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False Start?

UMass struggles to find its place in upper division football.

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Tuesday, December 10, 2013
Elise Amendola | AP
Massachusetts quarterback A.J. Doyle (15) throws a pass as Vanderbilt defensive tackles Barron Dixon (44) and Jared Morse (97) close in during the first half of an NCAA college football game at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

Eight hundred and thirty. In a sport where the prediction of success is often based on the assemblage of numerical statistics—completion percentage, yards per carry, red zone efficiency—830 may be the most important stat achieved by the UMass football team this past season.

But 830 is not a figure derived from the field of play. Rather, it is the attendance per game beyond the required minimum amount. For UMass’s program, it is the difference between being put on probation for failure to meet such standards, and being allowed to continue down the precarious road as a contender in the upper division of college football.

Two years ago, the football program at the Bay State’s flagship university made the jump from the FCS (Football Championship Subdivision, formerly known as Division 1-AA) level to the FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision, formerly known as Division 1-A), when it left the Colonial Athletic Conference—where for years it had competed against regional rival state universities such as New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Maine—to join the Mid-America Conference (MAC), and play against such schools as Akron, Buffalo and nationally-ranked Northern Illinois.

It was a move that supporters had discussed for years, even while critics opposed their contentions.

As a lower division program, UMass enjoyed a fair amount of success. The Minutemen won the national championship in 1998. Eight years later, they lost in the final game to Appalachian State. That night in 2006, Amherst bars like Rafters—which lies about two football fields from campus—were packed with maroon-clad fans gathered to watch their team on national television. Springfield TV stations sent news cameras to cover the excitement.

Over the next few years, stars like James Ihedigbo and Victor Cruz went on to establish themselves as dependable players in the National Football League, winning Super Bowl titles with the Baltimore Ravens and New York Giants respectively.

To join the FBS level, UMass needed an invitation from an FBS conference. The Mid-America Conference invitation was the only one the school received.

But the MAC deemed UMass’ on-campus McGuirk Stadium—which has a seating capacity of 17,000—insufficient for its current media broadcast operations with sports television giant ESPN. So this past spring the school began a $34.5 million stadium renovation (see “UMass Breaks Ground on New Sports Facilities,” April 23, 2013), which will include a new press box and a 55,000-square-foot training facility for the football team. Renovations are expected to be completed in time for the upcoming season beginning in the fall of 2014.

As construction plans commenced on-campus at McGuirk, UMass entered into a five-year deal with New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft whereby the school would play all its home games in Kraft’s Gillette Stadium—nearly 100 miles away in Foxboro, the longest commute for any team in the country—for the first two years before splitting home games between Gillette and McGuirk for the following three years of the agreement.

NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) rules stipulate that all teams in football’s upper division must average a home attendance of at least 15,000 fans for at least one of every two seasons, or risk being put on probation for 10 years.

Over the five seasons preceding the Minutemen’s move to the FBS, attendance at McGuirk Stadium averaged 14,000 a game. Last year—the team’s first hosting more prestigious football programs at Gillette Stadium—attendance dropped to just over 10,000 per game. This past season, it was 15,830.

Current plans at UMass will go forward.

Welcome to the world of big-time college football.

 

“They squeaked by for not getting put on probation, but that’s still pathetic,” UMass Faculty Senate member and architecture professor Max Page tells the Advocate. “They predicted 30-, 40-, 50,000 people, but they’ve steadily lowered the bar. And these have arguably been the best seasons. Last year was the first season [in the upper division], and this year was the [university’s] 150th anniversary. We were all over Boston with advertising. Those were huge advantages.”

An ad-hoc committee on FBS Football—which is co-chaired by Page, but whose membership includes both critics and supporters of the football program’s move—will present a report examining the cost-effectiveness of the upper division move to the Faculty Senate during this week’s Dec. 12 meeting.

“The report will be fairly dry,” notes Page. “No judgment, just straight numbers.”

Critics like Page contend that because renovations to McGuirk Stadium are being mortgaged over a 30-year period, construction costs will amount to $64 million, as opposed to the stated $34.5 million price tag.

They also take offense at the athletic department’s scheduling games as far into the future as 2021, which non-supporters see as “a form of blackmail,” says Page, because UMass would ostensibly owe the other universities money for not following though on the contracted contest. “It’s a scare tactic,” adds Page. “Teams switch conferences all the time and don’t end up paying.”

But there are more than just cost concerns, Page continues. The decision process was poor as well. According to Page, “part of the ongoing fury” is that “no faculty” knew about the jump to upper division football, and both the Board of Trustees and “even the Athletic Council” were kept in the dark about moving home games to Gillette.

UMass Athletic Director John McCutcheon disagrees. “We did our due diligence,” McCutcheon tells the Advocate. “The move was reviewed by the Athletic Council and approved by a subcommittee of the Board of Trustees.”

A jump to upper division football had been “looked at for at least 20 years,” continues McCutcheon, adding that the challenges had always been “finding a conference to play in,” and “facilites issues” regarding the team’s home games.

McCutcheon says UMass reached out to the Kraft family about using Gillette Stadium.

“We always had the intent of not having all of our home games at Gillette,” McCutcheon clarifies, “and we’re really looking forward to having games back here [in Amherst].” But playing in Gillette, he says, allows for “two opportunities to expand the fan base.” McCutcheon adds that “the folks at Gillette have been very supportive,” and while nothing is certain at this time, there are “ongoing conversations” with them about working something out beyond the current five-year deal.

There are no plans “at this time” to expand attendance capacity at McGuirk Stadium, says McCutcheon.

 

T he university’s athletic director since 2004, McCutcheon is easily the longest-serving UMass official involved in the football program’s move. The bio on his university webpage credits him with “[helping to] spearhead one of the most historic moves in UMass Athletics’ history—the transition of the football program from the Football Championship Subdivision ... to the Football Bowl Subdivision.”

Since McCutcheon’s tenure began, UMass has had four different chancellors, and they in turn have expressed various opinions about a potential move to upper division football.

John Lombardi, who served from 2002-2007 before moving on to Louisiana State University, hired consultants who determined that a jump to the top tier would be risky, Page tells the Advocate. So Lombardi suggested supportive alumni raise $50 million to make the move more feasible.

Former Chancellor Robert Holub, who took over after Thomas Cole, Jr. served as interim chancellor for about a year, headed operations at UMass Amherst from 2008 to 2012. In April, 2011, Holub announced the move to upper division football.

“Our decision to elevate Minuteman football to the FBS is consistent with our status as the flagship campus, and a reflection of our mission to achieve excellence in all that we do,” Holub said during a news conference, explaining that the “move [was] made possible in part due to the support of the Kraft family, who have offered use of Gillette Stadium for the majority of our home games.”

Holub went on to note that with two teams having recently left the Colonial Athletic Conference, a proactive move would allow UMass to better control its own fate, and that playing at Gillette would “benefit the extended UMass-Amherst community” and allow the Minutemen to play “closer to a concentrated fan base of alumni living in the Boston metropolitan area.”

In an email to the Advocate, former chancellor Holub, now a professor of German at Ohio State University, said that he “no longer [has] access to any of the important documentation regarding the move, including the spreadsheets [they] used and notes for meetings with Trustees, the Athletic Council, and the Faculty Senate.” He also suggested that he “would be at a severe disadvantage in trying to answer questions about something that occurred two years ago.”

Holub departed amidst allegations that confidential job evaluation information saying he would not be rehired was leaked to the Boston Globe. Holub asked Attorney General Martha Coakley to look into the leak.

UMass Amherst’s current chancellor, Kumble Subbaswamy, has suggested that both critics and supporters of the move must give it a chance to work. But, as he told the New York Times on Dec. 12, 2012, “it’s a very easy matter to one day say we won’t do it anymore [if it doesn’t work.]”

With close to 125 upper division teams already battling for bragging rights, the dream of negotiating the promises and perils of big-time college football and achieving success at the FBS level is not an easy one to achieve. “We need to keep in consideration the challenging situation,” McCutcheon tells the Advocate. “We’re looking at a five-to-seven-year process.”

But for every Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Penn State—schools with programs that not only enjoy national prestige, but are completely sustainable financially without university subsidies—there are dozens struggling to join the fraternity.

According to a report by USA Today, the public school with the largest athletic program revenue in the country is the University of Texas. Its annual athletic expenses are over $133 million. But its total revenue is $150 million.

The article looked at revenue reports from 2011 (the most recent available) at 225 public universities playing at least one sport at the Division 1-A level. Only eight of the departments did not receive any subsidies from their respective universities. And all eight have nationally prominent football programs.

Here in the Northeast, comparable FBS programs at state universities in New Jersey (Rutgers) and Connecticut (UConn) receive 47 percent and 24 percent, respectively, of their athletic department revenue from university subsidies. Former regional football rivals in Maine, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island are subsidized at 65 percent, 70 percent, and 75 percent respectively. UMass subsidizes its athletics to the tune of 80 percent, one of the highest rates in the country.

While UMass may hope that entry to the FBS allows for a reduction in its football subsidies—or, by making the program more prominent nationally, at least justify its investment—critics worry that the FBS is already crowded with other schools in the same situation. Former Chancellor Lombardi, for example, raised the issue in a New York Times article last year: “As more schools join at the bottom, it’s going to force the NCAA to restructure. They’ll have to start putting FBS teams into categories … What happens then?”

Max Page echoes Lombardi’s concern.

“It feels like we’re joining a league just as it’s collapsing,” Page told the Advocate when the McGuirk Stadium renovation began last spring. In the ensuing months, after seeing this year’s season at Gillette, his perspective on the whole effort has only soured further.

“They thought Gillette was going to be this magic bullet, but they’ve pissed off students and local businesses,” he says. “They won’t admit it, but it’s been a total failure.”•

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