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UMass football in uphill battle with FBS move

Thom kendall/umass

First-time head coach Charley Molnar brings a take-charge approach to UMass’s transition.

AMHERST - It is a brisk April morning, and Charley Molnar is standing at midfield at McGuirk Stadium, barking out instructions through a megaphone. At 51, Molnar is as much a coaching rookie - at least as a head man - as many of the players he is now overseeing.

When University of Massachusetts athletic director John McCutcheon hired Molnar in December as the man to take the football program from the FCS to the FBS level this season, he knew he needed a salesman as well as a coach.

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While Molnar cannot be everywhere on the field, he is doing his best to make it appear he is, barking at receivers who drop passes or run the wrong routes, praising players who make good plays.

When one unit is tardy leaving the field, Molnar notices that as well.

“Get off the field now!’’ says Molnar, before quickly switching his attention back to what is happening on the field.

On the surface, things don’t look much different. The plans for a stadium renovation - which include a multimillion-dollar field house, a new press box, and other upgrades - are still just plans, requiring imagination.

And the players Molnar is now coaching are still a level below where they need to be if the plan is going to work, if the Minutemen are to succeed as they move up from the Colonial Athletic Association to the Mid-American Conference.

“Most of this team was recruited as 1-AA players,’’ said Molnar. “That’s the reality. We are playing a 1-A schedule with 1-AA players.

“Any time a 1-AA team beats a 1-A team, that’s usually a big deal. So every time we play a 1-A team, it’s a big deal for us. That’s our biggest challenge.’’

In the upcoming season, the challenges will come every week, beginning Aug. 30 when the Minutemen open at Connecticut, a former 1-AA program that made the transition to 1-A a decade ago. That is followed by the home opener against Indiana at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, which is 70 miles from campus but will serve as UMass’s home field for the foreseeable future - another challenge.

Molnar is making his head coaching debut after a 27-year career as an assistant at Lock Haven, Virginia, Western Carolina, Illinois State, Kent State, Eastern Illinois, Eastern Michigan, Western Michigan, Indiana State, Central Michigan, Cincinnati, and finally Notre Dame, where he spent the last two years as offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach.

“I love it,’’ he said. “I wouldn’t have it any other way. The challenge is to get our fans behind the program, not only locally but throughout Massachusetts and New England.

“Part of building a program is having a fan base which includes 250,000 UMass alumni in Eastern Massachusetts. And with Gillette, we have a venue suitable for a big-time program on a national level, a venue that our fan base can appreciate and enjoy. They can come out on a Saturday and not only enjoy the product on the field, but other things around it.

“Eventually - and hopefully sooner rather than later - the product on the field will be the main event.’’

A buzz on campus

The players are buying what Molnar is selling, which isn’t a surprise, for they have visions of the bright lights of FBS football.

“When I came here, I knew they were talking about 1-A,’’ said Mike Wegzyn, a 6-foot-5-inch, 215-pound freshman quarterback who came to UMass from Knoxville, Tenn.“It was a big factor in my decision to come here. I had offers from other schools like Buffalo, Eastern Michigan, and I talked to schools down South like Arkansas State and Duke.’’

Wegzyn redshirted last season, although former coach Kevin Morris suggested he burn that redshirt year 10 games into a 5-6 campaign that was going nowhere.

“I wanted to be part of this program moving up,’’ said Wegzyn, whom Molnar expects to battle last year’s starter, Kellen Pagel, for the job. “I knew they were moving into the MAC. I see a program on the rise. I want to help them make a statement, for myself as well as for this team.’’

Wegzyn notices a difference in coaching styles between Morris and Molnar.

“Charley runs a tighter ship,’’ he said. “It’s very professional. You see the difference.’’

So does Darren Thellen, a fifth-year senior cornerback from Brockton.

“It’s the same concept, but more up-tempo,’’ said Thellen, who feels a buzz on campus about the change. “We have played Division 1-A teams before like Michigan, Boston College, Texas Tech, and Kansas State. So we know what it’s like.’’

