UMass AD Ryan Bamford says finding a long-term conference home “very important to the health and ultimate success of our football program”

UMass Director of Athletics Ryan Bamford, center, sits beside football coach Don Brown, left, Chancellor Javier Reyes, right, and his wife, Maritza Reyes, during a men’s basketball game against Albany last month at the Mullins Center in Amherst.

UMass Director of Athletics Ryan Bamford, center, sits beside football coach Don Brown, left, Chancellor Javier Reyes, right, and his wife, Maritza Reyes, during a men’s basketball game against Albany last month at the Mullins Center in Amherst. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

By GARRETT COTE and JEFF LAJOIE

Staff Writers

Published: 12-06-2023 3:47 PM

Modified: 12-06-2023 6:28 PM


AMHERST — A little over a week ago, the University of Delaware announced a move to Conference USA in all sports, part of the football team’s move up from FCS. A popular connection among Hampshire County fans was that UMass would make a similar move. