UMass Athletic Director John McCutcheon has a professional poker face.
But every man has a tell when posed with the right question.
Back in 2004 McCutcheon granted me an interview for a feature article I was working on regarding the state of the football program. I peppered him with questions about whether the program would ever upgrade, what it would take, and what the other options were if FBS could never come to fruition. His answers were brief, his tone was unwavering, and his facial features maintained one silent phrase: “I have nothing to say.”
Then, right before tucking my tail and heading home, I squeezed in one more question: “Wouldn’t yearly games against UConn and Boston College be good for football in New England?”
He leaned forward, smiled, and said: “It would be great, but we’re not there, yet.”
The “yet” from that sentence stuck with me for awhile. Im my mind it indicated the smallest of chances – a tiny slice of hope – that one day the University of Massachusetts would leave the ranks of FCS and place itself among its true New England peers. It meant that the other end of the pipe dream wasn’t totally closed and that UMass hadn’t given up on the whole idea … yet.
Today UMass has arrived.
Today there is no more “yet.”
At 7:30 pm, UMass will begin a new chapter in its long and storied football history. It will face off against the University of Connecticut and hope that the interest surrounding the game will lead to a new rivalry between old Yankee Conference foes. Reporters and fans on both sides of the fence think the prospects of a UMass/UConn series would be good for football in an area of the country where professional sports rule and college athletics have taken a back seat for decades.
Even UConn head coach Paul Pasqualoni is on board:
“We are very excited about it and the possibilities and potential of what (UConn)-UMass could be. Playing UMass would give us a chance to have an Eastern game regardless of the location. It’s exciting for fans, easy to get to and has a chance to be just a great game.”
While the on-the-field game will be entertaining for fans of both schools, the stuff that happens outside the stadium is what makes the prospects of UConn/UMass so intriguing.
At office water coolers across New England, fans will argue about blown calls and missed opportunities. In parking lots on game day, blue and maroon will awkwardly clash over grills, under tailgate tents – all with similarly clashing Solo cups.
On the recruiting trail, the best athletes in the Northeast will receive letters from Storrs and Amherst. Caller IDs will read 413 and 860. Some players will decommit and have a change of heart. There will be recruiting battles and lamenting over the one (or more) that got away.
Perhaps most intriguing is that a strong connection between UConn and UMass could further isolate a Boston College program that has done everything in its power to disassociate itself with the public universities of New England. The problems between B.C. and UConn are well-documented, and the Eagles have brushed aside UMass’ decision to upgrade as a mere annoyance.
Meanwhile, the product at Boston College has fallen off dramatically. The top recruits from New England have consistently chosen Notre Dame, Michigan and other schools over four years at Chestnut Hill.
It’s easy to lose your identity if you forget where you came from.
Tonight is undoubtedly an important night for college football in New England. While UConn is the superior team this time around, UMass is recruiting top talent from the Northeast and should become a formidable opponent in the coming years. There are no other future games scheduled between the Huskies and the Minutemen, but I have a feeling that will change soon.
Tonight is the beginning of something new, and football in New England will benefit from it.