When a school transitions from the Football Championship Subdivision to the Football Bowl Subdivision, it is bound to take its lumps.
The University of Massachusetts, in its second year in the FBS, has certainly faced adversity during its journey.
On Saturday at Gillette Stadium before their home finale against Akron (3-7, 2-4 Mid-American Conference), the Minutemen (1-8, 1-4 MAC) will honor the 18 seniors who have helped build a stronger program.
“The senior class means a lot to me because these guys have believed in the vision for the program,’’ said UMass coach Charley Molnar. “They’ve hung with us with not a lot of on-field success. But yet they still seem to have had a quality experience by the relationships they’ve made with their fellow teammates, the coaches and the fans of the program. They come out to practice each and every day ready to go.’’
Despite their losses, Molnar said his players have maintained their morale and continue to battle until the final seconds have ticked off the clock.
“They’ve not slowed down, they’ve not tanked it,’’ he said. “It would be very easy for them to say, ‘My career is over here and we haven’t won a lot of games and I’m just going to go on cruise control,’ but they refused to accept that way of thinking. They come out to win every day in practice and every game they play.’’
Molnar said moving up to play top-level talent hasn’t been easy but the players have embraced the challenge.
“They know that the task we put in front of them was difficult and it’s proven to be difficult,’’ said Molnar. “But they’ve never backed down. They’ve accepted the challenge and have little to show for it in terms of wins and losses but have so much to show for it with the experience that they’ve had.’’
When prosperity doesn’t come and there appear to be few rewards for the hard work, that’s when leadership proves to be the most valuable and Molnar said his team has it in spades.
“I think the mark of a championship football player is the legacy that he leaves behind,’’ said Molnar. “Almost to a man, these seniors have been great role models about the way to work and how to prepare. They have taught this year’s group of freshmen the Minutemen way. I am so proud of the fact that these seniors have learned what we expect a championship player to do day in and day out. Not only have they learned it, they’ve lived it. So the culture in our locker room has changed dramatically in less than two years.’’
One of those leaders is defensive tackle Galen Clemons. He said although this hasn’t been the easiest of yearsthe players stayed the course knowing they are building something bigger than themselves.
“I don’t think there’s a single person in that locker room who doesn’t wish we were doing better than we are as far as record-wise,’’ said Clemons. “But also, each of us has had this fire in our chests and it’s a burning desire to just make something big happen. That’s what this team needs, like just one big play to get the momentum changed. We’re on the verge of becoming just such a great team. I know that everybody knows it. It’s just a matter of when we click and how we do it. There’s no better day than this Saturday.’’
Clemons, who transferred from Central Michigan after his freshman year, said transitioning to the MAC has presented challenges to everyone.
“At that time [of his transfer], UMass was a 1-AA program,’’ said Clemons. “There was a difference. Central Michigan is in the MAC like we are now, there was a noticeable difference, like the [harder] schedule. Playing a 1-AA schedule is so much different than a Division 1 schedule. Physically it’s such a different game.’’
In addition to his on-field contributions, Clemons has made a noticeable impact off the field.
He started the White Ribbon Campaign to combat violence against women. On Wednesday, all of his teammates took the pledge.
“Usually individuals take it,’’ said Clemons. “It’s primarily for men and you pledge to not commit, condone or remain silent about men’s violence against women in all its forms. It started as a school project.’’
Clemons said his professor, Tom Schiff, inspired his interest in the subject.
“He made me aware of how big we can get this, I could expand it to the team,’’ said Clemons. “It would literally do so much good for the community. Football is all about what goes on behind the scenes. There is a lot of violence going on in the community and if there is something I can do or the team could do to help out a little bit, that is the best possible scenario. We all signed the pledge and it was great.’’