AMHERST — A group of former University of Massachusetts football players is circulating a petition calling for the current coaching staff, and specifically head coach Charley Molnar, to “stop the improper treatment of the current players, improve the quality of the program.”
The petition, which was originally posted on the UMass Football Alum private Facebook group, includes a YouTube link showing highlights from the program’s 2012 winter conditioning workouts.
The video, which was produced by the UMass video staff, received little attention when it was first posted on YouTube last year. It shows UMass football players outdoors squaring off against one another in wrestling and boxing competitions.
Players, who are wearing practice jerseys and sweatpants, are shown being slammed onto the field turf at McGuirk Stadium, while other players and coaches cheer them on. The practice was legal by NCAA standards when it occurred, but NCAA has since banned the use what it called “combatives.”
“We used a number of different training methods to measure and hopefully develop mental toughness and accountability with our guys. It’s hard for a guy to go out there and wrestle or box another man if he has self-doubt,” Molnar said.
“We tried to get these guys to feel that fear, but go out there and do it anyway,” he added. “We never had one guy not go out and box or wrestle. Some of them went out with a lot of trepidation, but by the end of the cycle were thoroughly enjoying the activity. We did all these activities with safety in mind. I’m a fanatic about player safety. I thought it aided in team-building. Guys faced the fear and fought through it. That was the objective.”
Former quarterback Brandon Hill, who missed time in 2011 due to a shoulder injury, hoped to compete for the job in 2012. He said he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury during one of the wrestling matches.
Molnar “had me wrestling a linebacker in the snow,” Hill said. “He put me down and I dislocated my shoulder and completely tore my labrum in half. That kind of bummed me out. I had to go get surgery after that.”
Hill, who is now the starting quarterback at Monmouth, a Football Championship Subdivision school in his home state of New Jersey, said the bouts were optional.
“I think it was to see who was tougher and to get us going and pump us up a little bit,” Hill said. “You’re not going to say no. Kids wanted to do it. The nature of football is kind of like wrestling and kind of like boxing. It’s not like it was forced upon us.
“For a quarterback, I don’t think I should have been doing it, but I’m not going to say no to something the head coach wants you to do, especially with a new coach,” he added. “You want to try to impress him and you’re going to do anything you can to play.”
While many programs limit the frequency of hitting drills as the season progresses, Hill said the Minutemen continued full-contact practices throughout the season, including high contact Oklahoma drills , which many teams have stopped using because of their injury risks.
“We did Oklahoma drills every day,” Hill said. “You hit every day and it takes a toll on your body.”
Two former players who were on the 2012 team spoke on the condition or anonymity and raised similar concerns.
“From the first day we could be in full pads last year, we were in full pads every day except for Friday walkthroughs,” one player said. “It was horrible. Everyone from starters to walk-ons would walk out to practice miserable. Players talked about how they didn’t like football anymore. We had a decent amount of guys quit or transfer.”
Another said players were afraid to speak out to the coaches or the administration.
“You can’t afford to get on a coach’s bad side because of all the power they have. They can bench you and there’s no proof of why they’re benching you,” he said. “A lot of guys wouldn’t know who to report things to.”
The petition, which had 123 signatures as of 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, was originally intended to be kept confidential, but it was circulated on Facebook and elsewhere on the Internet, and has since become public. While not all the signatures are visible, many who signed explained their concerns in the comment section. In addition to their objections to what they saw in the video, the group felt their contributions to the program’s rise were being overlooked.
Included in the petition is the following passage referring to the UMass coaching staff:
“They don’t talk about where the program came from and the values, work ethic, and foundation on how the program was built. How can you erase 22 Conference Titles (a league record), 8 NCAA Berths, 1 NCAA National Championship Finalist in 2006, and 1 NCAA National Championship Title in 1998? Doesn’t matter if it was D1, D1AA, DII, FCS/FBS, winning is winning at any level.”
While many alumni declined to speak publicly, Sean Higgins, an All-American tight end in 1999, voiced his concerns.
“It’s unfortunate what’s going on and how guys are being treated. It’s such an embarrassment to the university,” said Higgins, who added that he has not met Molnar and does not want to. “I’ve heard how he’s treated former players and coaches. Since he’s been on campus, he’s turned away alumni with his attitude. No one wants to back a guy like that. If he didn’t come off so much like an arrogant politician, maybe we’d support him more. He doesn’t care. The video was just icing on the cake.”
