By Kevin McCaskill Jr.
11/11/21 * 12:23 AM
(FOREST PARK) - UMass* is an important institution in Western Mass. The UMass Athletics Department is in slight turmoil over the historically pathetic football team and “conference realignment”. The football program is arguably the worst program in the UMass Athletics department and FBS football at large, yet it drives a decent amount of conversation on Twitter.
Why? Americans, specifically American men, love football. I’m not a psychologist so I’m not going to offer a “reason” why this may be. However, the NFL and College Football are the top television shows on multiple networks. Many networks have ventured into sports only channels (FOX-FS1; CBS-CBSN etc). I, personally, will watch any competitive football game I can. In the fall and winter, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays are mostly football for me.
The first issue the Athletics Department is dealing with is UMass potentially joining a conference for only football and some comments Walt Bell made in a press conference about that topic [Bell has been fired as of 11/7/21**]. I didn’t hear his comments. I did read and retweet his further explanation of his comments from the press conference.
There really shouldn’t be an issue about “realignment”. In my opinion, UMass should be looking at only two options:
Remain an FBS Independent
Go back to FCS 🏈
UMass was a member of the MAC conference for 4 seasons, last decade. One of the stipulations was that UMass had to play in a stadium that could seat at least 20,000 people. UMass played their home games, 100+ miles from Hampshire County, in Gillete Stadium. Another reason why the MAC relationship didn’t work out is because the MAC wanted UMass to join for all sports, which would be ridiculous.
UMass went 8-40 in those 4 seasons in the MAC.
Clearly, the MAC didn’t work out. No other conference, on the FBS level, will work out. UMass can’t compete with a hand-picked schedule. UMass couldn’t compete in a conference.
The issues are deeper and plausibly insurmountable for a thriving FBS program.
The first issue is that UMass is an academic/research school; it’s not a “football school”. Another issue is the apathy towards UMass Athletics from Hampden County. Hampden County has the largest population center in Western Mass. - SPRINGFIELD, MASSACHUSETTS. Thirdly, UMass is located in the Northeast. Top rated players from the South and the West don’t usually choose the Northeast for their college careers, especially football. Also, to that point, some sports broadcasters have influenced young people by always harping on weather and warmer climates.
(Neighborhood Map of Springfield, MA)
UMass isn’t a “football school”. Alabama is a “football school”. Clemson is a “football school”. Notre Dame is a “football school”. Texas is a “football school”. The football programs at those institutions and many others mean something to the college and the general region. Young men in the South want to go to Alabama or Texas. Clemson got a 5 star recruit from California.
Any player of note from this area usually wants to leave. Thankfully, former East Longmeadow HS Kicker CJ Kolodziey is now the starting place kicker for UMass 🙏🏽.
UMass 🏈 has to do more to connect with all of Western Mass but primarily Hampden County.
The conference alignment UMass should consider is back in the FCS. Most 🏀 schools in this area are in the FCS for 🏈. This next 5 years should tell us which direction UMass is heading. A conference will not improve the program. Better players, more recruiting staff and a more robust local fanbase will improve the 🏈 program at UMass.
APATHY IN HAMPDEN COUNTY
I am lifelong resident of Springfield, Massachusetts, which is in Hampden County. I’m speaking from my perspective of why, in general, there is an apathy for UMass Athletics in Hampden County.
You may have anecdotes of people or small groups that love and represent UMass well. I acknowledge those people.
It’s a small group.
That’s not disrespect either. FP SPORTS is one person; I don’t have a group.
There are a few poignant reasons as to why people in this area aren’t connected with UMass.
First, the basketball and football programs have been mediocre to awful for two and a half decades now. There really is no reason to pay attention to UMass 🏀 or 🏈 unless you are an avid sports fan or an alumni. Casual sports fans in this area tend to focus on professional sports, mostly Boston area teams but there are a lot New York fans in this area also.
Secondly, the economic situation of Springfield, the largest population center in Western Mass, keeps a lot of people in Springfield. Amherst is a 25-30 mile drive from Springfield. Most people would like to get back home so that turns into a 50-60 mile drive. I know some people may not look at that as lot but when you are from this area, you understand for most people, that is a lot. From recent data, close to 1 out of 3 people in Springfield are at or below the poverty level. Its hard for some people to watch the games on television. Buying tickets and getting to Amherst for a 🏈 game is impossible for a significant amount of people here, who may be sports fans. There is a connection to the 🏀 program from their success in the early ‘90s but much of that has waned with the older population (which includes myself). High school Seniors in Springfield, Holyoke, Chicopee, West Side, Agawam and Ludlow have seen one UMass Men’s 🏀 team in the NCAA tournament.
Other than education, UMass has not provided Hampden County with a product worth paying for. And it seems like they don’t care.
Which leads to the third point: UMass doesn’t make actionable efforts to connect with the City of Springfield or any other community, in Hampden County, in regards to Athletics. They rarely play games at the MassMutual Center. They don’t hold 🏈 or 🏀 camps in the summer in this area. They don’t show up to HS 🏈 games. They go to Prep School 🏀 games however. Why not show up to a Public HS game every now and then? Even if its just for show. Members of the UMass Athletic Department don’t want to work with people in Hampden County 🤷🏽♂️.
UMass Springfield is in TowerSquare, in the downtown area of the city. That is the first place UMass should start in trying to build a sustainable market for their Athletics programs in Springfield.
The communities outside of Springfield in Hampden County, in large part, have a better economic environment than Springfield. However, why support teams that are moribund? Why support an institution that refuses to engage in any authentic way with Hampden County, especially when they have the resources?
I talked to a high school Senior, in Hampden County, at a football game recently. I asked the Senior about UMass Athletics. He told me that his family had season tickets for 🏀 up until last year. He couldn’t give me a concrete answer on how he felt about the team or his experience at the games. It didn’t seem like the experiences were that memorable other than being with family.
Springfield and the surrounding suburbs are growing. If UMass doesn’t see this as an opportunity, 🤷🏽♂️.
I’ll keep this section short.
First, a Fernandes/Garcia backcourt*** will assuredly mean a mediocre season. Two short (relative to NCAA Athletics, not a personal shot), shoot-first PGs can’t start together this season.
Secondly, I haven’t seen many in UMass Twitter type or talk about a racist email sent to many Black students at UMass.
I saw a lot tweets about a fraternity and violence against women. That is right and I applaud the people who were courageous enough to interact on those topics.
Most of the players in the two major sports, 🏀 and 🏈, are Black. Some are American. Some are Black from other countries. How do they feel about being on campus?
UMass administration says they are “investigating”. Its been more than 30 days since the Chancellor tweeted about the “investigation”. Hopefully, we hear something soon.
In conclusion, with all these obstacles - a historically pathetic football program, a cold climate for half the year that keeps high level recruits away, a city that needs economic revitalization desperately and an administration that reluctantly, if ever, reaches out to Hampden County - UMass can thrive if they choose wisely. If they choose to do the things they have been doing, they will get the same or worse results.
*UMass in Amherst, MA
**After typing this article, UMass lost to Rhode Island, an FCS 🏈 program. The UMass AD also fired Bell and Defensive Coordinator Tom Restivo.
***They didn’t start together against UMBC.