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Why the UMass-UConn Game is Important

No, the game between UMass and UConn won’t impact a conference race or anyone’s bowl eligibility, but this game matters too. So, why do we act like it doesn’t?

NCAA Football: Massachusetts at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

I genuinely, without a trace of irony, care about what happens to UMass football. It might seem dumb, and you can snicker and make jokes if you want, but that tends to happen when you go there and are college football obsessed. I also don’t mind the jokes about UMass. I make them too. They’re easy.

The thing is, a bit of me is hurt by the jokes, even when I make them. When I was a student, a bit of me was always hurt when students didn’t move from the tailgate into the stadium. It stung when people who were supposed to support the program simply didn’t. I also got it, though. UMass was 10-26 while I was a student there, culminating with a 4-8 team that everyone thought might compete for a bowl game. So, I made and make the jokes too. It just hurts a bit because I feel I should be a better advocate for the program. After all, I watch every UMass game every season. I should stand by the team better.

Under head coach Walt Bell, UMass is 2-20. Before playing UConn, they were 1-20 and their only win had come in September of 2019, against Akron. UConn, meanwhile, has already had their coach retire, only to insist on firing him instead. They haven’t won since they beat UMass in October of 2019. The jokes were coming, most of them lazy and repetitive, but in a way, that type of ‘so bad it’s good’ attention got people excited about the game.

I was excited about the game because I saw it as a chance for UMass to get a win (a thing I expect them to do more of in 2021). It was a chance to play a rival in UConn, who I like about as much as the average Texas fan likes Oklahoma.

So, I told a couple of jokes, while also deciding to go to Amherst for the game. It would be my first time on campus since I graduated in 2019. That part was, frankly, strange for me. It was like I stepped into a memory. I could blend in, but I didn’t quite belong at that station in life anymore. It took a while to shake that thought that I was trespassing on a campus I paid tens of thousands of dollars to attend.

I drove by the satellite fraternity house that I lived in for two and a half years. It had a big, expensive propane tank out back, and horsehair in the walls for insulation. It got to be so expensive to refill that we just stopped using heat, despite temperatures dropping to below 10 degrees at times and being able to see our breath inside. No one was there, and even if they were I wasn’t going to stop to say hi and tell stories. That would just be like diving even deeper into a memory I already felt a bit like a voyeur in.

From there, I parked in a lot that I was pretty sure would be free on weekends and got out to walk around. I thought about grabbing food from the campus center, but decided against it and walked into Amherst instead. Antonio’s, with a line out the door, was an old standby, where I could easily spend more on pizza than I did at the bars. It was still good, but not quite how I remembered it being. Nothing is quite how you remember it, though.

I turned back towards campus and started walking towards McGuirk Alumni Stadium. Like everything else, the walk was a bit different and much longer than I remembered. It turns out that when you sit behind a laptop constantly it’s easier to end up out of shape. I survived, though, and made my way to the box office where I spent $30 on a ticket to see UMass vs. UConn before I started walking around the tailgate lots.

UMass sits in a valley, so all around you are these rolling hills and mountains in the distance. By October it looks like a postcard for watching the leaves change. Three different tailgate lots were all full, I had never seen this many people tailgating a game while I was a student. Somewhere in the distance I could hear the band playing Green Day. College Gameday missed out on an awesome, small college football scene.

I went into the stadium and watched warmups. Like everywhere else on UMass’ campus, the wind tends to rip through McGuirk. I had to force myself not to buy a sweatshirt from the small shop set up in the stadium. Everything filled in better than I expected. Eventually, even the students came to fill in the student section like it was a hockey game.

An interesting note about McGuirk, concessions are on field level. This means that fans are free to openly walk and hang out at field level. There is only a small, 2-3ft tall fence between fans and the two team’s benches. If you wanted, you could reach over and steal their water bottles. There’s also like no security at all. It’s strange and one of those things that makes an otherwise bland stadium unique.

The game itself was good. A bit gross in the second quarter when neither team could do anything productive. The second half was all UMass, though. The fourth quarter, in particular, UMass dominated. Ellis Merriweather was a workhorse, taking 39 carries for 171 yards. He and running quarterback Zamar Wise wore down UConn and gave UMass a two touchdown lead. I felt alive. Amherst was going to explode. Students started making their way down to field level, preparing to rush it. Walt Bell called for a surprise onside kick, twisting the knife. It wouldn’t be long after that UMass beat its biggest rival for their first win in 741 days.

Students stormed the field. Fans and alumni came down to field level to congratulate the UMass players as they walked from the field to their locker room. Merriweather notably stayed out to talk to and thanks fans individually. It was in the locker room where the party exploded for UMass. Dancing and hugging each other.

All of it was beautiful. It wasn’t a joke about how bad the two teams were. It was a joy in a community that does care and has the potential to grow. More than anything, it made me proud to have gone to UMass, and even though I didn’t spend a second on the field during the game, it made me feel like a winner too.

The way we talk about college football tends to be incredibly Playoff-centric. It’s based on this idea that if you don’t make the Playoff then your season wasn’t successful or didn’t matter in some way. We tend to think about college football in these terms, even though more than half the teams in the sport don’t have any access to the Playoff. So, why do they play? The play for love and pride. They play for their communities and the joy that the players at UMass felt and alumni, like myself, feel because of this dumb sport.

The jokes aren’t going to end for these two teams anytime soon, and that’s a shame. They’re easy targets, but if we want this to be a truly national sport they should be talked about differently. UMass should be seen for what they are, a team that had less than 50 scholarship players in 2019 and has been trying to build the foundation for a program that has an extensive line of inherent barriers to success. They should be seen as a team that has a much improved defense, and an offense that is flashing potential.

The truth is, I know UMass isn’t going to a bowl game this year. I could’ve told you that in August. I bet Walt Bell and the rest of the UMass staff knew it in their gut, even if they wouldn’t say it out loud. Still, you go out there and play these games. You do it because these games matter. They matter to the coaches, players, fans, and alumni.

So, Go. Go U. Go UMass.