Around 1960, with a football program within arm's reach of local programs like Boston College or, potentially, Penn State, UMass steeled itself for a move to Division I football. Then, administration passed on the idea.
The Minutemen dominated the Yankee Conference for the following decades, winning 14 conference titles in 22 years, attending a pair of bowl games, making the 1-AA finals in 1978 and, among other things, habitually walloping local rival UConn. Coaches like Dick MacPherson and Bob Stull would go on to bigger and better jobs, and they would simply hire a new, solid coach and keep on rolling. (They had the MAC mentality long before they joined the MAC.)
The Minutemen have spent most of the last decade and a half acquitting themselves well at the FCS level -- they won the national title in 1998 and have made the playoffs four other times since then -- and finally decided to make the jump to FBS before the 2011 season. Perhaps it was UConn's trip to the Fiesta Bowl that turned the tide?
Whatever the reason, here comes UMass, full of all sorts of ambition. Don't believe me? Here are a couple of quotes from new coach Charley Molnar:
"10 years from now as the landscape of college football changes they’ll say ‘Why is UMass still where it’s at, still in the same little box that it’s been in?’ Or we can say ‘Wow, how did UMass do that? How did UMass move from I-AA football to a (team) that plays in a sold out Gillette Stadium?’"
"These guys are coming to the University of Massachusetts to win a championship in their time here. These guys are going to be hoisting a trophy up. That's the absolute plan. That's the vision and that's why they're coming to UMass."
The journey to make up half a century of lost time begins in the MAC's East Division, against an as-yet-undetermined slate of new conference rivals. (Temple's departure to the Big East means that the MAC's 2012 schedules have not yet been finalized.)
UMass came into the market for a new coach this past winter because former coach Kevin Morris was unable to maintain the success of his predecessors. Morris served as Don Brown's offensive coordinator in Amherst and helped the Minutemen advance to the 2006 FCS championship game and win two conference titles. When Brown left to become Ralph Friedgen's defensive coordinator at Maryland, Morris took over and went just 16-17 over three seasons.
UMass began in reasonably promising fashion last season, knocking off Holy Cross and Rhode Island and moving to 5-3 by whipping one-time FCS power Richmond. But a 35-17 loss to a 2-9 Villanova squad kicked off a disastrous November that saw three losses to conference rivals by a combined score of 101-55. The team was incredibly young -- they return almost as many contributors as second-year program UTSA does in 2012 -- and while that aided in Morris' downfall, it does give Molnar quite a few interesting pieces to work with as he tries to hit the ground running.
It doesn't take long to realize Molnar is a pretty charismatic guy, a salesman ready to tell anybody in the country that UMass is about to become a national power. He is also a pretty damn well-proven offensive coach. He groomed Dan LeFevour at Central Michigan, was the passing game coordinator for a Cincinnati team that went undefeated in 2009 and was Brian Kelly's offensive coordinator for each of the last two years at Notre Dame. Schools employing Molnar have finished with the following advanced rankings:
- 2006 (Central Michigan QBs coach): 50th in Off. S&P+ (they were 75th the year before Molnar's arrival)
- 2007 (Cincinnati passing game coordinator, WRs coach): 37th in Off. S&P+, 45th in Off. F/+ (they were 56th in S&P+ the year before)
- 2008 (Cincinnati): 36th in Off. S&P+, 57th in Off. F/+
- 2009 (Cincinnati): first in Off. S&P+, second in Off. F/+
- 2010 (Notre Dame offensive coordinator): 35th in Off. S&P+, 42nd in Off. F/+
- 2011 (Notre Dame): 19th in Off. S&P+, 22nd in Off. F/+
Notre Dame's offense took a dip in Molnar's first season, due in part to the departure of quarterback Jimmy Clausen. Otherwise, his offenses have pretty consistently improved everywhere he has gone. Perhaps this is one reason why Greenwich (CT) product Todd Stafford, a reasonably high-level recruit, recently committed to Molnar's Minutemen. That Molnar has spent a good portion of his career in MAC country (at least, what "MAC country" was before UMass came aboard) is simply a bonus.
