Thursday April 21, 2011

FOXBOROUGH -- University of Massachusetts-Amherst chancellor Robert C. Holub summed up the school's decision to move up to the top rung of Division I football with one sentence.

"Playing at the top level of college football is consistent with our role as the flagship campus of the Commonwealth," Holub said on Wednesday as the University announced it was moving to the Division I-FBS Mid-American Conference.

The announcement was made at Gillette Stadium, where the Minutemen's home football games will be played effective in 2012.

Massachusetts has been examining moving to the Bowl Championship Subdivision from the Division I-Football Championship Subdivision for years. The FCS is the former Division I-AA, a division where UMass won a national championship in 1998.

Holub, UMass athletic director John McCutcheon, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and MAC commissioner Dr. Jon A. Steinbrecher all attended the press conference announcing the agreement between the school and the league.

UMass will play one more season in the Division I-FCS Colonial Athletic Association, but will not be eligible to play for a CAA title or a berth in the FCS tournament. The Minutemen will play a full FBS and MAC schedule in 2012 and will be eligible for the MAC Championship and bowl participation in 2013. UMass is the 14th team in the Mid-American Conference, and joins Temple as one of two football-only teams in the conference.


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"This broadens the conference's footprint by providing access to the MAC into Boston, the nation's No. 5 media market," MAC commissioner Dr. Jon A. Steinbrecher said. "This will also increase the value of the MAC with the conference's media rights holders.

"In the final analysis, the addition of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst brings value to the Mid-American Conference."

The centerpiece of this move is the decision by Kraft and the Kraft Group to offer UMass the use of Gillette Stadium without rent. That does not mean the school gets the stadium free of charge. There is a revenue-sharing agreement between the University of Massachusetts and the Kraft Group, so the higher the attendance, the more the Krafts will receive in payments.

In remarks to the media, Kraft said he and his family have wanted to expand football throughout New England at all levels. The Patriots owner said this is one way to accomplish that goal.

"We have not seen it happen as rapidly in the college area," said Kraft. "I'm really hoping that in a small way, we can help to have UMass be the third team in the FBS in the New England region."

UMass played one game at Gillette Stadium in 2010, drawing 32,848 fans for the game against New Hampshire. It was a crowd the UMass athletic director thought was 60-40 for UMass. The Minutemen will play UNH here again this year.

In the short term, the cost to the university will primarily be in additional scholarships and coaching positions. There are 63 scholarships at the FCS level and 85 at the FBS level. In addition, the university will increase women's athletic scholarships equally.

McCutcheon said he didn't know how those additional scholarships would be divided up.

According to figures released by the university, the school spent $4.4 million on the sport in 2010. By the 2013 season, the football budget is anticipated to be $6.9 million.

"We have looked at all aspects of this transition to the FBS very carefully," Holub said. "We believe that after an initial investment, and in a very few years, we will be using less funds from our general budget to support athletics than we do now."

McCutcheon said that increased payouts from the MAC's television contracts with ESPN and more games against Division I-FBS teams from many of the major conferences will increase the athletic budget. The Mid-American Conference has a contract with ESPN through the 2016-17 season. The deal includes a minimum of 15 nationally-televised games on the various ESPN networks.

As an FCS team, UMass has played one game a year against BCS teams, including recent matchups against Michigan, Kansas State and Texas Tech. This year, UMass will play at Boston College on Sept. 24. 

The move to the MAC, according to McCutcheon, has piqued the interest of many BCS teams for the so-called "guarantee" games.

"Over the past few weeks, as this possibility has gotten more and more public, the amount of expressed interest from some of the most visible programs in the country to schedule us and play in this most magnificent venue is astounding," he said.

Down the road, McCutcheon said that improvements will be made to football facilities on campus. Those improvements could include a football support building, an improved press box at McGuirk Alumni Stadium and other capital improvements.

The key to success, McCutcheon said, is to win games on the football field and get more people to come to UMass games.

"We need to build our fan base," the athletic director said. "We have several outstanding programs regarding the promotion of season tickets. We're going to recognize our longtime supporters out in Western Massachusetts but we have special programs to entice and bring in fans from the Eastern portion of the state as well."

To reach Howard Herman:
hherman@berkshireeagle.com,
(413) 496-6253.