“[T]he University of Massachusetts is a very fine football team. They have some very, very fine players.“
- Kansas State head coach Bill Snyder (9/5/09)
College football has a way of making once-great programs humble and once-proud fan bases sparse. The cyclical nature of the thing adds rust to the glory days, much like aluminium benches left uncovered during a particularly harsh New England winter.
The football team at the University of Massachusetts has hit bottom, and its descent has alienated fans and brought out the “I told you so” crowd. Its rise to FBS football has been more of a head-first slide through rocks and glass, toward a home base that is lost somewhere in the churned up dust. The knee-jerk jerks are questioning coach Charley Molnar, the fuddy-duddies want their baby back in Western Mass where it can play against the neighborhood have-nots again, and filling in the white spaces are the Internet comedians, who use 120 characters to show they have none.
A cacophony of negativity is surrounding the UMass football program, which makes me wonder: What happened to this fan base?
It seems that students and alumni have completely forgotten what UMass football was and could be again. They forget that during a span of 10 years, the Minutemen were legitimately the best I-AA team in New England and quite possibly the Northeast as a whole. All-Americans, NFL Draft picks, National Championship runs and raucous night games at McGuirk have been replaced with rock-kicking and “woe-is-me”ing. It makes you question whether the “UMass attitude” rubbed off on anyone: That get-it-together, us-against-them ideology that starts to sink in the very first time you take a walk down North Pleasant Street.
It’s as if people forget what this team and fan base were up against when it laid out all the cards and said, “All in.”
The UMass football program’s performance is the product of a number of circumstances.
Former head coach Kevin Morris recruited mid-level CAA athletes, and his predictably unpredictable playcalling was saved by players cast off from Northeastern and Hofstra programs that threw up the white flag and closed up shop. Morris’ forgettable reign began after Don Brown – the hero of the 2000s – left for Maryland when it became clear that UMass was I-AA or worse for the long haul.
Riding high off of years of winning, UMass fans wondered whether the “nationwide search” that brought in Morris (the football team’s somewhat-maligned offensive coordinator) was a sign of the times. Were the higher ups ready to let the program sink to Rhode Island levels? Was UMass still going to recruit the best athletes not going to Boston College, Syracuse, Rutgers and UConn? Was Morris the undertaker, slowly tailgating the Northeastern processional?
Then, in late 2010, about a month after the Minutemen lost a close one to Michigan, there were rumblings about an invitation from the Mid-American Conference. It was nothing more than a whisper, but that was enough for a fan base that was terrified of a future without football.
The MAC was a second chance.
On April 20, 2011, the whispers ended, and UMass pulled the trigger. It waved goodbye to century-long rivalries, moved to a temporary home and promised its loyal alumni that the decision was for the good of team and the university.
“We seek greatness in all we do at UMass,” said then-Chancellor Robert C. Holub. “We promise national excellence and prominence to the citizens of the Commonwealth, and we deliver on that promise. Moving to the FBS is consistent with our upward trajectory, as Minuteman football becomes part of our overall move toward national prominence.”
The sigh of joyous relief was followed by the harsh reality that UMass’ three-year fall from grace was going to manifest itself against bigger and better opponents. Morris’ recruiting had left a team that was barely ready for CAA football, let alone the rigors of a schedule filled with Michigans, UConns and MAC teams far superior to the Old Dominions of the world.
Everything had to get done fast, but as UMass fans soon learned, FBS football is not kind to those to transition.
“Who the hell is Charley Molnar?”
UMass fans had to use and re-use Google to figure out who this seemingly random coach was.
- “Offensive coordinator at Notre Dame.”
- “Brian Kelly’s right-hand man.”
- “Quarterback guru.”
- “Twenty-eight years as an assistant.”
“Great, a career assistant. What about Neal Brown? What about Mike Leach? What about Don Brown?” UMass fans wondered as they questioned the hire. Who was this guy that John McCutcheon was handing the keys to? Who was this mystery coach that was going to lead the UMass program through the biggest transition in school history?
When Molnar took the podium at Gillette Stadium on December 8, 2011, it was the first time many UMass fans heard him speak. Out of the gates – and ever since – he has said all the right things.
“This is an opportunity I worked for my whole career, and there is no limit to my excitement on this day,” said Molnar. “When John McCutcheon called to offer me the position, I knew this dream was becoming a reality, and I said ‘When can I start?’ I have a vision for this program into the future, and we are going to do nothing but great things at the University of Massachusetts.”
Part of the future was being brutally honest. Molnar insinuated that Morris didn’t have the team work hard enough. When the first recruiting class was announced, he made it abundantly clear that some guys that had verbally committed didn’t get to sign because they weren’t FBS quality. Some players couldn’t deal with Molnar and left the team, and others simply weren’t good enough for the FBS version of UMass.
In the wake of Molnar’s honest assessment was a skeleton of a team and a strong freshman class. His next step was teaching a squad of FCS players, who were recruited for a pro-style offense, an advanced no-huddle spread attack.
The learning curve was Mount Greylock steep, and this became abundantly clear during the Spring Game.
Awkward runs out of the shotgun formation were the theme of the day. Fans looked on with “uh-oh” glances, as the new-look Minutemen struggled against out-of-shape alumni. There was no hiding the elephant in the room, and there was no use trying.
This team was not ready.
37-0, and it wasn’t even that close.
Molnar walked into the press room of Rentschler Field, and as the door swung open the cheers of 35,270 UConn fans were still thick in the air. Molnar was angry, frustrated and bit his lip so hard during his self-censorship that a stream of blood ran lazily across his teeth. It was clear that he wanted things to progress faster, but with freshmen and sophomores all over the field, that was a tall order.
Losses followed, and bits and pieces of progress flip-flopped to complete ineptitude. Aside from two games, UMass never posed a challenge.
It became the whipping boy of FBS football. ESPN had it on its Bottom 10 list. Columnists from Western Mass papers accused the team of forgetting its roots in the Pioneer Valley. Internet message boards that had once lit up with the idea of “the upgrade” slowly migrated back to basketball and hockey talk.
Social network users hummed along with their insults.
“Molnar should be fired.”
“The team is no good.”
“UMass is a joke school, with a joke football team.”
While the punches rolled in, Molnar and staff attacked the recruiting circuit and received early verbals from more athletes than at any other time in recent memory. Top-tier Northeast recruits liked the story they heard and wanted to be part of whatever the UMass program had to offer. The sales pitches were working.
Despite the losses, Molnar sold an idea that something better was coming, and soon.
The UMass football team has struggled mightily this season, and many uneducated outsiders have chalked it up to UMass being the wrong school making the wrong move at the wrong time. This idea has caught on in the wrong places, and slowly the students and alumni are starting to believe it.
Alumni have yet to flock to Gillette, and each passing MBTA bus serves as a reminder that the Great Advertising Blitz failed. The UMass football ads have permeated Boston, but UMass alumni have collectively shrugged it off. Maybe everything is too new, or maybe results are the ultimate salesman.
Maybe UMass alumni are simply not loyal to their alma mater.
The greatest failure of this first season is not on the field. That was to be expected. The apathy of the UMass fan is what this season will be remembered by. At a time when the school needed its graduates the most, the UMass fan turned its back and said, “I’ll wait until you’re good. I’ll wait until I have more time.”
As they wait, they point to the field and make excuses. Why support a team that gets crushed every weekend? Why root for a team that seems to regress every week?
College football has a way of answering those questions, and it tends to treat programs with rich histories kindly. Teams with support force their way through the dark days, which makes the good times even better.
That’s something UMass fans need to remember as they inexplicably forget how they got here.