I'll admit it: UMass has hit pretty much all my sore spots over the years.
Perhaps it was being in the crowd of that 1998 playoff game, where the Mountain Hawks were a horrible pass interference call away from advancing to the I-AA semifinals, complete with the "Lehigh: We're Just Better" sign. (UMass would go on to become I-AA national champions that year, surprising Georgia Southern in the championship game.)
Perhaps it was the move to the MAC in order to play FBS football, after years of moaning from the powers-that-be at UMass that football was a money loser. If you're losing money in FCS, a move to the MAC is the equivalent of selling your underwater mortgage for an even larger mortgage, because this time, things will be completely different.
Perhaps it was playing at the home of the New England Patriots, 100 miles away from Amherst and home to the NFL franchise that broke my Eagles-loving wife's heart.
But in the last few weeks - after a barrage of terrible news over the last few months about UMass' "unexpected" extra loss of money in FBS, lost local revenue and fraying relations with faculty - things are, honestly, starting to look up in Amherst.
I mean it. Really. Things are looking up.
When FCS schools move to FBS conferences, it's hard to escape the hubris in their final year of FCS, and their first years of FBS. It's all puppy dogs and ice cream; dreams of Boise State, and to a lesser extent UConn and Nevada, dance in their administrator's heads. "We're not a regional power!" they say/think. "We're a national power!", strutting around like Donald Rumsfeld the day Saddam's statue came down.
Perhaps it was the reality of the 1-10 inaugural season, or perhaps the (almost nonexistent) press coverage during the 1-10 season or maybe the (extensive) press coverage following their football campaign, detailing the monetary losses and faculty complaints. But the folks and UMass certainly haven't been doing much strutting this offseason
While symbolic in nature, the UMass faculty belatedly had their say about the move to FBS.
“This is a motion to reconsider a hastily made decision by a former chancellor who we think, and thought at the time, was the wrong decision made for the wrong reasons,” said Frank Hugus, the senator who introduced the motion.It has been a sobering wake-up call for the folks at UMass. And to me, that is a good thing.
People tend to forget that the folks who live in the Northeast are not ones to be easily convinced of anything. Fudgy numbers, fancy powerpoint presentations and puppydogs and ice cream might work at universities in rural America, but not in Massachusetts. You can't fool the people up here for very long.
People in these parts are not just thrifty, they demand a full accounting of their money, anytime, anyplace, anywhere. If $1 of their tuition money goes towards football, they want to know where it's going, and what it's used for.
If you try to pretend that 10,000 fans in a stadium is a sellout, you'll be called out on it. If you try to say UMass/Akron is the same thing as Alabama/Notre Dame, you'll be sorry. It's just the way things are up here.
But to their credit, the people at UMass has taken the press about the move, good and bad, let the people legitimately have their say, and cleared the air.
The symbolic vote allowed people to voice their feeling about UMass being a FBS program. Some spoke in favor, some against. But most of all, it had the effect of making it a decision that was done, and not turning back.
“Whatever else might be said of the 2011 decision to move to the next level, it was never presented as a one-year experiment," said chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy at Thursday's meeting. "It simply couldn't be. Like many decisions I inherited, it is my job to ensure the program's success in a responsible manner. That's what I intend to do. I have been consistent in this position. As with any major campus initiative we will carefully monitor the progress and the financial commitments associated with the process to ensure that the best interests of the university as a whole are always at the forefront.”
The chancellor actually has the right idea. It was a decision he inherited, and he's going to execute it in the best way possible - including the important word responsible, something that people in the Northeast really appreciate.
And it seems like the athletic department has gotten the message, too, as they attracted two extremely important donors and backers to their cause.
University of Massachusetts sports enthusiasts Martin and Richard Jacobson created quite a few fans of their own recently with their commitment of $2.5 million to the construction of the UMass Football Press and Skybox Complex at McGuirk Alumni Stadium.
