Tuesday, July 31, 2007

A plea for UMass to move to the Bowl Subdivision

The University of Massachusetts football team has made two appearances in the national championship game of division 1-AA (or the championship subdivision) in the past decade. They won the national championship in 1998 and were the runner-up to Appalachian State in 2006. While some schools seem to take pride in being 1-AA powerhouses (Montana, Georgia Southern, App. State), UMass is thinking bigger. Recent moves by schools like Marshall and, more importantly, the University of Connecticut have shown that it is possible to take a program from 1-AA and quickly make it competitive against the big boys. As coach Don Brown has noted, three things are needed: A reasonable operating budget, adequate facilities, and a welcoming conference. Right now, UMass is 0 for 3, but none are impossible to obtain. Since I know almost nothing about the financial implications of making such a move, I will focus on the other aspects of the situation.

UMass has some natural rivalries waiting for it in the bowl subdivision (we’ll stick with 1-A for simplicity’s sake). First and foremost are the in-state rival Boston College Eagles. This year, just as they did in 2004, the Minutemen and Eagles will play in Chestnut Hill. In 2004, BC won by a 29-7 count. We’ll have more on this foe later. In 2005, UMass went to West Point to face Army and lost 34-27, and just last year they played at Navy, losing 21-20. Navy wound up winning nine games and the loss was UMass’s only one until the National Championship. Two other rivals UMass could potentially take on are Temple, with whom UMass has a basketball rivalry, and UConn, who were also basketball rivals until a 61-59 upset in 2004 by the Minutemen reduced Jim Calhoun to tears. Syracuse is also a geographically sensible opponent, and with the Orange and Minutemen facing each other on the hardwood this year, perhaps the AD’s can come together and discuss a possible gridiron meeting.

As far as a stadium, there are a few options. First, there is the option to massively renovate McGuirk Alumni Stadium. This would probably entail breaking down the walls behind each end zone and building 7,000 seat grandstands on each end. This would bring the total capacity to 31,000, which is right around the absolute minimum needed to get serious consideration from the Big East. Of course, the Big East is a stretch to begin with, but since they only have eight teams in football, you just never know. If UMass can be competitive as in independent, maybe there’s an outside chance Randy Edsall or someone else will put in a good word for us. Can you imagine a Saturday night home game against West Virginia under the lights?

Now becoming affiliated with a conference is more difficult for UMass than it is for most schools. The only Atlantic 10 basketball program currently playing in 1-A football is Temple. Aside from the fact that Temple is the opposite of what UMass should be striving for (the Owls went 14-80 in their time in the Big East), it's also worthy to note that TU is now in the Mid American Conference, which is mainly in the Midwest and already has 13 schools. So UMass's only real options here are the Big East and Conference USA (I'm ruling out the ACC already. Everyone knows the ACC won't look at UMass). Conference USA has twelve schools, the closest of which is probably Marshall in Huntington, West Virginia. So on the surface is seems like a terrible fit, but it may be the only realistic option. The Big East, on the other hand has only eight schools, but all of them are in the Big East for a number of other sports, and all of them are among the Big East's 16 basketball members. So if UMass joined, it would either join strictly for football, or it would join under the premise that some other school (cough, cough DePaul) would be moving out.

UConn's move to the Big East was really seamless. They were competitive quickly and have a great fan base. A new stadium was built off-campus in East Hartford, and students take shuttle buses to the games. As it worked out, my visit to UConn when I was in high school coincided with the first ever game at Rentschler Field, so I drove out there with my mom, and it was a blast. UConn blew out Indiana and the students packed the sections behind one end zone. UMass could certainly match this with a slate of relatively high profile opponents and a new stadium. I also drove down from Amherst to see the first night game at "The Rent", when UConn knocked off eventual Big East champion Pitt in 2004. UMass really wouldn't need to relocate, they have the space and could even build around the existing stadium site. Here's a look at UConn's former digs versus their new home:
Memorial Stadium
Home Opener, 2000:
Rentschler Field
First Night Game
2004:As for Boston College, the Eagles’ Athletic Department recently announced that they would not invite the UMass Marching Band to Alumni Stadium as they did in 2004. Steve Buckley wrote a nice article about this situation in the Herald (Article). In it, he notes the possibility of UMass making the jump to 1-A. There is actually already a committee in place to discuss whether or not this is a logical idea. Let this be my soap box: BRING UMASS TO DIVISION 1-A FOOTBALL. Because there's nothing quite like Saturday afternoon on a true football campus, right? I mean, we’re in a much better situation than, say, Boston University. But it could always be better.

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