gone from Amherst, his dream of taking UMass to FBS football remained - leading to their announcement tomorrow.

It's a move that, charitably, carries with it guaranteed expenses and lots of questions.  It could be the start of big-time football in Amherst - or a disaster.

But that's not to say that UMass is a disaster for the MAC football conference - far from it.  To them, the benefits of the Minutemen joining are much greater than the costs.

At fourteen members, they get added insurance for football viability if, say, Conference USA or the Big East come and poach UMass, Temple, or Northern Illinois. And with that last member, they now have even scheduling for both football divisions.

Additionally, if football ever takes off in western Massachusetts, they'll own that television market. Low-risk, high reward.

If you're employed by the MAC conference, what's not to love?

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It's on the UMass side where folks should be asking questions on what good this does for their program.

Building on Marcum's dream, it's also more recently  been the dream of folks like Robert Holub, chancellor of the UMass system, to play FBS football as well.

 “That's where we want to be, and I believe that's what our students and alumni want from us as well” he stated just last month in what has to be the closest thing to a conformation there can be without actually announcing it.

But is playing FBS football in the MAC where UMass fans want to be - or Big East football?

Folks talk a lot about the possible synergies of an Atlantic Ten basketball rivalry heading to football - the strange, twisted rivalry that was UMass (John Calipari) vs. Temple (John Chaney).

Too bad UMass and Temple have never in their century-old history ever faced off as football teams.

If you are just looking at football history, the Minutemen's "rivals" all came from the old Yankee Conference of the 1970s, of which UMass was a founding member.  Unfortunately, all those teams either are in the Big East (UConn, whom they've played 71 times) no longer sponsor football (Boston University, 43 times), or are playing in FCS from now for the forseeable future (New Hampshire, 73 times, Maine, 57 times, and Rhode Island, 85 times).

(Heck, just last year UMass called New Hampshire a "rival" before playing the inaugural "Colonial Clash" in Gillette Stadium.)

If regional rivalries define football teams - and I have consistently said that they do - it's hard to see how permanent residence in the MAC will provide any of value to UMass.

Membership to the Big East, yes: they'd have UConn.  Membership to the ACC, yes: while they've only played each other 23 times in their history, they'd have Boston College.

But membership to the MAC will promise season-ending games against Temple or Buffalo - those are the only two conference mates anywhere close to Amherst.

Charitably, it's hard to see how that it going to get the writers around Amherst animated about either matchup come November.

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What is also certain is that their on-campus stadium, 17,000 seat McGuirk Stadium, is not part of UMass' calculus for FBS football.

As a requirement for playing in the MAC, they're going to have to rent out Gillette Stadium for the entirety of their 2012 schedule - and beyond, until they can build what they consider a FBS-quality stadium on campus.

(For a school that has consistently billed scholarship money as "football expenses" to show "losses" in their FCS football program, it will be interesting the contortions they will be twisting themselves into to justify, potentially, a nine-figure stadium construction cost and a hefty fee to rent out Gillette Stadium.)

And that's not even including the expenses that are a given when it comes to upgrading to the FBS level of football.  More scholarship money for twenty-five more young men (and young women, thanks to Title IX).  Increasing the size of their academic compliance departments.  Lockers.  Weight training facilities.

Is UMass ready to spend that much money to play FBS football against Temple and Buffalo?  Again, for Big East games against UConn, I can see it.  But the MAC?

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It's no secret; I think the MAC is a bad idea for the Minutemen.

If UMass fans are outrageously happy with UMass playing the directional Michigan's for the next two decades, I'd wish the Minutemen well in FBS - even if they have no shot in Hades at their athletics program turning a "profit" on the deal.

But I think it's almost always a bad idea for a team to join a conference as a "temporary solution" until the "real solution" comes along. Temporary solutions have a funny way of becoming permanent solutions. (Ask Stony Brook when they'll be leaving the Big South.)

If what they really want is Big East membership, why don't they just go to John Mariantto of the Big East with a Powerpoint presentation? It's not as if the Big East is outrageously happy with seventeen basketball teams and nine football teams; you have to think that the Big East would seriously think about UMass as a full member right away. When you add UMass' basketball history and the fact it weakens the Atlantic Ten, you'd think that would have Marinatto's attention.  When you add to that the deal they already have with Gillette Stadium, that has to make Marinatto and the presidents of the Big East doubly interested.

[UPDATE: According to the Boston Globe, UMass "lobbied hard" for Big East membership through the family of Robert Kraft, but were denied, citing that they were "reluctant to add a school" in addition to TCU and, potentially, Villanova in FBS football.  Personally, I think this has a lot more to do with UConn not wanting competition in their backyard.]

Instead, though, UMass will transition to FBS, with the inevitable spin the fact that it will "save" their program from the loss of money in FCS and that the MAC will only be a waystation from their permanent dreams of forcing their way into Big East membership.

I don't think most UMass fans want the MAC to be their permanent home.  They want games with UConn, not Eastern Michigan.

My prediction is that they'll be in the MAC for the long haul - and they'll spend a hell of a lot more money.

Will they see some of that return in TV, attendance, or event money?  I don't think so - even though it will be spun as, somehow, a net financial gain for the university to spend hundreds of millions on a new stadium, millions more per year in men's and women's scholarship costs, and an undisclosed number of other, significant costs.  And that's just for starters.

Goodbye, UMass, from the world of "cost containment" football.

Tomorrow: What UMass' Departure Means for FCS

Comments

Anonymous said…
Sounds like an interim step. Establish an FBS program in the MAC, then bolt to the Big East once they show viability.

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