JERREY ROBERTS The UMass Performance Center at McGuirk Stadium Wednesday.
AMHERST — UMass didn’t need to build a state-of-the-art structure to upgrade its football facility. There was almost nowhere to go but up.
Most backyard tree forts built on a whim would have represented an upgrade over the locker room building at the south end of McGuirk Stadium.
The nameless decaying bunker featured stained ceiling tiles, old rugs, cramped air-conditioningless quarters, weird damp smells and the casual fear of asbestos. Temporary trailers were added for meetings. The whole thing was decades past its prime and of lower quality than many high school stadiums in Texas.
So as soon as shovel hit dirt to begin construction on the building that opened last month, UMass was headed for an upgrade. But the Performance Center, which is its working name until somebody donates enough money to name the complex after a corporation or big donor, isn’t just good compared to its predecessor.
It is, in fact, a first-class building with a modern weight room, locker room, film room, coaches offices, players lounge and sports medicine facilities. It’s the type of facility that helps sway prospective recruits to sign and makes current players better, stronger and healthier. There’s still a trophy case and other accoutrements to be finalized that will further enhance it aesthetically. UMass is unquestionably a better program with this building than it was without it.
But at the school’s annual football media day Wednesday, Minuteman coach Mark Whipple reiterated his goal to make the program one that again contends for championships and bowl appearances. If UMass shares his vision, the new building needs to be a step toward something not the final destination. It might be better than anything the school has ever had for football, but the fact is, most schools in the Bowl Subdivision already had something comparable and more. For the Performance Center and the press box, which is still being completed, to really be worth the combined $34.5 million invested in them, more steps have to follow.
The improvements will help the team, and a better product certainly makes for a better fan experience, but beyond that amenities for spectators are still woefully scarce. UMass needed to upgrade to return games to campus — this year it’s playing a split home schedule with three games each at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough and McGuirk — but for the casual fan, the experience at the renovated McGuirk won’t be much different than the old McGuirk.
The parking lot inside the stadium still isn’t paved. The bathrooms are too old and there aren’t enough of them. Most of the seats are still old bleachers screwed into old concrete. Only a small percentage have chair backs. There are no suites, luxury boxes or club seats which are key moneymakers for other programs.
Most schools also have indoor practice facilities. UConn, Boston College, Temple, and even many lower-tier MAC schools like Eastern Michigan have bubbles to practice in during inclement weather.
With its Mid-American Conference deal expiring after 2015, UMass needs a new conference. Any conference even considering adding the Minutemen is going to want to see commitment. It will want a school that’s invested in making football an asset for the university and by extension that conference. Showing progress on the field will help, and certainly looks good in the short term, but showing a willingness to keep up with resources and facilities represents a long-term commitment that any conference is going to require. It’s not good enough just to match up with one of the worst teams in any given league either. Conferences want teams that will contend, not ones who’ll feed off the bottom.
UMass has long coveted an invite to the American Athletic Conference, and a chance to play league games with old rivals Connecticut and Temple. It’s not going to happen unless that league believes UMass is serious about football.
The Performance Center is a great first step. But there needs to be a stage two.