Keeping Score: Upside-down FBS blueprints

Published: 11/18/2022 8:18:12 PM
Modified: 11/18/2022 8:18:13 PM

Good morning!
Eleven years ago today at 3:42 p.m., the clock struck zero at McGuirk Alumni Stadium. UMass had lost to James Madison University, 34-17, but more important it was now in the FBS and out of the FCS, known in simpler times as Divisions I and I-AA. “A Pipe Dream No Longer” announced a local broadsheet.

Chancellor Robert Holub was in the crowd that day and hinted afterward that coach Kevin Morris’ days were numbered. They were indeed, he was fired two days later. Holub wasn’t averse to mingling with the fans, decked out like Dracula in his long cape and fedora. Moving to the FBS, he said, was “part of our ever-greater move to national prominence.”

Athletic Director John McCutcheon concurred: “The time is right for this landmark decision.”

The team would play in Foxborough until a $15 million stadium renovation was finished. It joined the Mid-American Conference and hired coach Charley Molnar. Unfriendly and paranoid, Molnar’s assistants shushed away loyal fans and alumni who’d come to watch the team practice.

Molnar was fired after two seasons and a 2-22 record. McCutcheon’s next hire, old friend Mark Whipple, beat Appalachian State, BYU, Liberty, Buffalo and Georgia State, but not all in the same season. The best he could do in five years was back-to-back four-win seasons.

UMass left the Mid-American Conference in 2015, and thanked the MAC for letting it get its foot in the door. The MAC wasn’t pleased, nor was the NCAA.

The grand experiment to play at Gillette Stadium ended with a 35-16 loss to BYU on Nov. 10, 2018. The Minutemen were 2-19 in Foxborough and averaged 14,141 fans a game.

By now Holub and McCutcheon were long gone, the former to be a professor and eminent scholar at Ohio State, and the latter to be the AD at UC Santa Barbara (the Gauchos don’t play football).

The new AD, Ryan Bamford, fired Whipple after the 2018 season. He hired Florida State offensive coordinator Walt Bell who turned out to be Charley Molnar with an accent. Bell was fired midseason last year after managing two wins in 25 games.

Bamford signed former UMass coach Don Brown to a five year, $4 million contract. Borrowing from Whipple’s remarks at his introductory press conference, Brown said home is where the heart is. Brown is 1-9 this season and will likely lose today at Texas A&M and next week at home against Army.

Add it all up and the damages come to 21 wins, 101 losses, four coaches and millions of dollars in lost revenue.

UMass has created the template for how not to do it. Don’t play home games 100 miles from campus, don’t join a conference and leave after four years, don’t hire no-name coaches, don’t skimp on stadium improvements, and don’t keep junk stored under the grandstand.

The scissor lift that’s behind the press box? It’s there for the TV cameras to use because UMass doesn’t have handicap access on the stadium roof.

Ten other teams have joined the FBS since UMass entered the fray. Appalachian State joined in 2015 and won five straight bowl games. Georgia State has had four winning seasons in five years, Coastal Carolina, Liberty, and Old Dominion have all won at least one bowl game.

The JMU Dukes didn’t join the FBS until this year. They waited. They built a brand and won the 2017 FCS championship. They gave Bridgeforth Stadium a $62 million makeover and expanded seating from 15,000 to 25,000. They’re 6-3 and briefly cracked the AP’s Top 25. They’ve shown what could’ve been if UMass had done it right, but for now it’s still one big pipe dream.

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UMass goaltending had the fourth best save percentage in the country until BU came along with its shock-and-awe offense. In two games the Terriers took 90 shots and scored 12 goals including a rare Michigan Goal by the immortal Wilmer Skoog.

“Maybe we’ll turn to (Henry Graham),” Carvel told WHMP’s Cooper Boardman after Saturday’s loss. “We gotta get a goalie that makes saves.”

UMass has been swept on back-to-back weekends by Providence and BU, and that rumbling in the distance is UConn going scorched earth over the Hockey East landscape.

Theo Epstein might say this has the makings of a bridge year. On the other side of that bridge, goalie Michael Hrabal has the fourth best save percentage (.925) in the USHL and 19-year-old Swedish defenseman Sebastian Tornqvist is honing his skills at Tri-City.

“Tornqvist will be a freshman next year,” Carvel texted. “(He) should be a really solid player for us. We’ve got good players coming.”

BU is the proverbial sleeping giant with 11 draft picks, including six who played for the elite U.S. Under-18 team. Junior Luke Tuch is the 6-foot-3, 210-pound brother of the Sabres’ Alex Tuch, and Tristan Amonte is following the path of brother Ty and father Tony.

Getting back to Skoog, the 6-2, 200-pound Swede finagled the puck onto his stick, lifted it like a server taking drinks from the bar, and dropped it behind UMass goalie Luke Pavicich and into the net. Some call it the high wraparound, but most prefer “Michigan Goal” after Wolverine Mike Legg who performed the feat against Minnesota in the 1996 NCAA tourney.

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SQUIBBERS: Changes in the UMass radio booth: Cooper Boardman has replaced Donnie Moorhouse doing the hockey play-by-play and Moorhouse is doing the color after Brock Hines left for a streaming gig at ESPN. … Randy Moss’ son Montigo leads the Maine Black Bears with six TD catches. … Clutching at straws here, but the UMass running game might be a factor against a Texas A&M rushing defense that ranks fifth from last. … If you’re looking for family entertainment on New Year’s Eve, the UMass women’s hoops team kicks off its A-10 schedule on Dec. 31 with a 2 p.m. tip-off against St. Bonaventure. … In Savoy, Maura Healey and Geoff Diehl both got 132 votes for governor. Healey managed to overcome the deadlock. … Condolences to Joe Elias on the loss of his father. Bill Elias’ obituary mentions his passion for golf, but Bill also volunteered to go between the pipes in the Greenfield men’s hockey league. His locker room banter made up for his on-ice deficits. … The Orioles didn’t go after pitching when it wanted to reduce home runs at Camden Yards, it simply moved the left field fence back 27 feet and raised it from seven feet to 13 feet. Eureka, opponents hit 72 home runs compared to 154 in 2021. “We kept the ball in the park,” said O’s manager Brandon Hyde. … Two D-III schools claim to have the “biggest little game in America.” Top billing goes to undefeated Ithaca (10-0) which beat previously undefeated Cortland, 34-17, before 40,000 fans at Yankee Stadium last week. … Second billing goes to the Amherst-Williams rivalry. Both teams went in 2-7 and the Ephs prevailed, 20-10, before 3,568 fans at Farley-Lamb Field. … Speaking of 3-7 teams, Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher and his $9 million salary are on the hot seat against UMass today. … Nice gesture by the UMass softball team to send a “Wings of a Dove” tribute blanket to John Zewski’s family after he passed away. … Buffalo Sabres TV analyst Martin Biron, after seeing the replay of Travis Hamonic driving Zemgus Girgensons’ face into the glass: “Been there. Really makes your eyes water.” … Happy Thanksgiving. Don’t talk politics, just eat and watch football.

Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for four decades in the Pioneer Valley. He can be reached at chipjet715@icloud.com


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