Alumni from multiple eras have commented on the petition:
“So many of us worked so hard to get the program to this point and there is No way I can believe I am associated with the foolishness I saw on that video,” wrote former standout defensive back Breon Parker (class of 1994). “That has nothing to do with football. Really obvious why we can’t play tough on the weekends. The kids are misguided. Time for change!”
Offensive lineman Chris Hopkins (class of 2008) was similarly upset.
“Far from any experience at UMass and is totally disgusting to see it coming from a place so rich in tradition,” he wrote. “What type of staff has no appreciation for its history and upbringing! If it was not for the past men who have paved the way. It’s sad and infuriating.”
Molnar defended his approach on including the alumni in his program.
“If somebody chose to take my words and misconstrue them or take them out of context, what can I do? I have thick skin. I can’t please everybody. I want everybody under our tent of our football family. I’ve been very, very inclusive of all: From past players that were stars, to past players that were walk-ons that never saw the field; from guys who have donated seven figures, to guys that have never bought a season ticket or donated a dollar,” Molnar said.
“When this storm is over I’m going to double my efforts. I have spent a tremendous amount of time reaching out to alumni, not because I have to, but because I want to,” he added. “We need our alumni support for our football program to become not a championship team, but a championship program, a program. They’ve had championship programs here. They won back-to-back conference championships. I want to bring those days back. I’ve engaged the alumni on many different levels. Many have heard the call and only a few have answered it. That’s not going to stop me from reaching out to our alumni to become part of the UMass football family.”
Molnar bristled at any alumni allegation of player mistreatment.
“We have relatively few alumni that ever come back to watch practice or watch winter workouts. No matter how hard I’ve tried, we don’t have a great alumni connection. It wasn’t there when I took over and no matter how hard I’ve worked, it still is not there. How could anyone know what goes on inside our program?” Molnar said. “The welfare and positive experience of being a student athlete at UMass is my No. 1 priority with these guys. My goal is to make each of these young men, better husbands, better fathers, better community leaders. I work on that with our guys each and every day. I’m driven that our guys succeed in the classroom as well as on the football field.”
UMass athletic director John McCutcheon said he respects the alumni’s opinion, but stands behind his coach.
“You always have to be aware of concerns from all of our different constituencies. Our players, our faculty, ours fans or whatever. It’s never a situation where you can turn a deaf ear to things,” McCutcheon said. “When things come up and there are concerns, we’re going to try to be as open and transparent as we can. We’re going to listen to concerns and if we can do some things better, we’re going to do it. If there are things we can change to make things better, we’ll consider that as well. I think there are some assumptions being made that maybe aren’t based in fact. We talk with the students athletes a lot. We’ve done interviews with the student athletes and given them the opportunity to bring up concerns, and not in environments where they should be inhibited from being forthright with us.”
Since the start of the 2012 season, 22 players who had eligibility remaining have left the program. It’s unclear exactly how many players quit, transferred or were dismissed.
“Have we had some players transfer out? Yeah. Sure. I think that happens when you have a transition like this,” McCutcheon said. “They do it for a number of different reasons. Most of them are amicable. Some of them aren’t happy with their experience, but none of them have brought out things that were overly concerned with in terms of the treatment of the student athletes. Even in regards to the video that has been out there for over a year. Those practices were conducted out in the open. Coaches checked with our compliance staff. We had other administrative staff present at all those sessions. The players never voiced an objection to it. They were done as ways to motivate and do some things in a little different way. You’re not allowed to do football activities, but they’re done as team-building activities as a way to build camaraderie and spirit. Are they out of the box? Yeah, but there were quite a few institutions doing those type of activities at that time.”
Molnar, who said he hadn’t read the petition, is pushing forward.
“If I didn’t offend somebody from the day I’ve been hired to today, that means I haven’t made hard choices,” Molnar said. “Every choice I make, I never look back. Whatever personnel — a player, a staff member or people associated with the program in support organization. I’m sure I’ve ruffled feathers, but I have a thick skin. I’ve never lost sight of where we’re going. I’m very confident that this is another storm we have to weather. It’s unfortunate that it’s been put in front of us, but that doesn’t deter me from the ultimate goal to turn this into a championship level football program as soon as I can, the right way.”