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UMass Wants to be New England’s Best

New England occupies the majority of the upper right portion of your U.S. map, though the region’s F.B.S. footprint is significantly smaller. New England is composed of six states: Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont. The six combine to house three F.B.S. programs, with UMass now joining Boston College and Connecticut — with the Huskies, which joined the F.B.S. in 2000, a relatively recent addition in their own right. Over the years, thanks in large part to being the only show in town, B.C. has been considered New England’s de facto football power; since 2000, however, UConn has been able to steal some of the Eagles’ thunder.

Here comes UMass, and the Minutemen have set their sights on becoming the dominant football program in New England. The new mission was cited by new coach Charley Molnar early in his introductory press conference in December: “Why UMass? Because UMass has a vision to be greater than what it is today.”

“I don’t look at UMass as being Massachusetts’ football team,” said Molnar. “I look at UMass as being New England’s football team. There’s no reason why we can’t be the No. 1 [F.B.S.] team in New England.”

In this statement, Molnar is setting the bar for the future of his program. He said nothing about fighting for national championships; nothing of beating New Hampshire, the Minutemen’s former F.C.S. rival; nothing of winning the MAC East or the MAC as a whole. For Molnar, it was all about being the best program in New England. If not a goal that strikes a tone across the country, Molnar’s statement does reverberate across the region.

If that’s the program’s goal, UMass chose a good time to enter the competition. Boston College is suffering from a deep-seeded malaise; the Eagles have seen their win total drop in each of the last four years, bottoming out with a four-win finish a year ago. The program lacks direction: Frank Spaziani is the favorite son of the administration, but he has painfully mishandled the program since inheriting a strong foundation in 2009.

B.C. hasn’t been this devoid of hope entering a season since the mid-1990s — before Tom O’Brien rebuilt the program, the Eagles spent three years scuffling under Dan Henning. That situation has one major parallel with the Eagles’ current issues: Henning replaced Tom Coughlin, theoretically taking control of a team on the rise, but like Spaziani, he failed to match his predecessor’s success.

As in 1997, when the university replaced Henning with O’Brien, the Eagles might need to make a drastic change in order to regain its footing in the A.C.C. race. Someone similar to O’Brien, who altered the entire culture of the program, would constitute a drastic change — especially after Spaziani, who seems befuddled by the program’s steep decline over the last 36 months.

UConn is an enigma; the Huskies wholeheartedly support both the men’s and women’s basketball teams, but the same level of dedication is lacking when it comes to the football program. While the Huskies have experienced some success in the past — that Big East title two years ago, for example — the team seems some distance away from regaining its perch atop the conference.

Not that UMass is poised to make an immediate splash. While the Minutemen are the most talented of the four new F.B.S. additions, this team will encounter more than one roadblock during its transition: a new coach, new systems on each side of the ball, a dearth of experienced offensive skill players and, perhaps most of all, the most difficult non-conference schedule in the country.

Molnar knows this. And while he’s placing UMass on the same plane as UConn and B.C., his is a multiple-year plan — not a hit-the-ground-running plan, but one that will unfold over the next two years, five years, decade. “This is new,” he admitted in January. But the goal exists: UMass wants to be the best program in New England.

It’s a selling point for Molnar to use on the administration, the student body, alumni and prospective recruits. “I’m going to ask people to buy in. Hundreds of people to buy in. Thousands of people to buy in. Tens of thousands of people to buy in. We’re going public. We’re a stock. Buy in today.”

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  1. Robert says:

    Best BCS team in New England = tallest midget in the circus.

  2. epark88 says:

    As a UConn fan I say: bring it on, UMass! If the attitude of their coach is also shared by their athletic department and school leadership, then the Minutemen will have plenty of success at the FBS level.

    The deal with being ‘New England’s Team’ is that contrary to popular belief, there are scores of high school athletes with legit BCS talent in this region; it’s just that the best ones are currently playing basketball or baseball. A hot college football rivalry between UMass/UConn, UMass/BC or UConn/BC would help change the culture of sports around here so that more of those kids will choose football over hoops, with the best team in the area getting the majority of these recruits to sign with their school.

    Coach Molnar seems to get this. The folks at Chestnut Hill? Not so much.

    See, BC has it all backwards: they want to be ‘New England’s Team’ by default, through eliminating the competition. But it doesn’t work that way – they’ll have to regularly face and beat their competition on the field in order to truly earn that claim. Because of BC leadership’s flawed (and frankly, petty) strategy, their athletic department – a pretty strong one as recently as 2006-07 – is rapidly withering away.

    If UMass is willing to help get this region fired up about college football, then I hope UConn joins in with them. Iron sharpens iron; both programs and fanbases will grow simultaneously – plus, there’s big money to be made. If BC wants to join in and make it a triumverate, then great.

    And if BC wants to remain a midget? Well, that’s fine with us UConn folks too…

  3. eric says:

    When UMass plays its home games at Gilette Stadium, it will be third-closest FBS school to that location. That’s right, both BC and UConn are closer to Gilette than the Amherst roadtrippers. They should be a competitive MAC program, but they’re a large step below UConn or BC. BC’s found the gutter in the past year or two, but they still have academics, hockey and Boston. UConn is a far superior school with high-level facilities and a stadium that they can sell out. There will be more blue than red at the first UConn-UMass game at Gilette.

  4. Udaddy says:

    There are 120,000 UMass Alumni within a 30 minute drive to Gillette stadium. While the Amherst Campus is far, the decision to play at Gillette is strategically important to garner support from the most important portion of any fan-base: Alumni ranks with deep pockets and season ticket discretion.

  5. As a Clemson fan who travels to BC occasionally because its a good trip for something other than football, I think it is time for BC to find a new coach… things are stale and stagnant now that Tom O’Brien had those guys clicking and gave the Tigers some of my most memorable games both in Death Valley and in Boston. Now it has turned into a non-offensive battle with BC’s defense not even offering much to get excited about other than Kuechly. Time for Coach Spaz to hit the road and a new face to be brought in… Heck, maybe even O’Brien could be talked into coming back since his time with the Pack has been less than successful.

  6. Dave says:

    as a BC fan, couldn’t agree with epark88 more. Let’s get some non-conference games scheduled!

  7. wagers says:

    Wow….a clemson fan talking football smack?? Are you guys still alive after getting waxed in your bowl game?

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