UMass has flirted with the idea of making the jump to 1-A for 20 years, dating to the days when Bob Marcum was athletic director and had visions of adding big-time football to a rising basketball program that John Calipari was putting together. But it never happened, for a variety of reasons, and while the Minutemen won the 1-AA national championship in football in 1998 under Mark Whipple, the trend the last few years was a downward one.

“We knew the future if we stayed where we were,’’ said McCutcheon, who calls the task of making the transition “a new challenge every day.’’

The UConn example

Molnar was hired not only to coach a team, but to build a mind-set of acceptance. He has started locally by involving his players and assistant coaches in off-field activities such as visiting hospitals and elementary schools, and participating in a 5K fund-raising run for autism research.

“I want our players to be social activists,’’ said Molnar. “And I want to be involved in the program from the ground up. I envision myself as a builder. My fingerprints will be all over this.’’

Whatever Molnar does, it will not be an easy move. All UMass officials have to do is look south to Storrs, Conn., and see the struggles of UConn, which had home stadium proximity, a monopoly on sports interest in the state, and a BCS conference (Big East) as cornerstones.

UConn, under former coach Randy Edsall, eventually built the program to where it peaked with a BCS bid two years ago, but very little came easy.

“The biggest issue was to overcome the stadium issue,’’ said former UConn athletic director Lew Perkins, who is now a consultant on UMass’s transition. “We planned each year. We had a five-year plan. We had a 10-year plan. But we couldn’t do anything until we had a stadium.’’

The original plan was to have a stadium built on campus as part of a growing athletic complex. But when issues about expanding into Storrs developed, the Huskies switched to East Hartford, where plans for a stadium were quickly approved.

“We had the whole university and everyone else from the governor on down behind it,’’ said Perkins. “That helped a lot.

“But it’s a long-term project. You have to be patient. You have to have a game plan. There are a lot of bumps in the road, which you have to expect.’’

Education process

UMass has different problems. It was able to find a 1-A home, but the MAC is not a good geographical fit, and there are no natural rivals in the league. With Temple moving out after next season, the Minutemen will have to manufacture rivalries, which could be tough.

The other issue is funding. UConn simply opened its vaults for scholarships, facilities, and salaries.

At UMass, fund-raising is one of the reasons Molnar is being so proactive off the field. With a new administration, tight budgets, and problems at other state schools, the obstacles are clearly visible. Whether they can be overcome remains the question.

Playing in Foxborough through the generosity of Patriots owner Robert Kraft - who is basically giving UMass a rent-free deal - will draw attention at first. It will help to have opponents such as Indiana, Vanderbilt, Notre Dame, Florida, and Michigan on the schedule - although most of those games will be on the road at the start of the cycle.

But what happens when the novelty has worn off, and the opponents are Buffalo, Eastern Michigan, and Central Michigan, and UMass is still well below the level of contending for a MAC title, much less a bowl game?

In a more perfect world, the Minutemen would have slid into a Big East spot, which could have given potential Eastern rivals such as UConn and Rutgers (though in the changing world of conference reconfiguration, there are no guarantees).

There is an ambitious plan of chartering buses to take fans to Foxborough from campus, but that poses potential problems as well.

UMass will have to build up the season-ticket base - it was 2,200 last season - to help meet the NCAA minimum average attendance of 15,000. And if that is all UMass draws, it will hardly be noticeable in a 70,000-seat stadium.

“The biggest problem UMass is facing will be educating the people on the process and having a recruiting strategy,’’ said Edsall, who will be entering his second season at Maryland. “You have to have a strategy and stick to it. And you have to try to avoid the quick fix by taking a lot of JC kids or transfers.

“You are going to have to take your lumps early.’’

UMass says it is prepared to do that. This will be the last transition year before the Minutemen are eligible to compete for the MAC championship.

Just how long before they can call themselves contenders is a key question, and just how patient the Minutemen fans can be is another.

Mark Blaudschun can be reached at blaudschun@globe.com.

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