When conference realignment started to ripple through the Group of Five in 2021, it offered UMass an incredible opportunity. The UMass football program has been Independent since 2016 when the Minutemen left the MAC over a dispute regarding joining the league for all sports. At that time, UMass had hope in their football program’s ability to succeed as an Independent. Mark Whipple seemed to be making strides on the field and it seemed like there were opportunities off of it.
That, clearly, didn’t happen. Since 2016, UMass has an overall record of 12-52. A couple of 4-8 seasons under Whipple being their best ever at the FBS level. Independence, for numerous reasons, hasn’t been working. So, as C-USA was poached to the brink of its own death, it seemed like an opportunity for UMass. They were so desperate that a UMass team with no success on the field and poor geography almost made sense if only to survive. For both, it could have been done to stabilize themselves. UMass athletic director Ryan Bamford went hard after an invitation, including a pitch he made to the conference, but it was to no avail. C-USA went in another direction. For now, UMass will have to stay Independent.
That doesn’t mean you just give up and hope that conference realignment will break your way next time. You have to make yourself desirable to conferences. In doing so, you need to improve the quality of the program itself. To do that you need to work to improve the program both on and off the field. UMass recently hired Don Brown to bring energy and passion back to the program, while his local roots should help with recruiting.
Off the field, things are going to be difficult to fix. At UMass, there are systemic issues within athletics that make it difficult to succeed. The school itself doesn’t support athletics as much as many other Division I schools of a similar size. At the same time, there is a strong fanbase at UMass who wants to see the school succeed in all sports, including football. So, where do you begin if you’re UMass in fixing the program off the field?
The first thing is to fix UMass’ media deal. Currently, if you live in New England, you can watch UMass home games on NESN. If you’re outside of New England, then you have to use FloSports, which is an expensive and difficult to use streaming service. You can also listen to games via the Varsity Network app, through Learfield IMG College. Importantly, putting games on FloSports is an issue. It’s an expensive and obscure paywall. Having games there is never going to build up a fanbase, and while every other FBS team is much more watchable, it’s actually going to make it harder to recruit players who don’t want to make their families go through that paywall to watch their games.
If UMass can simply move over to ESPN+ from FloSports they would be in much better shape going forward. That’s a more affordable and widely available product. More people also use ESPN+ already, so fans won’t have to decide to add FloSports as a streaming service or not. The quality of the product on ESPN+ is also much higher.
UMass also doesn’t have any bowl agreements right now. There are occasionally rumors that they might get one, but that hasn’t happened to this point. That means that if UMass were to become bowl eligible in some way, they may not even get an invite. That would be a punch in the gut to the players and fans of the program. Finding a way to establish a relationship with a bowl game would be incredibly important, even if it’s a minor one like the Cure Bowl, where fellow Independent Liberty has played in recent seasons.
The next two things, which go hand in hand with one another, are that UMass needs to improve funding and facilities for the program. In UMass’ pitch C-USA, they showed off their new bubble practice facility, minor renovations made to McGuirk Alumni Stadium, and the school’s football performance center. Those are pretty good facilities for a program in UMass’ situation. However, more renovations still need to be made to McGuirk. On top of that, since UMass wants to be a football-only member of a conference they need to make even more improvements to football-only facilities. To do so, you need more funding, mostly from donations.
Funding also can be put into every aspect of the program. Beyond new facilities, this includes the coaching salary pool, recruiting budget, and even NIL opportunities. Those things would help UMass to elevate the program from its current standing.
It’s also going to be important to maintain a strong relationship with UConn. The two are in, relatively the same situation. They’re both Independent schools with strong basketball traditions that dictate their athletics departments. They both have poor geography in New England, and they’re currently bad on the field. The rivalry between the two is real. And, at the end of the day, they need to keep playing annually and make themselves into a package deal for a conference.
These are, of course, just a few of the improvements that UMass could be making for the future of its football program. These are also changes that are difficult to make if you don’t improve on the field. At the same time, without making these changes it is difficult to improve on the field.