Martin Jacobson, a 1968 UMass alum, longtime sports supporter and graduate of the UMass Isenberg School of Management, said the opportunity to make an impact following the university’s transition to the Football Bowl Subdivision was the impetus behind the gift. His brother Richard (Dick) a 1966 graduate of the University of Michigan joined his brother in the bequest which Martin called “particularly exciting,” as it recognized not only the bonds of fraternity, but a common interest in helping further sports at the collegiate level.That $2.5 million dollar check will go a long way towards making McGuirk stadium, the 16,000 seat stadium where Lehigh got robbed in 1998, into an FBS-quality stadium, and allowing them to play games once again on campus.
It will never be Michigan Stadium or the Yale Bowl, but it certainly has the potential to be a solid, 30,000 seat stadium with a decent amount of tailgate room and would be a fine host for FBS schools on Saturdays - especially if Boston College or UConn are the schools.
Then there's the optimism of head football coach Charley Molnar in a recent Q&A session for Boston.com, the head coach that has taken on the task of making UMass a nationally-relevant team.
"In 10 years, I see UMass as being one of the top programs in the northeast," Molnar said. "We'll get there by recruiting our geographic footprint and doing a better job than our competitors and developing our players once they arrive on campus."
"I absolutely believe that UMass can and will be ranked nationally," Molnar said. "In order for us to compete at the very top of college football it will take a collaboration of financial support from our boosters, high demand for season tickets, and the desire of the fans in Massachusetts. When all these come together, we will be able to recruit at a higher level which will give us the talent that is necessary for success."Hubris-y? Maybe a little, but you can't say the guy has no plan for improving the school's program. It's not defensive, it's not laden with excuses, it's just forward-looking. It's the exact right tone to set.
There's something else, too, that Molnar mentions, that involves FCS - a great idea in terms of scheduling, and developing local interest in college football in the land of the Red Sox and Bruins.
"I have a very doable plan in place," Molnar said. "All 3 [FBS] teams (UMass, UConn, BC) should play each other on an annual basis and each one of us should play 1 of the 3 New England based [FCS] teams (Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island). Not only will our fans in New England love to see who the New England champion is every year, we would certainly help elevate the [FCS] programs in the region."
In regards to trying to find room in a crowded sports market, Molnar said that there is plenty of room in this town for multiple teams across multiple levels of play.
Drawing on Massachusetts' strong ties to high school and pro football, Molnar said that the only thing that needs to be changed is that fans will commit their Saturdays for football, just like the rest of the weekend.
"There's plenty of room for college football in a pro sports town like Boston," Molnar said. We are going to change the culture of how fans view college football! Friday nights belong to the high schools; Saturday's to the Minutemen; and Sunday's to the Patriots. Go UMass!"This idea of committing three FBS teams to schedule FCS teams in this fixed way is something I really like. It seems like it's really uncool these days to say this, but big games with local fanbases equal high attendance. (For example, what are UMass' two biggest-attended games thus far at Gillette stadium? Games versus New Hampshire. Look it up.)
In fact, if the teams are indeed Maine, New Hampshire and Rhode Island, they are also members of the CAA, and could open up the possibility of a Yankee Trophy between the three (and perhaps the FBS teams they play every year as well could do something similar).
What makes this not only a neat idea, but an important idea in the Northeast is that conference realignment over the last 30 years has wrecked college football in general in the area.
From the Big East to the Yankee Conference, every one has been divided, breaking up rivalries such as Holy Cross and Boston College, UMass and New Hampshire. Ideas like Mr. Molnar's brings just a tiny bit of that community back to the area.
A Yankee Trophy won't bring that back completely, but it will foster a sense of community again between schools that used to be a lot closer in level of competition. This is why it's such a great idea.
More importantly, though, it showed that UMass was trying to be a good neighbor to all the schools of the region. And if they remain a good neighbor - and bring Boston College and UConn back to that "good neighbor" status as well - they will be successful in FBS. They might also be good for FCS football in the region, too.