UMass trying to establish its independence

The talk, for now, of finding a conference for the football team has been muted. All that matters at this point for the University of Massachusetts is that the schedule is filled for the next few years. There is enough money--by way of guaranteed payoffs for being pinatas of teams from Power 5 conferences--to sustain the costs of running a FBS football program on the outer fringes.

"Before we do anything else,'' said UMass athletic director Ryan Bamford, who is the foreman for the reconstruction of the football and basketball programs, '' is to start winning some games.''

Life in the fast lane--FBS level football for the past five seasons, two years as an independent--hasn't been an easy or a pleasant ride. In the past five years, the Minutemen have won a total of 10 games. They exited from the Mid-American Conference as football only member last season and staggered as an independent to a 2-10 finish with a schedule which included five Power 5 conference teams.[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]

"It was a rough trip, conceded UMass football coach Mark Whipple, who is starting his 10th season--in two different terms, "but this year will be better. I feel good about this team. I really do.''

Whipple's words were spoken standing on the 17th tee at the Pine Hills Golf Cub in Plymouth, Mass., where he was serving as host of the annual football fund raising/golf/meet and greet outing for UMass boosters. Whipple, who has had two stints at UMass,( including a 1-AA national championship) the University of Miami, and the Pittsburgh Steelers, is not a pie-in-the sky projector. But his task at UMass has been tough: to do more with less than most FBS coaches.

Still, the Minutemen are trying. The facilities at UMass are the equal of any school in the MAC and many schools in the Atlantic Coast Conference, including Boston College. The run of playing the majority of their home games at the home of the New England Patriots is over, with all but one of their home games at a still small (17,000) but renovated McGuirk Stadium. UMass also has a game at Fenway Park against Maine scheduled in November. ""We're making progress in getting kids,'' said Whipple. "At least now, if we can get them to take a visit, we have a chance.''

What happens beginning August 26th when Hawaii, which opened its season last year in Australia and comes to Amherst for its opener, is another unknown. Whipple has 14 starters back, including QB Andrew Ford (a transfer from Virginia Tech, who threw 26 TD passes last season.

Whipple's teams have always been able to score points. Defense has been a rabbit hole for the Minutemen, but Whipple is optimistic that veteran defensive coordinator, Ed Pinkham, who came to the Minutemen from Western Michigan, which finished last season with a 13-0 regular season record, will create some stability.

The key, Whipple feels, will be in the first month. After Hawaii, UMass has a road game against Coastal Carolina. a home game against Old Dominion and a road game at Temple. ""I think we can start out 3-0,'' said Whipple,, "I really do.''

There are still match ups this season at Tennessee, at South Florida and at BYU, which look ominous. Life as an independent for the Minutemen, who do not have the advantages of the other FBS independents such as Notre Dame, BYU and Army, is still a steep climb.

Projecting five years into the future, you will find few UMass backers or observers who will offer guarantees that football will even exist on a campus where the support from the student body can hardly be called solid.

Still, it is August and until the results are official, the Minutemen, sparked by the wisdom of Whipple and the optimism of a young AD like Bamford, see more blue sky than clouds.[/membership]