External factors force UMass to cancel football season, shift to potential spring season

  • Warren P. McGuirk Alumni Stadium at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. On Tuesday, August 11, 2020, UMass Athletics announced the cancellation of this year's football season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Warren P. McGuirk Alumni Stadium at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. On Tuesday, August 11, 2020, UMass Athletics announced the cancellation of this year's football season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Warren P. McGuirk Alumni Stadium at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. On Tuesday, August 11, 2020, UMass Athletics announced the cancellation of this year's football season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Warren P. McGuirk Alumni Stadium at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. On Tuesday, August 11, 2020, UMass Athletics announced the cancellation of this year's football season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • The next football game at UMass’ Warren P. McGuirk Alumni Stadium will not happen until the spring. On Tuesday, UMass Athletics announced the cancellation of this year’s fall football season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The school remains hopeful for a 12-game spring season. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Warren P. McGuirk Alumni Stadium at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. On Tuesday, August 11, 2020, UMass Athletics announced the cancellation of this year's football season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • WALT BELL

  • RYAN BAMFORD

Sports Editor
Published: 8/12/2020 2:45:21 PM

UMass held the expectation for months that it would proceed with a football season.

The program took every necessary step and precaution, and followed the guidelines in order to have offseason training activities, and as of last week, preseason camp.

What the school couldn’t control is what ultimately led it to canceling the football season Tuesday morning and shifting gears toward a potential season in the spring. The administration simply could not get a clear picture of the coronavirus pandemic and how it relates to having a safe season for its players.

“Looking at the environment around us, I think our young men are as safe as they will ever be being in our care right now. I think we’ve proven that over the last seven weeks,” UMass Athletic Director Ryan Bamford said during a virtual press conference Tuesday night.

“What we couldn’t exactly understand or ascertain was how this was going to play out over the next three months and what it was going to mean when we started to travel and what it was going to mean when we started to welcome teams from other states, other regions to our state and our stadium to play games.”

When the pandemic hit in March, it shut down the Minutemen’s spring season and players went home. The athletic department worked out scenarios to bring the players back and started executing a plan by June. When training sessions started in July nearly 90 percent of the players were on campus.

“The reality is the landscape across our country has changed in a way that hasn’t been positive as it relates to the pandemic,” Bamford said. “Ultimately, some of the ambition we had back in June was curtailed by some of the things we’ve seen nationally.”

UMass, which is one of seven independent FBS programs, had the luxury of watching the process play out as conferences announced their plans over the last month.

When the Colonial Athletic Association canceled its season, the Minutemen lost their game against Albany. When the Southeastern Conference announced a conference-only schedule, UMass lost its game and a $1.9 million payout with Auburn.

Bamford was confident he could fill any holes in the schedule, but the chance for a season took a turn within the last week. On Wednesday, UConn became the first FBS program to cancel its season. The Minutemen were scheduled to open their season against the Huskies on Sept. 3. Then, over the weekend, the Mid-American Conference postponed its season, costing UMass a game against Akron.

The Minutemen were spending their first camp in shells when the players received the news the MAC pulled the plug.

“There’s bombs going off, there’s things going on, our kids are incredibly concerned and you could feel the room,” UMass coach Walt Bell said. “Obviously 18-to-21-year-old kids are either really happy or they’re not. You can feel the tension, what’s about to happen.”

Bell said it was on Monday when they could “see the train coming down the tracks.” The Mountain West Conference postponed its season that day, dropping New Mexico from the schedule.

On Tuesday, the Minutemen became the 27th FBS program out of 130 to sack the season.

Bell met with his leadership team (six players) to tell them about the decision to cancel the season before he had a team meeting at 10 a.m. He followed that meeting by reaching out to recruits and parents.

“All these kids, the majority of them, since they could run on two feet they’ve been playing this game,” he said. “This is probably the first fall without it and again, that’s a huge part of who we all are in this game. ... I’m doing my best to be really clean and concise and make sure they get all the answers to as many of the questions as I could possibly answer, and really, other than that, it was kind of like accepting a Grammy, just don’t cry. Not fun, but it’s your job as a caretaker to delivery information and make sure your kids are well cared for.”

Only one player – wide receiver Zak Simon – publicly announced his decision to opt out of the season. Bell said a second player opted out prior to Tuesday’s announcement. It is unclear if they will play in the spring should there be a season.

In the meantime, Bell said a majority of the team will stay on campus this fall.

“We have kids whose parents have been furloughed, kids whose parents have been laid off. We’ve got kids that have struggled to get food. We’ve got kids that are in hot spots,” Bell said. “I’m a firm believer that the discipline, the safety protocols, the food, the dining, the immediate access to being in charge of their safety, those are all reason why we are in a safe environment. … The fact we are going to be able to keep a lot of those guys here makes me feel better about this entire process.”

The program has conducted 764 tests, with 763 being negative. The one positive test came from an arriving player. Bell said the team will have another round of testing on Thursday, followed by move-in on Saturday. The group will train and lift on Monday. The program is waiting to receive guidance from the NCAA on how to proceed into the fall.

“The biggest thing for us is we have to find out what the NCAA is going to allow us to do,” he said. “I would find it hard to believe that if the majority of the leagues are making decisions for health and safety that they are going to continue to allow us to play football. It will probably go back to an advance setting: OTAs, open air, no contact, no ball. We’re going to prepare to the best of our ability and as safely as possible.”

Bell is looking at the decision in a positive light. The Minutemen are among the youngest teams in the FBS. Last season he started nine freshmen and three walk-ons.

“For us, as a young football program, every bit of time that we get to develop is awesome,” he said.

In addition to UMass’ announcement on Tuesday, the Big Ten and Pac-12 chose to postpone their seasons to the spring. The conferences were the first among the Power Five Conferences to make such a move. The SEC, Atlantic Coast Conference, Big 12 and American Athletic Conference are trying to have a fall season. Conference USA and Sun Belt are also pushing for football next month.

Seven of UMass’ opponents are intent on playing a fall season: Troy (Sun Belt), Appalachian State (Sun Belt), Temple (AAC), FIU (C-USA), New Mexico State (independent), Army (independent) and Liberty (independent).

New Mexico State recently paused camp due to a positive COVID-19 test. The Aggies’ schedule, meanwhile, is down to four games.

If there is a spring season, Bamford is confident he can build a 12-game schedule.

“First and foremost, we have to have the health component, the medical component figured out. We have to make sure that’s the first box we’re checking,” he said. “Every conversation I’ve had with our 2020 opponents has been very positive that if things move to the spring that we’ll gain back those games.

“There’s still so much to be determined there and so much uncertainly, but I have a lot of hope that in talking not only with the 12 opponents that we contracted with for this fall but a number of other schools, that we’ll be able to get, if we can play football in the spring, a full complement of games to go out and compete.”

Mike Moran can be reached at mmoran@gazettenet.com. Follow on Twitter @mikemoranDHG.



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