The wildfire known as conference realignment has reached UMass’ backyard, and now the school must make a decision.
Multiple sources are reporting that the Catholic schools in the Big East are planning to band together and leave. That means Villanova, Marquette, Georgetown, St. John’s, Providence, Seton Hall and DePaul will hit the road to form a new conference, leaving behind an uncertain hodgepodge of multi-regional football schools. It also means that the Seven Catholics will likely try and poach a number of like-minded Atlantic 10 schools (Pete Thamel, from the above-linked SI article, posited that the Seven Catholics would want a 12-team conference).
Xavier, Butler, Dayton and St. Louis have been rumored targets. While there is no information suggesting that UMass is out of the conversation, it seems unlikely that a conference comprised of Catholic schools without FBS-level football teams would choose to invite an outlier state school.
That begs the question: What, if anything, does UMass do if and when the Catholic Seven come hunting?
There are several options being discussed at this point. Over at MassLive, Harry Plumer laid out a non-exhaustive list of three potential courses of action:
- Maintain the status quo: MAC football/A-10 everything else
- Try to join the new Catholic basketball league and stay in the MAC for football
- Join what’s left of the Big East in all sports
I think there is one other option that UMass fans should seriously think about. It may not be popular, and I am not necessarily saying it’s the best idea, but it is certainly a viable course of action: Become a full member of the Mid-American Conference.
Back when UMass entered into its “Membership Agreement” with the MAC, the idea of future full membership was certainly contemplated. The conference told UMass, in no uncertain terms, that the university would not be “liable for any additional initiation fees if … it subsequently joins the MAC for all other sports besides football.” Further, the MAC left itself the option to change the agreement to a “term contract” in which it “must provide an offer of full membership” to the university in the event that Temple hit the road (which it did just a few months later).
It seems that the MAC would welcome UMass in all sports. Minuteman basketball would immediately be near the top of the conference, the UMass brand is respectable, and an all-sport membership would pacify the in-conference critics who worry that the university is simply using the MAC as a springboard. UMass’ non-revenue sports, which have seemingly been forgotten in this whole mess, would also step in and compete right away.
The real question is whether UMass would welcome the idea of a full membership to the MAC.
There is little doubt that both UMass and the MAC are very interested in the prospects of a stable future. In fact, during an interview with both Plumer and the Gazette‘s Matt Vautour, UMass athletic director John McCutcheon indicated that stability is one thing the department is taking into consideration: “There’s financial components, there’s competitive components. There’s stability components,” he said. Unless the desperate remains of the Big East successfully grab either UMass or Buffalo, the MAC will likely stay in tact for the long haul. With a full commitment from UMass, it could also convince another program to join and balance the divisions.
A full-scale move to the MAC could offer appealing “financial” and “competitive” components as well. As mentioned above, UMass would not have to pay an extra dime to the conference if it chose to become a full member. It would also get bowl, TV and other athletics-related revenues that other MAC schools take in on a yearly basis. Of course, the cost of going all in would arise in other places – more specifically in travel costs. However, the travel budget for the MAC would likely be a little more than what UMass has gotten used to during its yearly trips to St. Louis, Dayton, Charlotte and Cincinnati.
Competitively, the Minutemen and Minutewomen could currently hold their own in every sport, save for football, soccer and baseball.
On the other side of the spectrum, some fans may think a full-scale move to the MAC would effectively put UMass in today’s version of I-AA football. As the remaining BCS conferences slowly devour each other, the prospects of four or five megaconferences is becoming a reality. Those teams left in the “other conferences” (MAC, Mountain West, Sun Belt, Conference USA and the Big East if it survives) will most likely have to fight for a single playoff spot or for money from lesser bowls. In essence, everyone outside the megaconferences would be on a lower level of college football.
There is no doubt that a full-scale move to the MAC would cement UMass in this situation, but is there an option that doesn’t? The Big East is a confusing geographic mess that doesn’t know what it is and will certainly not be a megaconference anytime soon. The ACC doesn’t exactly have UMass on speed-dial. For those hoping for the Big 10, there is literally no chance. Sure, the B1G got a little soft and let in Maryland and Rutgers, but it is lightyears away from inviting a MAC cellar-dweller that is dealing with issues ranging from where it should play its games to whether its alumni give a damn.
At the end of the day, UMass is going to settle into an also-ran conference for football, and right now the MAC and the Big East look like the only two options. During a time when stability is rare in college athletics, the MAC might be the best option for a university trying to find its place. It provides a group of like-minded institutions that, as many UMass fans have learned, are pretty good on the court or gridiron.
In this strange new world of conference realignment, the MAC is certainly a viable option for UMass.
It’s not the only option, but it’s worth thinking about.