UMass still deciding on best move

MAC is a good option, but is there a better one?

By Mark Blaudschun
Globe Staff / December 2, 2010

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John McCutcheon can notice trends as well as anyone. The University of Massachusetts athletic director sees the Football Championship Subdivision base changing as schools such as Hofstra and Northeastern drop the sport and Rhode Island switches conferences. He sees the next wave of Football Bowl Subdivision realignment beginning with the announcement that the Big East is adding TCU as its ninth member. He sees Villanova, another FCS school, contemplating a move up to the FBS level.

“The whole landscape is changing,’’ said McCutcheon yesterday. “It is different than it was five years ago and it will be different five years from now.

“We have to be aware of what is going on around us, and we are exploring our options. We also are aware that some of our normal opponents are no longer available.’’

McCutcheon is touching on what has become an annual question at UMass: whether to elevate the Minuteman program from the FCS to the FBS level. Overtures were made on behalf of UMass to the Big East when the conference announced last month that it was adding two teams. The answer was a polite “not really interested.’’

UMass has faced such obstacles before. Former coach Mark Whipple remembers his stint in Amherst — which included a 1-AA national championship — and elaborate plans for elevating the program.

“Bob [Marcum, former AD] had the whole thing laid out,’’ said Whipple by phone from Miami, where he is continuing his duties as University of Miami offensive coordinator. “We had plans worked out with the Kraft family about playing some big games in Foxborough and plans to increase the size of our stadium. But we could never get it done. There were too many obstacles.’’

Although no one will officially say that UMass has contacted the Mid-American Conference, the possibility is being explored that UMass, like Temple, could join the MAC as an associate member in football only.

If the Big East did call — and there is no indication that it has an interest — UMass would want to join as a member in all sports.

The clock is ticking, too. A four-year window for FCS schools to move to FBS status will end next September, though McCutcheon said that if UMass does receive a commitment, the paperwork for such a move can be completed by then.

“I would think we could move forward before September, if we decide to do that,’’ said McCutcheon. “Right now, we are just seeing what our options are in many areas.’’

But even if a deal can be worked out with the MAC, there are no guarantees of success. Although the Patriots and the Kraft family have been extremely helpful and supportive of UMass and would now allow Gillette Stadium to be used as a venue, the lure of a MAC game between UMass and Buffalo or Kent State seems minimal.

Add the costs of increased travel and scholarships (from 65 to 85) and you have a cash drain. Larger FBS leagues such as the Big East and ACC have television contracts and other ways to raise revenue for all member schools. The MAC is not on that scale.

In fact, after former MAC commissioner Rick Chryst ended a decade of aggressive promotion and expansion in 2009, the MAC approach has been more low-key under new commissioner Jon Steinbrecher. Adding UMass to the mix does not seem to be something that would generate a great deal of excitement among the membership.

McCutcheon said there is nothing definitive about a UMass move; it is very possible that the Minutemen will maintain the status quo and only dabble with games against FBS opponents for large cash payouts, such as they did in September when they traveled to —and nearly beat — Michigan.

Or they could make the move to the next level.

“It should be interesting,’’ said McCutcheon.

Mark Blaudschun can be reached at