Keeping Score: Good pay, bad move
Imagine you’ve convinced your boss to sell air conditioners on the North Pole. Two years later the company’s losing millions and the new boss calls you into his office. You’re gonna get fired, right?
Not if you’re John McCutcheon, the UMass athletic director responsible for putting its once-proud football team into the Football Bowl Subdivision, where it’s been shredded like fresh meat in the lion’s cage.
McCutcheon’s contract would’ve expired in two months, but Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy re-upped him for another $259,338 annually through June 30, 2016.
Where do I get a job like that?
In a curious juxtaposition, the chancellor’s words that “I am confident UMass will continue to improve and will excel at the FBS level” were uttered not after the contract extension but two days ago after coach Charley Molnar was fired with three years and $836,000 left on his contract.
Molnar’s the sacrificial lamb while in the bureaucratic hierarchy of UMass, McCutcheon keeps his job.
“John McCutcheon has been the main engine behind the (FBS) move,” said UMass professor Max Page, co-chair of the school’s 17-member Ad Hoc Committee on FBS Football. “Two failed seasons, totally wasted, it’s become a sinkhole and they’re going to give him a raise?”
Laughable indeed, but both men are feeling the heat from the unraveling of the biggest blunder in the history of UMass athletics. (“The worst idea since Bobby Valentine was hired to manage the Red Sox,” wrote the Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy.)
It began with McCutcheon tugging on former chancellor John Lombardi’s sleeve to join what’s better known as Division I football. The savvy former president of Southeastern Conference powerhouse Florida laughed him off. “Get your alumni to raise $50 million,” he allegedly told McCutcheon, “and maybe we’ll talk.”
When Lombardi left for LSU, McCutcheon convinced Chancellor Robert Holub to get into the FBS, join the Mid-American Conference and move the home games to Gillette Stadium.
It was done for fame and money and without regard for a local fan base accustomed to autumn afternoons watching UMass gridiron stars from Jerry Whelchel to Steve Baylark. Gone were the longstanding rivalries against UNH, Delaware and Maine, snatched away by interlopers from out of town who don’t have a clue about the school’s history and tradition.
“We had a winning program and we played our rivals in our own neighborhood,” said Page, whose committee reported that since joining the FBS, UMass has spent double the money it did when it was in I-AA (aka the Football Championship Subdivision).
By the end of next season the team will have spent $5.1 million and be $1.6 million over projections. Expenses include matching 23 additional Title IX women’s scholarships with the corresponding number of men’s scholarships that the “upgrade” required to stay competitive.
What money UMass football has earned is from losing, $1.65 million in appearance money for traveling to Wisconsin and Kansas State and getting beaten by a combined score of 69-14.
Instead of winning Yankee Conference beanpots and Colonial Athletic Association championships, UMass is the Savannah State of the North. Columnist Phil Mushnick calls it BDSM football — they get paid to be beaten. They’re the Washington Generals, rodeo clowns, court jesters.
During McCutcheon’s 10-year tenure the hockey team has had three winning seasons, the women’s basketball team is 34-116 of late and the men’s basketball team might finally make its first NCAA tournament appearance. Associate Athletic Director John Sinnett defended his boss saying, “What John has done over 10 years has been impressive. We’re a lot more stable and have a lot more infrastructure support. He’s made some pretty shrewd moves to keep programs successful.”
Subbaswamy is McCutcheon’s fourth boss, appointed in 2012 after Holub resigned under pressure. His previous teaching and administrative positions were at the University of Miami, Indiana University and the University of Kentucky. He declined comment for this column.
Chancellors are well educated. They know things we don’t. They know it all. He probably read the New York Times article about UMass last season headlined “Big Dreams, Rude Awakenings.” It was accompanied by a photo of UMass playing in a nearly vacant Gillette Stadium.
The Times quoted accounting professor Daniel Fulks of Transylvania University: “The reality is that football schools that move up a division almost always lose even more money.”
Tulane President Scott Cowen added: “The cost curve is extremely steep, and unless you’re in a power conference the revenue is flat.”
The MAC is not a power conference — USA Today rates it 19th of 33, and it’s 0-4 in bowl games, including Buffalo’s 49-24 loss to San Diego State in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
McCutcheon applied for San Diego State’s athletic directorship four years ago, shortly after he’d pocketed a $100,000 longevity bonus for staying at UMass five years. So much for loyalty, which begs the question of whether McCutcheon wanted UMass in the FBS to better the school or better himself. Ask not what Massachusetts can do for you ...
UMass plays three games next fall at refurbished McGuirk Stadium. Sinnett said he didn’t know the opponents or dates, but the silver lining is that UMass fans and students will see their first homecoming game on campus in three years.
Home is where the heart is, where this team should have been playing all along.
Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for four decades in the Pioneer Valley.