Editor’s Note: An earlier version stated that the Mid-American Conference sponsors hockey, the MAC does not sponsor hockey.
There are a lot of teams who can make it as an Independent. Notre Dame is the obvious example, so much so that they’ve become an example of the Independent model. Army, for their own reasons, also makes things work without a conference, and even though BYU is headed to the Big 12, they succeeded in this realm for a while too. Those three programs all have something in common; they have built-in, nationwide fanbases.
UMass does not have a built-in, nationwide fanbase. They have a very regional fanbase, and being an Independent is failing the football program.
There are a lot of reasons why UMass needs to be in a conference for football. To put it simply, though, right now UMass’ television deal is terrible, making it almost impossible to watch them on TV. They also, currently, don’t have any kind of bowl associations. That means that at six wins or more, they could still miss a bowl game. Perhaps most importantly, right now most of UMass’ games don’t carry extra weight to them. What made the UMass-UConn game great? It was a rivalry that mattered. The chance to develop conference rivals and play meaningful games for a conference championship matters to the fans.
Of course, UMass was once in a conference. They joined the MAC when they moved up to FBS, but fairly quickly left. There were a lot of reasons for this, but the main one was that the MAC wanted UMass to join for all sports, not just football. This would have hurt their basketball which play in the A-10 Conference.
Make no mistake, basketball and hockey hold precedent over football at UMass. This is a school that still recognizes the John Calipari Final Four run in 1996, even if the NCAA doesn’t. They’ve been to the last two Hockey National Championship Games, winning in 2021. So, any football solution needs to fit into what is best for those sports.
As the wheel of realignment turns, no one should be surprised that the AAC passed on UMass. They’re not a geographic fit, McGuirk Alumni Stadium is admittedly smaller than some high school stadiums, and they don’t fit the media market or football-focused mold. Head coach Walt Bell did speak about realignment, though, saying, “I have very strong personal opinions on this subject. But I’m going to keep my mouth shut. For once. Here’s what I will say: the commissioner of the AAC made a very poignant statement on the nature of college football today. That is that the programs that invested in their infrastructure and invested resources into their programs were the programs that were rewarded with admission into the AAC.”
Make no mistake, this was a shot at the administration at UMass.
Bell is saying, without saying, that there hasn’t been an investment in the football program by the administration at UMass. Now, that’s coming back around to bite them as the landscape of realignment changes. There is no investment in salaries and assistant coaching salary pool. There is no investment in facilities. There is no investment in recruiting, or marketing, or media. There is no effort or creativity. Worst of all, there is no interest in putting that effort forward by the administration.
And you know what? Bell is right. The current administration doesn’t care about football. If they did, they would have shown it in the decade UMass has played FBS football.
Recently, Marty Meehan, who is the President of the University of Massachusetts system (not just UMass, which refers to the flagship campus in Amherst), implied that he could fix the UMass football program, if only they let him. This comes two years after he implied shutting down the program because the team was just too embarrassing for the UMass system.
Well, who is stopping you, Marty?
As Meehan plays politician, trying to make it seem like he cares, he also acts like he’s been handcuffed. The dirty truth is that he runs the system, though, and he can advocate for and allocate resources to the football program if he wants. He simply doesn’t, and neither does UMass Amherst Chancellor, Kumble Subbaswammy. They pretend to care, while acting like they don’t have any power to invest in the program.
Until this administration changes its attitude, its effort, or maybe just its personnel, nothing will change. Side note: Marty Meehan at my own commencement asked the graduating class for donations to UMass and was booed off the stage. That’s not relevant to anything except showing his attitude towards the community.
Meanwhile, athletic director Ryan Bamford recently canceled a conference call with fans to discuss realignment, “Until we have some idea of the landscape around us.” Is this smoke and mirrors for an athletic director who is too busy, or for one who doesn’t know what’s happening?
Right now, the only FBS option for a conference is going to be Conference USA. The problem is that the longer the C-USA realignment search goes on, the less likely UMass seems to be an option.
New Mexico State is advocating for itself to make it into C-USA. UMass isn’t.
Recent rumors have C-USA looking at schools like Sam Houston State, Missouri State, and Tarleton State. In other words, Midwest and Texas FCS schools are a better option than UMass in its current state.
Walt Bell was right. The AAC rewarded schools who invested in their programs. They had a media strategy too, but you had to invest in football to be considered. C-USA is doing the same. They’re looking for schools who care about being good at football, and they’d be open to football-only members. UMass is sitting back, ready to get left behind, because they have no plan and no plan to come up with one.