So Long, Minutemen
UMass faces an uncertain future as it makes the move to the Football Bowl Subdivision, a leap that has been in process for some 14 years
By David Coulson
Executive Editor/Managing Partner
College Sporting News
PHILADELPHIA — I'll never forget my first meeting with former Massachusetts athletic director Bob Marcum during the 2001 NCAA Division I Football Championships.
Marcum seemed so painfully out of touch with the rest of the movers and shakers in what was then called Division I-AA football that I knew it was just a matter of time before UMass found itself making the move to I-A for football.
By all accounts, UMass will officially announce that move on Wednesday during an afternoon press conference at Gillette Stadium — the home of the New England Patriots — in Foxboro, MA.
The Minutemen reportedly will compete in the Colonial Athletic Association in 2011 before moving to the Mid-American Conference for football only, beginning in 2012. UMass will be eligible for the MAC championship in 2013, numerous sources are reporting.
But this is a decision that has been in the making for at 14 years, when the Minutemen made a shocking run to the 1998 NCAA Division I Football title, stunning undefeated and heavily-favored Georgia Southern 55-43.
In this columnist's mind, it was the biggest upset ever in a Football Championship Subdivision title game.
Rather than focusing on the euphoria of a championship — the only title for the Minutemen in three championship-game appearances — Marcum couldn't seem to do anything but complain about how much money the crown cost the UMass athletic department.
It seemed a little odd to me at the time and Marcum's peculiar opinion has only grown in its goofiness over the course of years.
Skip ahead with me to 2001, where a group of media members, athletic directors, conference commissioners and others interested in FCS gathered together to discuss the future of the subdivision.
Lined up on one side, you had commissioners like Greg Sankey of the Southland, Alfred White of the SoCon and Doug Fullerton of the Big Sky talking about how to improve the FCS experience.
And on the other end of the rostrum, you had Marcum talking about how I-AA ought to consider going to a bowl system.
It's a good thing there were not any flies circling the room, because all of us would have been in jeopardy, with our mouths gaping open in stunned silence. It was probably the dumbest idea I have ever heard uttered by an FCS administrator.
And at that exact moment, I knew I would someday be writing a column about the Minutemen's departure from FCS.
Marcum is long gone from the Amherst, MA. campus, but his idea of moving the Minutemen to the next level is about to bear fruit.
Like most teams making the move, UMass hopes to catch lightning in a bottle like Boise State did when it took the plunge in 1996.
Or at the very least, the Minutemen would like to follow the course set by Connecticut, which despite limited success as a one-time member of the Atlantic 10 actually reached a Bowl Championship Series game last season.
Of course, UMass might also find that the losses from making an FCS title run pale in comparison to what the Huskies lost ($1.6 million) for their trip to the Fiesta Bowl.
But history tells us that the Minutemen are more likely to find themselves in the FBS sewer with schools like Louisiana-Monroe, Arkansas State, or Idaho — teams that had their share of FCS success, but have had little to celebrate in FBS.
Reports tell us that UMass is prepared to play at least the majority of its games some 90 minutes away from on-campus McGuirk Stadium at Robert Kraft's posh palace, Gillette Stadium.
It is hard to imagine too many UMass students getting excited about going to games clear across the state. And without the student element, the atmosphere for the Minutemen won't give the team the same type of home-field advantage it has utilized for years in Amherst.
In all honesty, UMass is probably better prepared for a move than almost any school that has contemplated the change in recent years. But with that fact established, the words of two prominent FCS voices echo warnings.
A few hours before last season's FCS championship game, I attended a summit meetting that had been planned by Southland commissioner Tom Burnett and his staff.
At lunch that afternoon, I found myself sitting next to Montana athletic director Jim O'Day and conversation quickly turned to the Grizzlies' monumental decision last fall to stay put at the FCS level, turning down an invitation from the Western Athletic Conference.
"When we looked at everything, the numbers just didn't add up," O'Day said.
If the numbers don't add up for one of the preeminent programs in FCS, how can they work for a school not at Montana's level?
Later that afternoon, Fullerton — one of the brightest and most innovative minds in this precious subdivision — was part of a panel discussion on the future of FCS.
He made a searing comment about the struggles of teams that move to FBS without adequate funding.
"Schools that start in the lowest quadrant (of athletic spending), stay in the lowest quadrent," Fullerton stated.
Fullerton has the numbers to back up his eye-opening comment.
In the arms race that is the BCS and FBS, you better come prepared and history proves that few schools are ready for the challenge.
Those are words that UMass hopefully considered in making its decision and are concerns that school such as Appalachian State and Villanova heed as they consider their futures in the months ahead.
With all of that noted, I will cherish the final FCS season for the Minutemen.
Few schools at this level have provided as much excitement and have participated in so much history.
Who can forget the first I-AA championship game in 1978, when Florida A&M held off UMass, 35-28, in what still remains as one of the best-ever title contests?
I'll also remember that classic run of tight, playoff-game victories that resulted in the only FCS title for the Minutemen in 1998.
As if those memories were not enough, UMass pushed Appalachian State to the limit in another incredible title game before losing 28-21 to the Mountaineers in 2006.
The space I have to write for this column isn't enough to come close to mentioning all of the players and coaches from Massachusetts who have left their indelible mark on FCS and all of the incredible games that the Minutemen have given us.
Your presence at FCS will be missed.