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Stop the madness, UMass Amherst

The state’s flagship university should pull the plug on playing football at the highest collegiate level.

Massachusetts quarterback Brady Olson passed against Liberty during an NCAA college football game in Lynchburg, Va., last month.Kendall Warner/Associated Press

If one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, it’s time for the University of Massachusetts at Amherst to end the experiment of playing collegiate football at the highest level.

Napoleon had his Waterloo.

Nixon had his Watergate.

On Saturday, UMass had its Little Rhody.

In dropping to 1-8 by losing, 35-22, to the University of Rhode Island, which plays in the division below UMass, the hubris of trying to change not just a football program but a regional culture was exposed in all its folly.

In 2012, when UMass made the move to play with the big boys, the rationale was that a top-tier university like UMass should be on the same stage as other big state schools: Michigan, Ohio, Alabama, etc. The move was supposed to add to the university’s national renown and increase alumni interest and loyalty, not to mention the checks that those alums would sign.

But the move was tone deaf, at best, trying to create demand that didn’t exist.


This is no knock on UMass players. But jumping from the Football Championship Subdivision to the Football Bowl Subdivision is like moving from Chelsea to Weston, as much a cultural change as a financial leap.

The University of Alabama can pay its head football coach, Nick Saban, $10.6 million a year with a straight face because he wins national championships and, let’s be honest, people in Alabama aren’t exactly swimming in things they can brag about.

Walt Bell, the latest UMass head coach to take it in the neck when he was fired Sunday, actually took a pay cut from Florida State, where he was offensive coordinator, to take the UMass job for $625,000. Talk about payback: Last month, Florida State handed UMass its worst loss of the season, 59-3.


UMass also got pasted by Liberty University, 62-17. That an evangelical Christian school founded by Jerry Falwell could push the Minutemen around so effortlessly was almost like God saying to everybody in Amherst, “For my son’s sake, give it up.”

UMass is 20-89 and hasn’t come close to having a winning season since stepping up to the FBS. Playing big programs guarantees them big paydays to offset some expenses, but it also guarantees that UMass gets smoked almost every game. They aren’t competitive.

As an alum, I wanted them to succeed, even while thinking it was a mistake, for the same regional, cultural reasons that made it seem perfect sense to return UMass hockey to Division 1 in 1993. That hockey team won this year’s national championship.

Unlike so many places where college football is big, New England fans, and especially Massachusetts fans, devote most of their attention to professional sports.

Across the South, there are really only two sports: football and spring football. That isn’t how people think around here, and for UMass football to belong — let alone succeed — at the highest levels would require a kind of change that is simply not in the power of UMass to deliver.

When I went to UMass, Jon Hite was president of student government. He is a former alumni director. He is a staunch defender of UMass and is not shy about pushing back against those who would belittle UMass.


Even Hite thinks it’s time to let UMass football return to the second-tier, where it won a national championship in 1998. He doesn’t think a new stadium would change anything. UMass alums, most of whom live in the Boston area, are not going to spend four hours in the car to watch the football team get spanked by Toledo.

“I haven’t gone to a UMass football game in 20 years, not because I don’t love UMass or UMass football,” he said. “It’s because I have stuff to do on Saturdays.”

In places like Alabama, people build their lives around college football. Not here. There’s nothing anyone at UMass can do to change that.

It was worth a shot, but it won’t work. Better to admit that and move on.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at kevin.cullen@globe.com.