Of course, Stafford won't be on the 2012 roster. But Kellen Pagel will. The junior quarterback and son of former Baltimore Colt Mike Pagel, looked decent in his first year with UMass after transferring from Bowling Green. He completed 57 percent of his passes at 6.5 per pass in eight games last year, and he is the presumptive starter heading into the fall. He will have an experienced line protecting him -- seniors Stephane Milhim (right guard) and Nick Speller (left tackle) were third-team all-conference selections last year, and the top six projected players on the line are either juniors or seniors.
The problem: There is almost no experience at the skill positions. Running back Jonathan Hernandez (1,092 rushing yards in 2011), the top three receivers, and tight end Emil Igwenagu are all gone. Marken Michel (three receptions in 2011) is by default the most experienced wideout, and considering Molnar's spread attack kind of needs players to catch passes, freshmen like Bernard Davis, Rodney Mills and Tajae Sharpe might see early playing time.
The UMass offense was up-and-down in 2011 and likely will be again this fall. But the defense was at the very least decent and should only improve. The Minutemen allowed 5.2 yards per play and 367.0 yards per game, and they return almost literally everybody of importance. They will be moving from a three-man line to a 4-3 structure, but they might have enough size in the front seven to make it work. Perry McIntyre likely takes over the role of middle linebacker; he was an attacking complement to since-departed tackling machine Tyler Holmes last year, racking up a team-high 11.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. McIntyre and outside backers like Chad Hunte and D.J. Adeoba should be able to flow to the ball reasonably well with a well-sized line in front of them. Six of the top seven return up front, including junior end Brandon Potvin (4.5 tackles for loss).
It is unclear what kind of pass rush UMass will be able to generate, but if the defensive backs don't have to cover receivers for too terribly long, they should have both the aggression and experience needed to become a solid unit. Four defensive backs defended at least five passes in 2011, including safety Darren Thellen (five interceptions, three PBUs) and corners Kirk Nelms* (three picks, five PBUs) and Antoine Tharpe (seven PBUs).
One of Molnar's primary goals in assembling his first UMass coaching staff was finding coaches with lengthy FBS-level resumes. His first defensive coordinator, Phil Elmassian, has more than enough to go around. He has served as defensive coordinator at Purdue, West Virginia, LSU, Boston College and Virginia Tech over the course of his 38 years, and while experience doesn't always translate to results -- lord knows he will have to show innovation and adaptability in order to slow down some of the MACtion offenses that gave this conference such an explosive personality last fall -- he will certainly serve as a steadying hand through UMass' transition.
It is difficult to define success for UMass in 2012 right now, as we don't know for sure how their schedule is going to take shape.
They are looking at a non-conference slate of UConn, Indiana, Michigan and Vanderbilt, however; so it is highly likely that any good-year-bad-year assessments will be based on the results of conference play. We know the Minutemen will play East foes Akron, Buffalo, Kent State and Miami (Ohio), and we know that, at the very least, Akron and Buffalo are not likely to be tremendously strong this fall. With that in mind, I'm going to start meagerly: If UMass can get to about 2-6 or 3-5 in conference play, 2012 will have been a rousing success. (And if they somehow manage to trip up former little brother UConn, all the better.)
It is reasonable to think that a solid defense, growing in experience, could keep UMass in quite a few conference games this fall. But whether they suffer through an 0-12 campaign or approach at least 3-4 wins will likely be determined by how quickly Pagel and the offense not only adapt to a new system, but also 12 games versus FBS competition.
I am not particularly optimistic about 2012, but one has to be impressed with the moves Molnar has made to date. He has assembled a quality staff, he will likely engineer offensive competence within a year or two, and lord knows he has plenty of ambition and confidence to go around. The future is intriguing for UMass, even if 2012 will be largely forgettable.