Howard Herman: New president at UMass could give boost to athletic program

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It was front-page news from Boston to the Berkshires on Saturday. Marty Meehan is the new president of the University of Massachusetts system.

As I see it, this can only be good news for the beleaguered college sports team at the flagship campus in Amherst.

Meehan has led the UMass-Lowell branch of the state university system into the 21st century in both academic and athletic endeavors.

"Everything that we do we need to strive for excellence," Meehan said on Friday when he was appointed. "There is no such thing as status quo and there's no such thing as mediocrity."

Certainly, the new president will have his plate full when it comes to academic pursuits at the UMass campuses, from building dorms to hiring faculty and increasing course options for thousands of students. In the eyes of many, athletics is also important.

Numerous college presidents and athletic directors have said, and it is almost a cliche now, that sports are the front porch of a university. When you drive by a house, the saying goes, you don't see the bedrooms or the kitchen. You do, however, see the front porch.

That is what college athletics is to the majority of schools that participate.

For every Alabama, Notre Dame or Ohio State, there are countless Sienas, Rhode Islands, East Carolinas and UMass-Amhersts. The vast majority of colleges don't have cash cow athletic programs. Those schools do, however, use athletics as a way to get a name out and encourage students to apply and attend. That's one of a number of ways that schools can get better. Sports are not the be-all and end-all of helping improve universities.

The University of Massachusetts is, from border to border, a far better university then when I arrived in the Berkshires. One of my children is a proud graduate from the Amherst campus.

But when it comes to athletics, particularly the three men's sports that draw the most fans, things could be better.

Year two of the Mark Whipple era for football promises to be better than the first. It might not amount to significantly more wins, but there is no doubt that the football Minutemen will be better in 2015.

Their schedule will be pretty entertaining as well, what with an autumn trip to Notre Dame on the horizon. A competitive game, which will be televised nationally, will only speed up Whipple's building process.

Derek Kellogg's basketball team has been pretty good for the last several years, but fans here in the Berkshires and in the Piioneer Valley wish his team would be better than pretty good. Hockey coach John Micheletto has a 20-41-7 record in two years. In the preceding 12 years, there were only four winning seasons.

Under Meehan's eye, the hockey team in Lowell has gone to three consecutive NCAA tournaments and lost to Union in the 2013 national championship game. The other sports, including Pat Duquette's men's basketball team, are moving their way up to full acceptance in America East and the chance to play for Division I championships.

If Meehan can lead the Amherst campus to similar successes, UMass' football independent status could be solved. Meehan was a congressman at one time, and can politic with the best of them. Maybe he can use the bully pulpit to get UMass into the American Athletic Conference.

New athletic director Ryan Banford will be the leader in the hunt for improvement and conference status. But it will help a great deal to have a Marty Meehan behind him, helping push the program along.

Contact Howard Herman at 413-496-6253.


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