Matt Vautour: UMass makes the right call snubbing the MAC

Last modified: Saturday, May 03, 2014
Faced with the choice between moving all its sports into the Mid-American Conference or football out of it, the University of Massachusetts unquestionably made the right call. No MAC is better than all MAC.

Putting the entire athletic department in the MAC would have been a disaster. Football might someday be a driving force at UMass, but right now, men’s basketball is the most important part of the athletic department. MAC basketball is bad. There’s been some scattered success, but it’s a one-bid league for the NCAA tournament.

For a year or two, UMass might have been the alpha dog, but eventually, the quality of recruit the Minutemen attracted would have dropped off significantly and any ground gained this year would be lost as UMass faded from relevance.

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It would have been more damaging to the school’s smaller sports that don’t produce revenue. Women’s lacrosse, which has become the school’s most consistent team in terms of success, would need a new conference as the MAC doesn’t offer it. How long could UMass have continued to sponsor baseball, tennis, swimming and track and field if those teams needed to fly for every conference road game? Eliminating one, some or all of those teams would have seemed sadly inevitable as their budgets would need to be increased considerably.

Nobody is mourning leaving the MAC. In the decades UMass fans dreamed of I-A/FBS football, the Miami they wanted to play was in Florida not Ohio. Administrators were always quietly hoping the MAC would be a stepping stone toward something better. Loosely, the plan was to become competitive then good in the MAC to prove to better leagues that the Minutemen would make a good addition. If it took five or even 10 years, no harm done.

But now with no MAC, UMass is working without a net. The Minutemen haven’t been good in their first two years in the MAC. The school can blame Charley Molnar for its troubles, but 2-22 speaks for itself. UMass needs Mark Whipple to produce some results in a hurry if the next two years are an audition for future leagues.

Fan support wouldn’t hurt either. In fact, UMass’ ticket sales brochure should read “Show up, it will help impress the AAC.”

UMass needs a new home. Independence is not an option. Notre Dame has always been a national brand and BYU is trying to leverage its Mormon appeal into a coast-to-coast fan base. Army has obvious patriotic appeal. All three have bowl affiliations. UMass has none of those and needs to play in a league.

Cross the big five conferences off any pie-in-the-sky wish list. UMass doesn’t have enough to offer any of those leagues. While geography doesn’t matter much in college athletics any more, the Mountain West, a league that includes Hawaii, seems pretty unrealistic. Without the MAC, the Minutemen are looking at the American Athletic Conference, Conference USA or the Sun Belt.

Conference USA and the Sun Belt would be acceptable if UMass is a football-only member. Both are comparable to the MAC in that they’d feature a lot of flights to play teams most people know very little about. The Sun Belt could rekindle rivalries with Georgia Southern and Appalachian State, which UMass played in the 1998 and 2006 I-AA/FCS finals, respectively. But beyond that, playing Arkansas State or Rice doesn’t hold any more or less appeal than playing Akron or Western Michigan. Playing just football in either C-USA or the Sun Belt beats full membership in the MAC, but UMass would still look at it as a stepping stone. Full membership in either isn’t much better than the MAC.

The best answer would be the American Athletic Conference either for all sports or football only. While there would be more travel than in the Atlantic 10, a better television contract would help counteract some of the additional costs. Since the old Big East broke up, this has been the Minutemen’s first choice. Rekindled rivalries with Temple and Connecticut would spark some added interest in the program.

The X factor is what does UMass athletic director John McCutcheon already know. UMass commissioned Carr Sports Associates to examine the school’s current conference affiliations and look into any future possibilities. Does he already know or at least believe that there’s a conference ready and willing to add UMass?

UMass made the right call turning down the MAC, but it raised the stakes. This right call better be followed by a lot more right calls for the school to be successful down the road.

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage