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After decade of football struggles for UMass, no shortage of opinions about way forward

The UMass Football team captains take the field prior to the start of a game at the Walter McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst, Massachusetts, on September 18, 2021.
J. Anthony Roberts
The Republican / Masslive
The UMass Football team captains take the field prior to the start of a game at the Walter McGuirk Alumni Stadium in Amherst, Massachusetts, on September 18, 2021.

UMass football lost to Maine this past weekend. It was the second loss in as many weeks to a lower division school. The team’s struggles this year led to the firing of the head coach.

recent editorial in The Republican newspaper said UMass has made its team a “football punch line” and a column in The Boston Globe urged the school to give up its dream of playing at the highest level.

Ten years ago, UMass Amherst moved to the Football Bowl Subdivision, or FBS. Since then, the team has won 20 games and lost 90. 

UMass was on its third coach since making the switch and last week, Walt Bell lost his job.

At a press conference, UMass Amherst’s athletic director, Ryan Bamford, said he “wasn’t anticipating having to make a coaching change.”

“But felt like at this point in our season, from just a progressive standpoint of our football program and not seeing some of the progress that we wanted on the field, we decided to make a change,” Bamford said.

In the past three seasons under Bell, the Minutemen won two games and lost 23.

“UMass Football is not thriving. I don’t think just firing the coach is going to fix that,” said Pam Tudryn, a fan whose son played for and is now an assistant coach at UMass. 

Tudryn said one challenge the team faces is it’s no longer part of an athletic conference, meaning a schedule has to be built from scratch.

“I know they’re looking to find a conference to be in, but they need to do that pretty quick, “ she said. “They need to do right by these athletes.”

Tudyrn said she’s been to a few games and watched all the others online.

“I just feel like every Saturday, we’re just putting them in a position where they work so hard,” she said, “and then we’re setting them up to go play against Pittsburgh.”

UMass opened the season against Pittsburgh, losing 51-7.

Brett Albert, who lectures at the UMass business school and studies money in college sports, said some of the team’s losses are to be expected.

“They have chosen to play, what I call, a number of sacrificial lamb games, where top programs pay upwards of $1 to 1.5 million to have very poor programs come and effectively lose games,” he said. 

Bamford, the athletic director, said he is trying to get the football team into a conference, saying it’s not a “viable” long-term plan to stay independent.

Matt Engdahl, a UMass alumnae and season ticket holder, agrees with the decision to fire Bell, but said the changes need to go further.

“The lack of investment in the program has hurt the team and if the university invested more money in the program, they would see better results,” he said.

Engdahl said more money for coaches’ salaries is a key part of the equation.

But according to a document (first reported by SB Nation) UMass produced in hopes of gaining entry to a conference, the investment in the football program is not exactly chump change.

It says its latest annual budget is $10.5 million and that it’s spent $65 million in the past seven years on its football facilities — about a third from donations, according to a UMass spokesperson.

Albert said more money is not the solution. He takes issue with the decision a decade ago to move to the Football Bowl Subdivision from the lower-level Football Championship Subdivision, or FCS.

“Given all of our struggles at this level and given the total lack of a path to success, I would recommend either dropping back down to the FCS level, rejoining the Colonial Athletic Association, playing regional teams, and frankly, if we’re not willing to do that, then we should end the football program entirely,” Albert said.

In a statement, a UMass spokesperson said the university’s commitment to FBS football is firm and with a new coach, officials believe the trajectory of the program will improve.

UMass is not alone in New England when it comes to troubles with top-tier college football. The Minutemen’s only win this year came against UConn, which also has no conference.

According to a ranking of all 130 FBS teams by College Football News, UMass and UConn are in the bottom three.

Before joining New England Public Media, Alden was a producer for the CBS NEWS program 60 Minutes. In that role, he covered topics ranging from art, music and medicine to business, education and politics.
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