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All bad college football teams have big problems. But they don't all have the same big problems.
Some schools face the difficult challenge of building a fanbase. They might be a former commuter school, struggling to engage with students on multiple levels. They may have only recently started a college football team at all, after all of their potential fans already established rooting interests. They might struggle for oxygen in a market already saturated from other college or professional teams. Even if they built a team that went 7-5 and made a bowl game, there's no guarantee anybody would care.
After this weekend, I do not think that's the problem for UMass.
Sure, Western Massachusetts hasn't been the epicenter of the college football world since Michigan was considered The West, and sure, it's an NFL market, but this school has fans. Even during a holiday weekend when many students left campus, and even though the Minutemen hadn't won a game since 2019, the student section was mostly full, and the stadium hit about 75% capacity Thanks to a rich history at the FCS level, to say nothing of the school's success in other sports (UMass is the defending national champs in men's hockey, for example), there's already a developed fanbase that's used to showing up. There are families that can say they've been UMass fans for generations. That's not for nothing.
There are fans that have been showing up for years, even though they've had so precious little to cheer for. A group of tailgaters summed up the situation for me. "We'll still keep coming, even if the team is bad," they told me, because they love football, the tickets are affordable, and they can have fun with their friends. "We know we aren't going to win a national title or anything. But we know we can be at least average."
"We just want to be Rice. Nobody asks if Rice is going to drop to FCS, right? They're bad, but they're not a national story because they're bad."
"We just don't want to be a meme."
That's possible, but easier said than done. The hard part for UMass athletics isn't building a fanbase. The hard part is giving them something to cheer for.
UMass AD Ryan Bamford knows why. "There's just not a lot of high school talent in this area that's going to come up and play FBS football," he told me. "People have to understand that's real."
He's right. In 2021, according to 247 Sports, only 16 players from Massachusetts went on to play FBS football. UMass didn't sign a single player in the top ten (unlike Harvard, Yale or Maine). Of all the states in the Northeast, only New Jersey produces FBS talent with any type of depth, and not only do the Minutemen have to compete with local squads like Boston College, Temple and UConn for them, but also Notre Dame, Michigan, and other national brands.
According to the 247 Talent Composite, UMass is ranked 126th out of 150 teams in total team talent, below multiple FCS programs. Talent acquisition is unquestionably a major problem.
So is conference affiliation.
"I would love to be in a football conference. Right? I think if we were still in the MAC, we would be different in 2021 than we are now." Bamford told me. A lack of football conference affiliation doesn't just make bowl eligibility or tangible goal accomplishment more difficult, simply building out a schedule can be hard.
"Take this season," Bamford added. "We built out this schedule four, five years ago. You know that Pitt is going to be good, that BC is going to be a good ACC team...but Coastal Carolina had just jumped up to FBS. We didn't realize 17th in the country when we played them. My first year here, we beat Eastern Michigan at Eastern...now they're much better.
When you're trying to build a program, you have to hit everything right."
To the extent possible, the school is trying to find regional opponents. The Minutemen will face two local FCS programs (Rhode Island and Maine) this season, and there are future dates with local teams like Buffalo, Temple and Army on future schedules. There's no formalized annual game with UConn set up at the moment, but Bamford expects the series to continue.
"It isn't formalized, but we have them in pencil on our schedule for the next ten years. UConn needed schedule flexibility, because they needed to get games, so I said, look, we both know we're gonna play each other, so go get games, here's roughly the dates we want to play. It's just a matter of us memorializing it in a contract."
Bamford mentioned that even before COVID, other schools at the FBS and FCS level had reached out to learn more about their experience as an independent, and with all of the massive changes happening in college sports, he floated the idea that potentially other schools could decide to go independent, which would help provide clarity and predictability to future schedules.
But at the end of the day? "We want to be in a conference. But somebody has to want us to be in a conference."
That's a massive part of the challenge. There's only so much within the school's control at the moment
The school can't pack up and move to Cobb County to help recruiting. The location is the location.
A massive new stadium isn't likely either. I do not say this as a pejorative, but McGuirk Alumni Stadium feels like a very solid high school football stadium. By that, I mean that the concessions are all at field level, so a fan could essentially lean over a rope and high-five a player on the bench. I tripped on a trombone case walking over to the press box (it was Band Day. There were a lot of trombone cases). That's fine. You don't need a modern, 50,000 seat stadium to build a good atmosphere.
After all, there are things within a program's control that can help put butts in seats. I wandered into the student section multiple times to talk to folks and ask why they kept coming. To a student, they all told me that it was fun, that their friends went, that it was an important part of campus life. But they also mentioned that UMass apparently has the best campus dining facilities in the country, and students can swipe a meal card and essentially get a delicious catered meal. Will college students show up to support bad football if you feed them? Apparently, yes.
What about resources?
Building a sustainable program isn't cheap, and Bamford told me that UMass isn't spending huge money on the department. In fact, he says, the school was almost $2 million less on football than they were back when the school was reclassifying back from FCS. And unlike many other schools in the bottom third of FBS in spending, Bamford added that 50% of the UMass football budget is program generated.
Figuring out how to benchmark a future football budget as an independent can be difficult, especially with the institution facing so many other worthy priorities. Would spending oh, another five million dollars a year on staffing, recruiting infrastructure or scouting yield more wins? Should it be spent on women's sports, or hockey, or somewhere else entirely? Is there even five million dollars out there to be added somehow? That's not an easy question.
Should UMass even be trying this at all?
Many schools tell me that they think D-I athletics is important because it serves as the proverbial "front porch" of the university, the way that the general public really interfaces with the school. I asked Bamford if there was a concern that UMass struggling so badly in football might mar that front porch a bit. After all, how much positive branding comes from losing twenty games in a row?
"The reality is, we've been FBS for 10 years. We haven't won any more than four games in any one year. And we went from the 58th ranked public research university to 24 in that time. So it's hard to say that football not being successful is hurting the brand right? It's certainly not from an academic standpoint. It's certainly not from a fundraising standpoint."
The truth is, UMass isn't like many other schools that field struggling football teams. Like UConn, UMass fields other successful programs that people care about. In case you somehow missed the hashtags and the billboards reminding you, UMass is the state's flagship public institution, one with stable enrollment. It doesn't need football success the way other schools might. It wants it.
"We have a lot of pride in our not just our football program, our athletic department, and I do think it can complement this University's success."
What would that success look like? If you looked closely, I think you could have seen a clue on Saturday.
The Huskies and Minutemen were neck and neck most of the game, but thanks to turnovers and a few timely explosive plays, UMass began to pull away in the 4th quarter. The Minutemen won, 27-13. As the clock ticked down, you could see a mass of students huddling up on the sidelines. As soon as the final gun sounded, they stormed the field.
We couldn't go in the locker rooms after the game. Thanks to social media, we have a clue about what it looked like:
But I was right outside that locker room, and thanks to the stadium being so small, you could basically walk right up. I saw players hugging family members and friends. I saw relief. And I saw plenty of happy students.
If you think UMass needs to crack the AP Top 20 to be a successful program, or win a New Year's Bowl Game, or even be financially self-sustaining, I don't think you'll be satisfied any time soon. Right now, this program just isn't structurally set up to do that. It may never be.
If you think a successful football program is one that is competitive, fun, and enriches the lives of students, athletes and community members...then I really do think that's possible.
Building that program stability will require UMass to nail absolutely everything within their control, something they haven't completely done yet. And it'll require the program to catch a few breaks, since there's an awful lot here they simply can't control.
But I do think it's possible. And if it does, I'm confident plenty of fans will be there to support it.
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