UMass trying to survive as an independent team
Since Massachusetts moved to the Bowl Subdivision five years ago, the Minutemen have eight victories and 40 losses, have averaged less than the NCAA minimum attendance of 15,000 for their homes games and were essentially kicked out of a conference.
Instead of giving up its major college football aspirations — as some on the Amherst campus would prefer — UMass is sticking it out and going it alone, becoming an FBS independent this season at a time when that has never been more challenging.
Scheduling is harder. Bowls are tougher to access. Television exposure is more difficult to find. Revenue often has to come at the expense of wins. Even Notre Dame has given up some of its treasured independence for the stability of partial conference affiliation with the Atlantic Coast Conference.
UMass athletic director Ryan Bamford knows having an independent football program is not a long-term solution. With the Big 12 looking at expansion, the trickle down could open up a spot in a conference for the Minutemen soon. Or not. Regardless, Bamford believes the lonely road is worth traveling to stay in college football's top tier.
"With a little bit of risk there's great opportunity and great reward there," Bamford said this spring.
Faced with a similar stay-or-go choice, New Mexico State decided it will become an independent in 2018 after the Sun Belt Conference ends its football-only relationship with the school.
Idaho, however, went the other way after being ousted by the Sun Belt and is prepared to head back to the Championship Subdivision after the 2017 season and join the Big Sky Conference, a natural geographic fit. Idaho athletic director Rob Spear said geography and finances were working against the Vandals, but the school could have made it work in the FBS with a conference home.
"Independent, in my opinion, was not a good situation," Spear said.
For New Mexico State, geography and finances were reasons to stay in the FBS. Dropping down would have put rivalries with New Mexico and UTEP, located only about 30 miles away from Las Cruces, New Mexico, in jeopardy. Also, being in the FCS would have put New Mexico State at a disadvantage against its rival state school in other areas, athletic director Mario Moccia said.
"We benchmark ourselves against them on virtually everything. State funding comes into play. Competition for students comes into play," he said.
Plus, New Mexico State needs the millions it makes playing a couple of road games a year against Power Five teams to pay off debt and fund the athletic department. As an FCS school, those payouts would drop as much as 75 percent.
In the 1980s, independence was common in major college football. Penn State, Miami, Florida State, Syracuse, South Carolina, West Virginia and Pittsburgh were among the high-profile independent programs. As conferences became the power points in college football in the 1990s, negotiating television contracts and aligning with bowl games, schools flocked to them for security. The money didn't hurt, either.
Just three schools played as major college football independents last season: Notre Dame, Army and BYU, which is eager to join the Big 12.
Notre Dame's $15 million per year TV deal with NBC protects the Fighting Irish, but money can't fix everything. When Notre Dame moved all its sports but football and hockey into the ACC, the deal also called for Notre Dame to play five games per season against ACC teams. It also gave the Irish access to ACC bowl games.
UMass transitioned to the FBS in 2012 and went 2-22 in its first two seasons as a football-only member of the Mid-American Conference. In 2014, the MAC invoked a clause in its contract with UMass that gave the school two years to either join the conference as a full member or leave.
Most UMass teams compete in the Atlantic 10 and a full move to the Midwest-centric MAC made little sense. The FBS transition has gone so poorly that members of the UMass faculty senate in April pushed for a vote on a nonbinding motion to urge the university to return to the FCS or drop football altogether. The vote failed.
When Bamford took over at UMass in March 2015, the most pressing issue was the schedule. UMass had one home game scheduled for 2016. The NCAA minimum is five.
"We were 15 months away from playing and I'm saying, 'Crap, how am I going to do this?"' Bamford said.
Bamford was able to put together a six-game home schedule and six road games that will help compensate for the lost $850,000 MAC payout. UMass will receive $1.5 million to open the season at Florida, an additional $1.25 million to play at South Carolina and a combined $650,000 for trips to Hawaii and BYU.
UMass also has a home game against Mississippi State to be played at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts, home of the NFL's Patriots. That game, along with a game at Gillette against Boston College, should help UMass reach the 15,000 minimum attendance it needs to hit this season after averaging 11,124 last season. Over three seasons, UMass' average FBS attendance is 14,347.
This season's schedule helps the bottom line for a program with an $8 million budget that includes about $5 million in student fees and state funds. It won't help the inexperienced team coming off a 3-9 season.
"We're overloaded some, there's no question about that," said UMass coach Mark Whipple, in the third year of his second stint at the school. "There's reasons for that. I understand those reasons."
Idaho spent a season as an independent in the FBS in 2013, waiting for a spot to open up in a conference after Western Athletic Conference football dissolved. The Vandals played at Arkansas, Mississippi and Florida State and lost by a combined 187-52.
"You're being unfair to your student athletes and your coaches," Spear said.
Bamford and the UMass administration believe striving for potential gains in prestige and revenue that can come with FBS football is worth it. The football program simply needs to be good enough to get into a conference. The American Athletic Conference, with UConn and Temple, is the perfect spot for UMass. But with no recent football success, UMass is not necessarily a perfect match for the AAC if it loses members amid Big 12 expansion.
If nothing else, UMass seems to have an athletic director who embraces the challenge.
"I'm so competitive and I love the fact that people don't think we can get this thing going," Bamford said. "That it drives me I've never had anything drive me like it does."
Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP
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