Massachusetts wide receiver Shaquille Harris (86) picks up long yardage on a punt return as he is pursued by Akron offensive linesman Stephen Ericksen (57) during the first half of their NCAA college football game in Foxborough, Mass., Saturday, Nov. 16, 2013. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)
AMHERST — The marriage between the University of Massachusetts and the Mid-American Conference proved to be a short one.
UMass and the MAC jointly announced Wednesday that the Minutemen will be leaving the conference after the 2015 season. There was no announcement of a future conference affiliation.
UMass athletic director John McCutcheon said the school is not considering a move out of Bowl Subdivision Football.
“We’re committed to FBS. Our 100 percent focus is working out a way that best supports the football program at the FBS level and the department as a whole,” McCutcheon said. “We’re going to do everything in our power to position ourselves as effectively as we can toward that end.”
The MAC Presidents Council elected to exercise a clause in the membership agreement that forced UMass to either leave the league after two seasons or become a full member in all sports. UMass, which joined the MAC in 2012, chose to leave rather than compromise the rest of its athletic department. Leaving the Atlantic 10, where UMass plays all of its sports except ice hockey and men’s lacrosse, would have put the school’s men’s basketball program in a much less competitive conference, and required the school’s other sports to drastically increase their travel budgets.
“(Basketball) was definitely a consideration. It’s the big picture. When we looked at it financially, competitively, student-athlete welfare-wise, it just didn’t work,” McCutcheon said. “With the geographic footprint of their conference (Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Western New York) and you weigh that into all sports, any competition we would have had within that conference would have required our teams to get on an airplane. That just wasn’t going to work.”
UMass commissioned Carr Sports Associates to study the school’s current conference affiliations as well as the potential for future ones. The study was partially done with this possibility in mind.
“We knew this was a possibility. It’s something we had been talking about and the MAC presidents’ group and athletic directors had been discussing as well,” McCutcheon said. “We had hoped that perhaps there would have been a longer transition period, but this is the situation. We’ll deal with it and we’ll move forward.”
New coach Mark Whipple knew this could happen.
“I was aware of this possibility when I accepted the position of head coach, and I believe this move is in the university’s best interest,” Whipple said in a statement issued by UMass. “My focus is on building a program that we all can be proud of and that provides a great experience for our student athletes.”
Whipple tweeted support for the move:
“Moving to another conference for FBS football is a good thing for your #Minutemen #UMassNation”
UMass spokesman Ed Blaguszewski, who handles interview requests for Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy, said Subbaswamy declined to comment, deferring to McCutcheon.
As part of UMass’ affiliation agreement with the MAC, the men’s and women’s basketball programs were each required to play four games per season (two at home, two on the road) against a rotating group of MAC opponents. The men’s program will end the arrangement immediately, opening four games on the Minutemen’s schedule. The women’s team will play MAC teams for one more season.
The school now begins the process of finding another conference. McCutcheon felt confident there would be a league or leagues interested in adding UMass.
“I think there are possibilities for us. That’s not just coming from the Carr report, but from conversations I’ve had with other conference representatives and other institution representatives who are members of other conferences,” McCutcheon said. “We don’t control all the moving parts and it would be premature for me to speculate about specific conferences, but we definitely have some things to pursue. That’s going to be our focus. Conference affiliation is very important. There’s no two ways about that. When and where and how we’re able to work that out has yet to be seen. We will aggressively pursue an option that best supports football and our department.
McCutcheon was under the impression that the MAC presidents were hoping UMass would become a full member.
“My take is that they genuinely wanted us to consider full membership, that they would have been very pleased if that was the direction we wanted to take,” McCutcheon said. “But if that was not a suitable fit for us they preferred not to have affiliate members.”
MAC Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher was noncommittal.
“We were prepared for either possibility without prejudging what would occur,” Steinbrecher said.
If UMass stays in the MAC for the 2014 and 2015 seasons, the school will not be required to pay an exit fee. If the school had an opportunity to join a new conference sooner, McCutcheon said alternatives could be explored.
“If a situation like that developed we would have a collaborative conversation with the MAC to see what’s in everybody’s best interest,” he said.
Steinbrecher said this wasn’t the plan when UMass joined.
“This group feels very secure in our membership. There isn’t a great fear of people moving,” said Steinbrecher, who said the school considered adding a 14th football program, but chose not to go in that direction. “I think they felt if somebody wants to be a part of us, lets have everybody that’s in this group be all in. ... If we want to add members we want them to be full members.”