UMass makes Football Bowl Subdivision debut against Connecticut

Last modified: Wednesday, August 29, 2012
AMHERST - Since 1999, one of the many reasons University of Massachusetts football fans wanted to move up to Division I-A/Bowl Subdivision was a chance to rekindle the Minutemen's longtime rivalry with Connecticut.

So it's a happy coincidence that UMass' first game as an FBS program is against UConn on Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Conn. It's a meeting that Minuteman fans hope marks the restart of the 115-year-old series that began in 1897 when UMass finished its 2-5-1 season with a 36-0 win over their rivals from Storrs.

More recently, the teams played twice in 1998 as part of the Atlantic 10's on-the-fly schedule fix after Boston University dropped football the year before. The Huskies won both meetings dealing the Minutemen, who eventually won the Division I-AA national championship, two of their three losses that season.

A year later, in UConn's last game as a I-AA program, the Minutemen thumped the Huskies 62-20 to take a 36-33-2 series lead before the rivalry went on a 13-year break.

Thursday's game was scheduled before the Minutemen made the decision to upgrade the program. It was a simple buy game, cause for neither pomp nor circumstance. UConn would pay UMass $250,000 for one game at Rentschler Field before the teams started their respective Big East and Colonial Athletic Association schedules.

UMass still gets the big check, but the timing of the Minutemen's upgrade means a new era will start with a game against an old rival. For this to truly become a rivalry again, the teams will not only have to play again, but on a regular basis. Both coaches have expressed an interest in making it happen.

"At the end of the game (Thursday), regardless of what the outcome is, I want fans from both sides, the 40,000 people in that stadium, to say, let's do this again next year," UMass coach Charley Molnar said Monday. "I really hope we can get this thing going as a regional rivalry. I think it would be great and bring attention to New England."

Molnar expanded on that before Tuesday night's practice.

"This is a game that should be very meaningful to the fans of the University of Connecticut as well as the fans of the University of Massachusetts. We're natural rivals. We've been probably playing football against each other for 100 years," he said. "As we improve as a program, our voice will be heard, our fans' voice will be heard and I think their fans will want it also."

Future scheduling for the Huskies has been slowed by the Big East sorting out its schedule in the midst of conference realignment, but UConn has regularly played Mid-American Conference teams in home-and-home series, including games this year against Buffalo and Western Michigan.

Huskies coach Paul Pasqualoni said he liked the idea of a UMass-UConn series on the Big East conference call Monday. He indicated that he and new athletic director Warde Manuel would likely discuss the possibility down the road.

"These are things we'll talk about as we go. I think it makes a lot of sense from a geographical standpoint for our fans," he said. "We drive up to Foxborough. They drive down here to Rentschler Field. It's a win-win for everybody."

He thought UMass' upgrade was good for the region.

"The more high-level Division I-A programs we can have, the more opportunities there are out there for kids," Pasqualoni said. "I think it strengthens our game."

CONNECTIONS - Both teams' defensive coordinators have roots on the other sideline. UConn's Don Brown was the head coach at UMass from 2004-08 and the defensive coordinator in 1998-99. Brown coached Northeastern from 2000-03. The Minutemen are 3-1 against him.

UMass' Phil Elmassian was an assistant under Pasqualoni at Syracuse in 1991 and 1992.

"Paul is a great coach," Elmassian said. "He really is."

UConn has nine players from Massachusetts. UMass has three from Connecticut - defensive end Ryan Delaire, linebacker Jovan Santos-Knox and wide receiver Shawn Campbell.

"I want to get some revenge because they never really recruited me," said Delaire, a native of nearby Windsor, Conn., who expected to have a lot of family in attendance. "I don't mind showing off for my hometown."

UConn sophomore quarterback Scott McCummings, a Natick native, is the younger brother of former UMass fullback Thad McCummings and a high school teammate of Minuteman linebackers Tom and Tim Brandt.

After UConn upgraded to the FBS, several Huskies transferred to UMass over the years, including Matt Lawrence, Mike Ziccardi and Amherst native Anthony Rouzier.

LEE OUT - Junior cornerback Mike Lee will be held out of the game. Molnar stopped short of calling it a suspension.

"He won't play. It's my call," Molnar said. "Thursday night at midnight he'll be back in my good graces."

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Follow UMass coverage on Twitter at twitter.com/GazetteUMass. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at http://www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage.