Keeping Score with Chip Ainsworth: Return to the MAC

Published: 03-08-2024 4:54 PM

Good morning!
The UMass Minutemen are the prodigal children of college football, returning to the Mid-American Conference from whence they came.

It took nine seasons of anchoring the FBS, of winning 16 games and losing 72, of burning through millions of taxpayer dollars for the pain to become great enough for athletic director Ryan Bamford to take action.

UMass had become the new punchline of an old Henny Youngman joke — Take my team, please! 

How bad were they? So bad the sports information office once counted the spring game as a regular season win. Seriously.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all on Bamford. He inherited a program that was plummeting faster than an asteroid toward earth when he was hired in 2015. The genesis of football’s demise occurred when Bamford’s predecessor John McCutcheon “upgraded” to the FBS in 2012 and joined the MAC the following year.

The MAC is currently composed of 11 teams including Toledo, Akron, Bowling Green and Northern Illinois. It was founded in 1946 and has produced NFL greats like Jason Taylor, Ben Roethlisberger and Randy Moss. 

So far so good, but McCutcheon gummed the works by thinking he could make UMass the Michigan of the east. His first blunder was moving the home games from Amherst to Gillette Stadium. A MassLive headline prior to the first game in Foxboro was prescient: “UMass Football Lease Agreement with Gillette Has Unique Design to Prevent Total Failure.”

Alas, total failure it was. The students didn’t ride the busses, the alumni didn’t flock through the turnstiles and the team didn’t win.

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McCutcheon’s second blunder — one that could have been rectified sooner by Bamford — was to leave the MAC. The agreement was to either go all in with every sport after three years, or leave and look elsewhere.

McCutcheon chose the latter because he was worried about women’s lacrosse and men’s basketball. The MAC didn’t offer women’s lacrosse and coach Angela McMahon-Serpone had made the team a perennial A-10 champion. 

Two years ago McMahon-Serpone left UMass for a cushy job at Deerfield Academy. In her absence the Minutewomen are 1-4 this season, including losses to subpar opponents Dartmouth and Brown, and as always to Boston College, 20-9.

What’s more perplexing is why McCutcheon and UMass basketball fans in general have resisted leaving the A-10. UMass has always been fodder for the likes of Dayton, VCU, Richmond and St. Bonaventure. By being in the A-10 UMass has managed just one NCAA tournament appearance this century, an 86-67 loss to Tennessee 10 years ago.

At this writing UMass’s Basketball Power Index (BPI) is currently higher than every team in the MAC. The Minutemen will be a dominant force in their new conference and indeed, basketball was probably Bamford’s ace in the hole.

Sports columnists thrive on schadenfreude and UMass in the FBS has been the gift that’s kept on giving, but all good things must pass. Charley Molnar’s paranoia, Mark Whipple’s defense that couldn’t stop a turtle crossing the highway and Walt Bell’s two wins in three years aren’t apt to be repeated.

The move was inevitable. Go back west young men, it’s where you belonged.

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The Amherst College men’s hockey team finished 14-10-1 after last month’s heartbreaking 4-3 quarterfinal loss at Hamilton College. Coach Jack Arena was hoping for a better ending to the 1,000th game of his coaching career, but he took it in stride.

“There hasn’t been a day in 40 years when I wake up in the morning and haven’t wanted to come to work,” Arena told the school’s media relations office. “I felt that doing the right thing the right way the success would come, and for the most part it has.”

Indeed, his 526 wins would attest for that.

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Arena’s son-in-law Kevin Czepiel wrapped up a successful first season at the Berkshire School. A former UMass captain and NMH coach, Czepiel’s team was 20-10-0 according to the school’s website and made it to the New England prep school semifinals before losing to eventual champion Kent, 5-4.

One more item regarding Amherst College athletics, the men’s basketball team was blown out in the NESCAC semifinals by Williams. Deprived of its usual D-III tourney bid under previous coach Dave Hixon, an Amherst alumnus wrote: “Guard play wins in D3. The coach who replaced Dave Hixon hasn’t figured that out yet.”

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They’re ducking for cover at UMass-Lowell after athletic director Peter Casey was pink slipped by chancellor Julie Chen. Using language that made losing a job sound painless, Chen wrote that Casey would be “transitioning away from his UMass Lowell position.”

Casey graduated from Bowdoin in 1993 and earned a master’s degree in phys-ed at Springfield College. He had front office jobs in the AHL and was the director of football ops at Rutgers before taking the Lowell job six years ago.

In the words of a disgruntled UML alumnus, Casey oversaw an athletic department that was “top four in the America East in performance, and bottom four in resources. Enough said.”

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Last month before the Richmond-UMass game, ESPN’s analyst said the key to winning would be to “respect the ball.” 

The remark reminded me of a scene from The Honeymooners when Ed Norton was teaching Ralph Kramden how to play golf. Norton stood at the tee and read from an instruction book that told him to address the ball, so he doffed his cap and exclaimed, “Hello, ball!”

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SQUIBBERS: For the record UMass coach Greg Carvel isn’t interested in joining the ECAC, that was me spouting off about lousy officiating. “No desire to play in the ECAC,” he wrote. “Weak league, no rivalries, brutal travel.” … The UMass basketball team drew 9,132 fans to its first three home games this season, and 14,574 to the last three. Like Al Davis said, Just win, baby. Congrats to Frank Martin for coaching the team to its first 20-win season in 10 years. … Congrats also to Greg Bedard and Nick Cattles for their Patriots podcast that was named best sports podcast in New England by Channel Market Research. … News from West County’s Charlie Olchowski: “Zack Livingston of Buckland competed in a 50-kilometer cross country ski race on a torturous course on Mt. Van Hoevenberg at Lake Placid.” Thanks Charlie, but where’d he finish? … Terry Kennedy and his daughter Missie are in Orono this weekend watching UMass against Maine. “A few UMaine tickets are available on third party sites,” writes Kennedy. “They’re priced higher than the third balcony at the old Boston Garden. Bargain at $125 on Friday and $325 on Saturday.” … New York Post hockey writer Larry Brooks shared this about Nick Fotiu who was an enforcer with the Whalers and Rangers. After Rangers GM John Ferguson ordered Fotiu to stop Mike Bossy from scoring that night, “The first thing I did was go to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, lit a candle and said, ‘Please don’t make me look like a fool out there tonight.’ You know what? I got a goal and an assist and he got nothing.” … A foot-long dog cost $10.99 down here at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, but like Humphrey Bogart said, “A hot dog at the game beats roast beef at the Ritz.”

Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for decades in the Pioneer Valley. He can be reached at chipjet715@icloud.com