Charley Molnar, head coach of the University of Massachusetts football team, has been fired after two years and two victories, but a new head coach won't address the fundamental problems facing the UMass football program. The wisdom of the program's move into the rarefied air of the Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly and more coherently known as Division 1) was debatable when it was made in 2012 and it looks no better today.
UMass was chafing at the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division 1-AA) level, a form of limbo where the financial obligations are many and the big-time revenue and recognition nonexistent. The decision was made to follow in the footsteps of the University of Connecticut, which had made the leap to Division 1 with good initial returns. An argument could have been made to drop the football program to Division 3, get rid of scholarships, and compete with in-town rival Amherst, Williams and other New England and northeastern rivals at little cost to the university. That may have been seen by students and alumni as degrading, but the University of Vermont dumped football altogether years ago and continues to thrive athletically and academically.
The analogy to the University of Connecticut was always a poor one. UConn has a stadium readily accessible to fans, while UMass plays its "home" games in southeastern Massachusetts, where a relative handful of fans rattle around the 68,000-seat stadium in Foxborough that is home to the New England Patriots. UConn dominates the athletic scene in a state with no major professional teams, while UMass is overshadowed in terms of coverage and interest by the Patriots and three other prominent and traditionally successful Boston pro teams.
This team based in Western Massachusetts found itself in the Mid-American Conference, where it plays directional schools like Central Michigan and Northern Illinois, not exactly natural rivals for the Minutemen. Even in this league, which is hardly an FBS powerhouse, UMass found itself overmatched. Mr. Molnar is still owed $836,000 for the final three years of his contract, which Athletic Director John McCutcheon says will be paid through "external sources" (presumably boosters), not state or university funds. UMass is hardly the only academic institution to overpay for a head coach, but regardless of the funding source this money could have been better spent elsewhere.
Earlier this month, the Ad Hoc Committee on FBS Football at UMass issued a report documenting that the budget for football is growing faster than the revenue to support it, in part because of disappointing attendance at games. In a brief separate to the report, committee co-chair Max Page described the move to the FBS as a "failure of epic proportions," adding "There are far, far better uses for these millions of dollars."
This could change if UMass builds an on campus, FBS-caliber stadium, but the funding for such a project would be difficult to justify when money for academics is hard to come by in the state. UMass faces many challenges, and in moving to the level where the university football factories play, it may have added an insurmountable challenge that will weaken its ability to address the others.