AMHERST – In 2008, Quinton Sales arrived in Amherst partly because of a rumor.
The center, recruited by former coach Don Brown, thought he’d play regularly if he landed at UMass. But what also intrigued Sales was a whisper.
“They told me back then that they’d be moving to [Division] 1-A,” Sales said. “Every year, it’s like, ‘Whatever, whatever.’ Then it finally happened.”
Four years and two head coaches later, Sales is in the middle of it: the transition from the Football Championship Subdivision to the Football Bowl Subdivision. For a senior who heard hints of the move throughout his college career, it’s like the wolf the boy cried about has arrived in Amherst.
The wolf is hungry.
FBS football can be as punishing as it is glamorous. Five games into coach Charley Molnar’s first season, the Minutemen are 0-5. They are 0-2 in the Mid-Atlantic Conference after switching from the Colonial Athletic Association, their home since 2007.
On Saturday, they will play at Western Michigan (2-3, 0-1) in the Broncos’ homecoming game. UMass has never started a season 0-6.
“I thought we would have wins under our belt,” Molnar said after practice Tuesday at McGuirk Stadium. “I can’t tell you how many I thought we’d have. But yes, I thought we’d have a couple wins. That’s disappointing. But also, if you saw where we were at, and where we’re at today, we’ve made great strides.”
Within the 0-5 start were three pigs that no lipstick could cover: a 37-0 season-opening loss at Connecticut, a 45-6 setback to Indiana, and a 63-13 defeat at Michigan.
But there’s been life the last two weeks.
On Sept. 22, UMass lost at Miami (Ohio), 27-16. Last Saturday at Gillette Stadium, against undefeated Ohio, the Minutemen dropped a 37-34 decision. Redshirt freshman quarterback Mike Wegzyn completed 27 of 51 passes for 373 yards and four touchdowns. Senior wide receiver Deion Walker recorded 11 catches for 162 yards and one touchdown.
The Minutemen could have considered their most recent loss a moral victory. Ohio didn’t qualify for the AP’s latest top 25 poll, but received 30 votes.
To Molnar, the only wins are the ones that count.
“If they’re getting praise for their performance, I don’t know who could possibly be doing it,” Molnar said of his players. “It certainly is not coming from our building.”
UMass expected such challenges since April 20, 2011. That day at Gillette, the university announced its transition to FBS and the MAC. Less than eight months later, UMass hired Molnar, formerly the offensive coordinator at Notre Dame, to replace Kevin Morris.
Just like that, competitive FCS players —UMass was 6-5-0 in 2010 and 5-6 in 2011 — were flung into the FBS ring. It hasn’t been easy for veterans.
“To have a great experience, it means you eventually have to win football games,” Molnar said. “It doesn’t matter how fun practice is. They’re all going to work very diligently to get their degrees and have a great career once they graduate from the University of Massachusetts. But part of the job is to win football games. That’s what they signed on up for. They understand, in this transition, that’s it not easy. But especially for those guys that are coming back, they see the light right around the corner. They know we’re going to be really close.”
For Molnar, the challenges are many. To create the culture Molnar desires, the Minutemen must win — but they must also recognize the process will take time.
It’s a push-pull situation similar to UMass’s five-year Gillette Stadium agreement. The Minutemen will play all their home games in Foxborough this season and next. In the three following years, UMass will play at least four games annually at Gillette.
Tajae Sharpe, a freshman wide receiver from Piscataway, N.J., chose UMass over Kent State, Towson, and Temple partly because of the appeal of playing in an NFL stadium. Gillette has become part of Molnar’s pitch.
But players and fans from the Amherst campus must travel about 100 miles to Foxborough. The two-hour trip is as long as some of the flights the team takes out of Hartford’s Bradley International Airport.
Attendance last Saturday was 8,321. Capacity for Patriots games is 68,756.
For seniors such as Sales, time is running out. Saturday’s game marks the season’s halfway point. (The Minutemen are not eligible for the MAC championship or bowl games until 2013.)
“It’s hard your senior year,” Sales said. “It’s probably my last year playing football, not having won a game yet. I go into every game expecting to win, regardless of the team or wherever we line up.
“We’re staying optimistic. We’re keeping our spirits high. But I can’t deny it’s a little disappointing when you look at our record on paper. You’re going to work every day and you haven’t won yet. But I’m expecting to win every week. This week, I’m expecting the same thing.”
Western Michigan will be without starting quarterback Alex Carder for the second straight game after he had surgery to the middle finger of his right (throwing) hand. Backup Tyler Van Tubbergen will start.
On the other side, UMass will face a 3-4 defense for the first time this season. Wegzyn will look to Walker, Alan Williams (seven catches, 127 yards, three TDs against Ohio), and Rob Blanchflower (five catches, 80 yards against Ohio).
Molnar is known as an offensive specialist. Previous stops included Cincinnati, Central Michigan, Western Michigan, and Eastern Michigan. But at UMass, Molnar is as much salesman as spread-formation ace. The 51-year-old Molnar, a running enthusiast, exudes the energy of an endurance athlete. Molnar is pitching an idea to the university, community, and state – one of a competitive football team begging for support.
“You have to sell a vision,” Molnar said. “You have to have a clear vision of where the program’s going to be. You have to be able to go out and articulate that vision to the masses. Because right now, they don’t know what we’re going to be like. We do. If they could clearly see the picture, I think we would have more buy in from the community and from the state of Massachusetts.”
The words that count the most, however, are the ones Molnar issues to his players. In several years, perhaps current freshmen such as Sharpe will be competing for a MAC title. By then, graduates like Sales will return to Amherst to enjoy the product he helped construct.
“They’re going to always remember that they were the guys that were 1-AA. Then one day, they got a chance to be 1-A,” Molnar said. “They got a chance to live their dream. They never thought they would. They’re the guys who had to dress in the old building as they watched the new building going up.”
Winless doesn’t mean hopeless.