AMHERST — It was a sweltering Tuesday afternoon, especially on the sun-baked turf at McGuirk Alumni Stadium.
But the group of reporters encircling University of Massachusetts football coach Charley Molnar kept inching closer and closer together. On and off, Molnar’s voice was muffled by the drilling and hacking up above, as renovations continued on a new multimillion-dollar press box.
A mini-crane chiseling away at the old cement structure? Perhaps the perfect illustration for the 2013 Minutemen. While a bright and shiny product lies ahead, they are very much a work in progress.
“They may not be ready to win big in 2013,” Molnar said at the team’s media day, “but you can see that we’ll be a competitive team in the near future.”
The second-year coach has lofty long-term goals for the Minutemen, who are entering Year 2 of their transition to the FBS level. He wants to compete for Mid-American Conference championships and play in bowl games. He wants the Minutemen to be New England’s premier college football team.
He also wants 50 percent of his starters to be from Massachusetts. That’s something he calls his “Made in Mass.” campaign, which he hopes will grow the local fan base.
“That goal is really best envisioned in five years,” Molnar said.
For the upcoming season, he pledges only improvement and development.
“I haven’t ever spoken in terms of wins or losses,” Molnar said. “I don’t want to set a goal that’s too high because it sounds good, and I certainly don’t want to set a goal that is too low.”
The former Notre Dame assistant acknowledged that perhaps he entered last season with unrealistic expectations.
“I knew we had a long ways to go,” Molnar said. “I thought that maybe some of the guys from our football team would just step up and carry us.”
But with a team of players mostly recruited to play FCS football (the former Division 1-AA), the Minutemen stumbled to a 1-11 season, outscored by opponents, 482-152.
“Once we got through the first game or two and I saw that wasn’t going to be the case, I tempered my enthusiasm to understand where we’re at developmentally,” Molnar said. “And we’re really on the ground floor.”
With a new recruiting class and three fifth-year transfers from large FBS programs (Maryland, Michigan, and Rutgers), the Minutemen possess more talent this season. Of the 24 new scholarship players on the roster, Molnar expects 20 to play.
A tangible sign of improvement? Molnar said his scout-team kickoff unit is better than the varsity kickoff unit of last year.
“The guys recruited in the last regime, we’re the meat and potatoes,” said fifth-year senior Brandon Potvin, a Worcester native. “Then the guys that Coach Molnar has brought in are so talented. They’re a great complement to our foundation.”
The Minutemen face some question marks early. Molnar announced that star tight end Rob Blanchflower — the team’s lone captain — will be shut down for 10-14 days with a pair of undisclosed injuries. The senior’s status is murky for the opener at Wisconsin Aug. 31.
A program-wide issue? The NCAA announced that UMass must average 15,000 in attendance at Gillette Stadium this year or face a 10-year probation. The Minutemen averaged 10,901 fans per game in 2012.
“People are slowly but surely jumping on board,” Molnar said. “Do I wish the bandwagon was full right now? Of course I do, but maybe it’s better that it wasn’t full because we’ll appreciate it more.”
In Molnar’s field of dreams, if he builds it, they will come.
And the construction is already underway.