Keeping Score: UMass football once again in the crossfire
Published: 12-01-2023 5:37 PM
Modified: 12-01-2023 5:37 PM
Over 12,000 fans turned out for last weekend’s season finale between UMass and UConn at McGuirk Alumni Stadium. The kickoff was at noon, and spirits were high for a win that would be a beacon of hope for next season.
Alas, fans in their tri-cornered hats barely had time to sit down before quarterback Taisun Phommachanh telegraphed a sideline pass that UConn’s Mumu Bin-Wahad intercepted and returned 45 yards for his first collegiate touchdown. The pick-six set the tone and UConn dominated in time of possession, yards from scrimmage and points scored, 31-18.
UMass, it seems, is college football’s version of the New York Jets. Hopes are always high at season’s start and dashed by Halloween. It was the program’s 81st loss in 100 games during athletic director Ryan Bamford’s tenure.
This year’s Minutemen finished 3-9 and as per the Sagarin ratings are on a par with FCS teams like Bryant and Penn. CBS Sports ranks UMass ahead of only UL-Monroe, Nevada, Akron and Kent State in the FBS.
Meanwhile the UMass basketball team is 40-78 in the A-10 since Bamford was hired in 2015. According to the state’s payroll database, he made $634,807 in fiscal year 2022 and UMass needs someone better.
“Ryan was hired via a search committee and was one of three finalists and then one dropped out,” said a reliable source. “The group was not all that impressive.”
Bamford’s business model is structured around losing because the gate receipts and student fees don’t cut it. UMass averaged 10,598 fans a game this season, ahead of only Kent State (9,511), Northern Illinois (9,456), Sam Houston (8,298) and Akron (7,237), according to d1ticker.com.
“He gets no state support,” said the aforementioned source. “I don’t know how they can increase the budget but it will take serious money to make significant improvements.”
Consequently, Bamford’s only way to dig out of the ditch is to sacrifice his team at the altar of FBS behemoths looking for a tuneup. Recently he collected $5.25 million for playing Penn State, Auburn and Texas A&M and losing by a combined score of 142-17.
Surely Bamford would want to offer a counterpoint, but transparency isn’t in his playbook. I called his office and spoke to his secretary who said he was in a meeting. “What do you want to ask him?” she asked.
“How he expects to win, or at least be competitive the next two seasons against teams like Missouri, Iowa, Georgia and Mississippi State.”
And Toledo, Northern Illinois, Temple and Troy for that matter, because every opponent thinks it can beat UMass and it usually does.
She called back and said I had to speak to Dan Colleran. “He’s the associate A.D. in charge of all communications. Everything goes through him. I have his telephone number and email.”
“But I want to talk to Ryan,” I said.
“Talk to Dan and he will set up the meeting,” she said.
Colleran’s $94,000-a-year job description is to oversee communications, public relations and broadcasting efforts, but here he’s simply being a flak running interference for his boss. It was typical UMass.
No thanks, I said.
“I cannot for the life of me understand why Liberty can do so much better than we do,” said my source.
Located in Lynchburg, Va., the Liberty football team is 12-0 and 24th in the College Football Playoff rankings. If the Flames beat New Mexico State in the Conference USA championship Friday night, they’d likely play in the Peach Bowl.
Liberty’s ascent from fledgling program to national contender in six years was orchestrated by athletic director Ian McCaw.
Born and raised near Toronto, McCaw studied sport management at UMass and worked for the Hartford Whalers until Northeastern hired him to be its athletic director. In 2002, UMass hired him to replace outgoing AD Bob Marcum, and a year later Baylor came calling. During his tenure in Waco, the Bears won 56 Big 12 championships, two women’s national basketball titles and a men’s national tennis title.
McCaw’s secretary told me that McCaw was in a meeting but that she would relay my interview request. A few hours later she called and said, “Ian would love to speak to you.”
“How’d you do it?” I asked him.
His answer reminded me of a humorous business analogy about eggs and bacon. At breakfast the chicken is involved, but the pig is committed. “A strong commitment to excellence in football,” said McCaw. “We have elite facilities, our stadium is new, our program is very well resourced — the football budget is $20 million — and our (first-year) coach Jamey Chadwell had three very successful years at Coastal Carolina and inherited a good team.”
Liberty’s previous coach, Hugh Freeze, helped get the Flames into Conference USA and was subsequently lured to Auburn by a six year, $39 million deal.
When Liberty played as an independent McCaw needed to schedule games against Power 5 teams, but he wasn’t financially strapped like Bamford. The Flame played to 75 percent capacity in 25,000-seat Williams Stadium, and McCaw booked middling teams like Arkansas, Syracuse and Virginia Tech. The payouts weren’t as lucrative, nor was the embarrassment.
Liberty is 3-10 against Power 5 schools; UMass is 0-15.
Asked if moving to the FBS was ever discussed at UMass, McCaw answered, “Yes, we had that discussion, Do we make a move? Mark Whipple was a proponent, but at that time I didn’t see that we had the infrastructure or resources to do it well.”
Former AD John McCutcheon thought otherwise and Bamford inherited the mess he created. McCutcheon laid the groundwork for the failure to launch by leaving McGuirk for Gillette Stadium, and deep-sixing the Mid American Conference three years after the team was invited into the league.
“As the amateur AD emeritus, the best pathway for UMass is to secure a conference affiliation,” said McCaw.
Easier said than done, and until it happens UMass will not reach six wins and be bowl eligible, will not draw big crowds and make big headlines. It will merely be adrift in a sea of hungry sharks looking for easy prey.Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for decades in the Pioneer Valley. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org