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UMass football’s move was a big-time mistake

UMass won only two games in two years under Charley Molnar.Stew Milne/Associated Press

The University of Massachusetts fired its football coach Thursday. After two seasons and a 2-22 record in Football Bowl Subdivision play, Charley Molnar was shown the gate with three years and $836,000 remaining on his contract.

Probably you missed this news. On the local sports landscape, UMass football ranks well below Ultimate Fighting and the invisible New England Revolution.

There’s going to be debate about Molnar’s controversial coaching style and what went on when a raft of players transferred after his first year in Amherst. The facts behind his firing will surface and the small group of folks who care about UMass football can debate the merits of this coach and the next one.


But the larger issue is clear to anyone who pays taxes in Massachusetts and follows sports in New England: UMass upgrading to the top level of college football was a terrible idea.

Truly. It’s the worst idea since Bobby Valentine was hired to manage the Red Sox. It’s a worse idea than bicycle racks replacing parking spaces in downtown Boston, tapas restaurants, and “Anchorman 2.”

UMass’s launch into FBS football has been a colossal failure. And it may result in the death of football at UMass. That would be a shame. We’ve seen programs disappear at Boston University and Northeastern. It is not pretty. It is a campus loss. And UMass may have triggered its own football death by going big-time instead of staying at the comfortable level of Football Championship Subdivision (the old Division 1-AA).

Let’s go back to the indisputable notion that we are a pro sports town. Certainly there’s a significant following for our nationally ranked college hockey programs, and the local basketball teams can generate some interest when it’s time for the NCAA Tournament. Cheatin’ Coach Cal’s run to the Final Four captured our imagination for a few weeks in 1996, and there will be a hoop heartbeat if Harvard, UMass, or another local team can advance during March Madness.


But FBS football is folly in New England. It requires big bucks. And boosters. There are colleges and universities that can pay for the rest of the sports teams. You’d be impressed by the facilities, uniforms, and equipment offered to recruits for Notre Dame baseball players. That stuff is available because of the money generated by the Fighting Irish football team.

That’s the working model at football factories. Conference monies, bowl appearances, and television revenues justify “The Program’s” whopping expenditures (including astronomical coaches’ salaries) and pay for the women’s softball team to go to Florida in February.

It’ll never work at UMass, and that is not UMass’s fault. Folks here simply don’t have an appetite for big-time college football. Ask former BC coach Tom Coughlin. Ask former BC coach Tom O’Brien. The 2007 BC Eagles, quarterbacked by Matt Ryan, were ranked second in the nation for two weeks. And hardly anybody noticed. Or cared.

The Red Sox were on their way to a second World Series championship in four years. The Patriots were bound for 18-0 and a Super Bowl. The Celtics were assembling their first championship team in 22 years.

The second-ranked NCAA football Eagles barely existed. This would be unimaginable in State College, Pa., or East Lansing, Mich.

Fast-forward to 2012, when UMass made the costly transition to FBS football. It was an ambitious plan, one pondered for more than 20 years while the Minutemen were having a nice run in Division 1-AA. The Minutemen regularly appeared in the 1-AA playoffs and won the national championship in 1998. They made it back to the championship game in 2006, losing to Appalachian State.


Remember good ol’ App State? They shocked the world by beating Michigan in the Big House in 2007.

That’s the kind of game that tricks people. It’s fool’s gold. It gives the impression that maybe a school is ready to step up and play regularly with the big boys.

But it is costly. And it is hard. You simply cannot play in the FBS with FCS players. And you can not generate interest approximately 100 miles from campus — particularly in a region that cares passionately and singularly about professional sports.

Everything about UMass’s present football situation is wrong. The Minutemen don’t play on campus. They play at Gillette Stadium. They draw 15,000 fans to a 68,756-seat stadium. They don’t play any natural rivals. They play the Akron Zips and the Central Michigan Chippewas. They play in the Mid-American Conference.

The UMass football budget is $7.8 million. In the first two seasons of FBS football, UMass students and Massachusetts taxpayers have spent $1 million more than was projected.

When FBS football was launched, school officials projected that the team would generate an annual surplus of more than $1 million by 2018. That’s looking doubtful. A coach has come and gone. Twenty-two of 24 games have been losses. UMass has built a new training facility and made improvements to the on-campus (McGuirk) stadium press box, but attendance at Gillette is low and morale is lower.


It’s a big bowl of bad, and firing Charley Molnar doesn’t address the larger problem. Going to FBS was a bad move. And now we can only hope that moving up doesn’t kill UMass football all together.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dan_shaughnessy