UMass getting ready for prime time

AMHERST, Ma.--Mark Whipple sounded like a kid who wanted to show off the new toys he received for Christmas. The veteran University of Massachusetts football coach, now in the third season of his second tour of duty at UMass, was giving a guided tour of the 39 million dollar football performance center, which puts UMass on an equal or better footing with most Power 5 conference schools.

In his office overlooking the end zone of a newly renovated McGuirk Stadium, Whipple could see what had been an equipment storage shed, which had served as the headquarters for UMass football during Whipple's first go-around with the Minutemen.

Whipple, who has a Super Bowl ring from his days as an assistant coach in the National Football League, won a then 1-AA national championship with those facilities.[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]

But that was another century, another lifetime in the ongoing saga of UMass football, which has been making the transition as an FBS school for the past 4 seasons and now is in its first season as an independent, after a 4-year relationship with the Mid-American Conference floundered.

It has been a bumpy ride. The Minutemen, under Coach Charlie Molnar, were 2-22 in their first two seasons as an FBS entry. In four seasons, they are a woeful 8-40. Even when Whipple came back two years ago, the inertia of UMass seemed to overwhelm the football program, despite Whipple's efforts.

Following a 3-9 season last year, there was a proposal by the UMass facutly senate to downgrade and even eliminate football. It was voted down.

With the persistence and organizational skills of new athletic director Ryan Bamford, who came to UMass 16 months ago, the Minutemen have a plan to move forward.

There is a light at the end of what looked like a very dark and long tunnel. With the Big 12 ready to expand, the American Athletic Conference might lose some schools, which means....UMass could be a member of the AAC by next September.

But there are still alot of "ifs''. For now, UMass and Whipple must deal with the reality of what they are and where they are.

The Minutemen are still near the bottom of a 128 step mountain that brings them into the discussion when the debate focuses on the "worst'' teams in college football.

Life as an independent in college football is not all that unpleasant for schools such as Notre Dame, BYU and even Army, which carries the tradition of a long and storied history of success.

For UMass, not so much.

It wasn't that way for their initial jaunt in FBS football as a football only member of the MAC. It isn't that way now as they struggle to put together a schedule that will provide income, if not victories.

Coming off a 3-9 season, here is what UMass and Whipple face, starting on Sept. 3 at Florida, Boston College, Mississippi State, at South Carolina, at BYU. The Minutemen will be paid for their suffering. The payouts from the two SEC schools (South Carolina, Florida) will be 2.75 million.

The football budget has been upped to slightly more than $8 million. In comparison, Alabama's total football expenses are almost $36 million.

Whipple knows his team needs to win sooner rather than later to get the attention of the AAC, if and when it looks for other schools.

 Oh, there are what look like winnable home games against FIU, Tulane and Wagner and a season-ending reward at Hawaii, but it is a type of Russian roulette football that few if any teams in college football must face.

""You do what you do, what you have to do,'' said Whipple with a shrug of his shoulders, sitting in his office after coming out of a coaches meeting in which his staff was breaking down film of Boston College (Sept. 10th at Foxboro's Gillette Stadium). ""But now with this,'' he said pointing to the new football facilities, "we have a chance to get some people here, to consider us.''

To say it is impossible would be foolish. I was in Amherst nearly 20 years ago, talking to a young relatively unknown basketball coach named John Calipari, who had a vision of making UMass a national power.

With poor facilities, little money--as a state employee Calipari once received a letter asking him when he wanted to schedule his "unpaid'' furlough--and little talent, UMass made it to the Final Four.

The Minutemen have not had the national prominence they had under Coach Cal--and yes there were NCAA investigations and penalties-but part of the current UMass profile under Derek Kellogg includes a new state of the art 28.5 million dollar practice facility which is also the equal or better than most Top 25 national basketball programs.

Whipple and Bamford, who has worked hard to provide direction as well as leadership for UMass athletics, know that the key to overall success is for UMass to reconnect with a league in football. The focus remains on the AAC.

Whipple, as much as anyone, knows that football is driving the athletic success bus. Without a league, UMass football can not survive on a long term basis. But to get into a league, UMass has to impress the AAC and Comissioner MIke Aresco with not only its vision, but with its production.

But UMass also needs the guaranteed money that games against teams from the SEC and other Power 5 conference schools bring. But those games also could produce one-sided losses. A year ago, the Minutemen traveled to Colorado and Notre Dame for games, collected lots of money and lost both games by a combined score of 110-41.

Whipple has made the rounds. He has coached college football at UMass and Miami, he has coached in the NFL, with stops in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Cleveland.

He likes being a coach. He likes being a head coach. He also likes to win. No surprises. The cynics and critics suggest that UMass can not win and that the program is doomed to failure.

Three years ago when UMass couldn't win in the MAC, had horrible facilities and was drawing crowds of a few thousand in the Patriots' Gillette Stadium--a life preserver thrown to UMass by the Kraft family (Patriot owners), -even Whipple had his doubts.

Whipple was rehired to do more than win games. He was hired to put a brand name on a football program. He was hired to sell himself as the face of UMass football.

The over-under figure for wins for UMass football by most prognosticators is around 3 games. Whipple knows that's not good enough.

He knows that he must create something sooner, rather than later. With the facilities that he now has, with the facilities that the basketball program has, Whipple knows that UMass can compete ""We just need to get people to come here and see what we do have,''' said Whipple. "Once that happens, I know we can make it work.''[/membership]