AMHERST — UMass is actively seeking a conference for its football program for when its Mid-American Conference affiliation ends after the 2015 season. But athletic director John McCutcheon said the school’s athletic department is beginning to prepare for the possibility that the Minutemen could play, at least temporarily, as an independent.
In March, the MAC exercised a provision in its agreement with UMass to force the Minutemen to either become a full member in all sports or leave the conference after the 2015 season. Citing an aversion to moving the men’s basketball team out of the Atlantic 10, which is thriving, to the MAC, which historically is not a strong basketball league, McCutcheon and the UMass administration decided to end its MAC ties.
When the announcement was made, McCutcheon expressed confidence that UMass would find a new football league in time, but over two months later, he said the school is preparing contingencies.
“There will come a point fairly soon where we feel like if we don’t have a conference we have to build an independent schedule for a couple of years and we’ll have to get on top of doing that,” McCutcheon said. “It’s an option. It’s not something you want to do indefinitely, but it may be a necessity just in terms of timing to make sure we don’t get caught short. ... I know people want answers and guarantees, but you just can’t give them all the time. It may be necessary for us to get an independent schedule for a few years and show that growth in the program to open some doors. The conference shift has never ended. It never will end. Somewhere an opportunity will emerge for us. It’s just where and when and that I feel confident about.”
McCutcheon said, while the Minutemen are still in the early stages of building their program, showing progress this season would go a long way toward making them attractive to other conferences. UMass was 2-22 under former coach Charley Molnar, who was fired in December. McCutcheon was confident that new coach Mark Whipple would help make a difference.
“Any progress we could show would certainly be a help. Coming off the two years we had, Mark is not a magician. He can’t take us from there to where he would be in his third year in one year. Anything we can do to show improvement in competitive levels and those kind of things would help us,” McCutcheon said. “I think all of (the prospective conferences) look at us as an institution and see potential benefits. There comes a point where potential has to turn into reality and anything we can do to show that happening sooner as opposed to later works to our advantage. I think Mark will close that gap as fast as anybody could.”
McCutcheon said UMass has approached potential conferences in a variety of ways.
“It can happen a number of different ways— at my level, a the president’s level, at the chancellor’s level, with consultants,” McCutcheon said. “You explore all different kids of ways. We have many and as varied conversations from as many different access points as we can find to get a feel for where the conference is and whether they’d be receptive. Timing is an issue and it can be a challenge at times, but we are actively having conversations in every way we think is feasible.”
The consultant McCutcheon is referring to is Bill Carr, of Carr Sports Associates, whom UMass hired to conduct an evaluation of the school’s conference affiliations, past and present.
If UMass is forced to exist as an independent, it will face some challenges. With Navy joining the American Athletic Conference, there will be only three Bowl Subdivision independents — Army, Brigham Young and Notre Dame. Each school has national appeal that has earned them television contracts (Army with CBSSports Network, BYU with ESPN and Notre Dame with NBC) and bowl affiliations, which makes their independent status lucrative. UMass wouldn’t enjoy those advantages. Even with a good record, to get a bowl invite UMass would need other conferences to not produce enough bowl-eligible teams.
Television coverage could be hard to come by, and even if the Minutemen could get a contract, it’s unlikely to be lucrative. On top of that, conference members rely on their leagues for revenue. If one team reaches a bowl game, each team in the league receives a share of bowl revenue. That wouldn’t be the case as an independent.
Scheduling would be difficult as well. Most teams play only conference games after mid-October. Finding foes in November can be challenging.
“We’re very attractive (as an opponent) to a number of schools. Conference play does come into the equation,” McCutcheon said. “I can’t tell you what it would look like exactly, but I think we’ll have the opportunity to put it together. Will there be an FCS opponent on there? There might be. We’ll look at it as creatively as we can.”
McCutcheon said UMass remains committed to FBS football over the long haul.
“I still think this is the right thing for us to do. It’s where we should be. There are no guarantees in this process. In the long term, once we get through some of this, five-10 years down the road I think people will say it was a good thing we made this move.”