In recent years, there’s been a debate as to how Group of 5 programs should build their programs. A decade ago, Boise State became a household name by travelling across the country to play teams like Georgia. Recently, UCF has made waves by refusing to play one off, or two for one games against Power 5 opponents. That policy has drawn a lot of criticism, and there is certainly room for debate as to whether UCF is approaching their situation in the right manner.
Here’s the reality, you don’t build programs the way you used to build a program. Knute Rockne built Notre Dame by playing all over the country to build a national brand. Florida State said they’ll play anyone, anywhere, and earned respect from the pollsters by doing so.
Teams like UCF, Boise State, Memphis, and the likes are established programs. These are good teams with good facilities, decent revenue, and the ability to recruit. They’re looking to take the next step. What about those teams who don’t have their feet under them?
There are plenty of G5 teams who struggle to build their program, but it seems none have been as blatant as my alma mater UMass.
Despite being a successful FCS program, UMass’ transition to the FBS has been a disaster. They made the transition in 2012, and brought in a new head coach for the occasion. Charley Molnar won 2 games in 2 seasons, angered alumni, and was run out for the sentimental return of Mark Whipple. Whipple didn’t work out either, so it’s now Walt Bell’s turn. His first season was expected to be bad, but it was worse than most predicted.
To go with the bad hires of Molnar and Whipple, UMass has several inherent issues. The location, in Western Massachusetts, lacks the type of recruits other regions of the country do. The locals are also apathetic to the team, with most of their football interest going to the NFL or national brands, like Notre Dame. That apathy has bled into the student body, who stopped going to games during the transition, because they were played at Gillette Stadium-a solid two hours from campus.
UMass athletic director Ryan Bamford agrees that this killed student support, “Initially.” Now that games are back on campus, though, he’d point to a lack of on-field success creating that apathy, and on-field success will bring students back to games.
While Bamford says that “Winning is the best marketing tool,” you have to put it aside for now. It’s just not realistic right now. The first question is how do you reignite the fan base?
Well, you need good recruits to reignite the program, but good recruits don’t go to programs with mediocre fan support, bad facilities, and a losing tradition. Fans don’t spend money on bad programs. Programs without money can’t build better facilities. It’s a viscous cycle to break.
For Bamford’s part, he’s worked to improve the game day experience for fans. UMass put up a large, new, video board and added bathrooms to the inside of McGuirk Alumni Stadium. He’s also created a student advisory group to stay in tune with the student body, and has worked to bring exciting programs to Amherst - a benefit of the Minutemen’s conference independence.
In its scheduling, UMass can bring in rivals like UConn, and marque opponents like Army, Temple, and Missouri of the SEC. In general, UMass’ schedule is incredibly important to the program’s growth. The home games need to showcase opponents that fans want to see, because winning is still a work in progress. At the same time, those games need to be winnable. There’s also a desperation to play a pay game every season. As originally scheduled, UMass would have traveled to Auburn in 2020, and been paid $1.9 million for the game. According to Bamford, that game represented 20% of the team’s annual football budget. As tempting as that money is, you can’t have more than one or so of those a season, simply out of fairness to your athletes.
A nice schedule and game day atmosphere are great, but you still need to win to truly turn things around. To do that you need to convince recruits to come to a previously losing program, with an empty stadium, in the cold Northeast. For UMass to recruit effectively, they need improved facilities, and an energetic salesman of a coach. Bamford pointed to Bell being a “talented recruiter” who builds a class “from a community standpoint.”
For his part, Walt Bell showed this in the 2020 class. UMass signed 21 3-star recruits in the 2020 class. After the season they had on the field, that was a minor miracle. It didn’t hurt Bell that he had a new, indoor practice facility to show off to recruits. Turn those recruiting successes into wins, and there will be more fans and money to put into recruiting even more talented players.
If Bell and UMass can turn this class into wins, and recruit a couple more like it, they can break the spiraling cycle that UMass football has been falling down. Bamford says the wins will come, but they’ll need to do it fast or the program’s reputation won’t be repairable.