Keeping Score: Lost Cat

Last modified: 1/12/2015 1:41:18 PM
Good morning!

Every Saturday each fall Rick Farnham leaves his home in northern Vermont to watch a college football game, be it at Middlebury, Dartmouth or UMass, where he and his wife Diane tailgated prior to last week’s game against Bowling Green.

What’s easy to spot is the UVM flag he flies over his vehicle with the catamount leaping from gold-embroidered lettering against the green backdrop. He uses it as a beacon for fellow University of Vermont alumni to join him for a beer before kickoff. “UVM’s campus is dead in the fall,” he explained. “There’s nothing. We have to wait for hockey.”

UVM dropped football in 1974, five years after Farnham graduated. Born and raised in Brattleboro, Vt., he lettered in football from 1966-68 and subsequently became UVM’s athletic director. He’s been going to college football games throughout New England since he retired in 2001. “Ten games every year,” he said.

Last week he was joined by one of his college teammates, Dave Martin, and his wife Gerri, who are from Houston. “Dave was the split end, I was a defensive lineman and the placekicker. We played against Greg Landry and we lost to UMass by a touchdown. We should’ve won that game.”

Farnham was referring to the 1966 season, when an NFL-bound quarterback named Greg Landry helped UMass beat the Catamounts 27-21 before an all-time record crowd of over 10,000 fans at Centennial Field in Burlington.

Hurt as the loss did, what really crushed Farnham was the day the trustees voted to drop football in order to trim $200,000 off the budget.

“I’ll tell you a story,” said the sturdily-built Farnham while holding a beer and sticking a finger in my chest. “In 1996 I went to West Point for Army’s 50th reunion with (Doc) Blanchard and (Glenn) Davis. At halftime all those guys walked arm-in-arm across the field together. I said, ‘Damnit, I’ve been robbed of that experience. I can’t go back and see my team play. I miss that, and I miss that kind of day.”

For the last three years, UMass fans have had a taste of what it’s like for a football team to leave campus. After the 2011 season ended, UMass athletic director John McCutcheon enacted his plan to join the Mid-American Conference of the Football Bowl Subdivision and play home games at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough.

McCutcheon envisioned a financial panacea, but the football team wasn’t competitive and the fans never came. “I went to one of those games and sat with Dick Bergquist,” said Farnham, referring to the retired UMass baseball coach. “He said it just wasn’t the same as being in Amherst.”

At this writing, the Minutemen had lost 11 straight games and were 2-28 since joining the FBS. Fifteen of the losses were by more than 20 points, including a 48-7 shellacking against Penn State two weeks ago.

“It’s so hard in the East,” said Farnham. “You compete against a school like Penn State, you come home in a box.”

UMass grads like Easthampton’s Dave Poulin didn’t care that UMass was getting pounded harder than George Pickett’s soldiers at Cemetery Ridge. “We’re glad to have a home game,” he said, “and we were fine with UMass competing for a title in I-AA.”

His brother Eric, who’s the coordinator of library services at Greenfield Community College, said football helped motivate both of them to attend UMass. “Our father started bringing us here when we were kids.”

Despite the team’s hapless record, thousands of tailgaters arrived hours before kickoff to celebrate football’s return to campus. They sat under makeshift tents in the 85-degree weather, drinking beer, grilling hot dogs and watching kids toss footballs and fling Frisbees.

Springfield’s Keith Woodgett was eating corn on the cob and listening to Teddy Pendergrass when I approached. He told me his son John Robinson-Woodgett plays linebacker for the Minutemen.

“Love it,” he said of being in Amherst. “This is home. This is where it’s at.”

What I noticed most from my seat in Section 2 wasn’t the expanded press box or the new training facility but the size of the white-and-orange clad Bowling Green Falcons. They were bigger than any I-AA team I’d seen on the UMass gridiron, and they soon proved faster and more talented than those lesser squads.

The Falcons didn’t drop passes or get pushed out of bounds, and it was entertaining to watch the underdog Minutemen match them point-for-point. The game featured seven lead changes and seven touchdown passes of between 25 and 80 yards. Despite the 47-42 loss the fans went home happy. UMass quarterback Blake Frohnapfel had thrown for a record 589 yards and earned MAC Player of the Week honors.

Oh, there were glitches. The replay scoreboard collapsed in the third quarter and the scratchy speaker system made the PA announcer sound like he was Neil Armstrong on his moonwalk. Video replays and media timeouts stretched the game into a four-hour marathon and a female cop characterized the students’ pep rally as “Chaos ... There are a lot of drunk kids over there. It’s cute. Happy kids are good kids.”

Yeah, just keep ’em out of sight.

By jumping up a notch UMass fans saw the sort of athleticism that was only sporadic while UMass was in I-AA. Both quarterbacks dropped long passes into the arms of streaking receivers who ran the sideline on a tightrope. It was phenomenal football, and it could’ve been right here in Amherst from the get-go if not for McCutcheon’s decision to play at Gillette Stadium.

“I’d love to see Colorado or another big time team in Amherst,” said Mark Pirog of Chicopee. “That would be awesome.”

Guess what, Mark? You could have. The Buffaloes’ game drew 10,200 fans to Gillette, ruining McCutcheon’s reasoning that McGuirk couldn’t fit everyone into the building against an opponent from a power conference.

But that’s history. Live and learn. The next game at McGuirk is Nov. 12 against Ball State, an 8 p.m. kickoff on a Wednesday night, but there will be plenty of fans. Chancellor Kumble Subbaswammy can tell McCutcheon to yank the UMass flag from Foxborough and return it to its rightful place in Amherst.


Drop the puck: The UMass hockey season begins Friday when the Minutemen host Boston University at the Mullins Center, then embark on a six-game road trip to Michigan State, Northeastern, Boston College and Maine. They return to play AIC on Nov. 7 and are off again until Nov. 21 when they host Boston College, which will be the start of seven games in 16 days. Yes, it’s a weird schedule indeed.

Two players to watch on Friday will be UMass winger Frank Vatrano and BU defenseman Jack Eichel. The 5-foot-10, 215-pound Vatrano sat out last season after transferring from Boston College. A former member of the U.S. Under-18 team, Vatrano’s family owns a pizza shop in Springfield and his father Greg Vatrano plays in an over-50 league with retired NHL linesman Kevin Collins.

Eichel is a 6-foot-2, 195-pound freshman from North Chelmsford who’s projected to be the first or second overall pick in next year’s NHL draft. Need we say more? OK, he’ll be wearing No. 9, the same number as Gordie Howe, Maurice Richard and Bobby Hull, among others.

Tonight the Minutemen play an exhibition versus Dalhousie University of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Admission is free and fans can bring their skates for a few laps around the rink with the UMass players after the game. The Tigers have lost all three of their exhibition games and were 3-25 last season. The puck drops at 7 p.m.

Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for four decades in the Pioneer Valley.


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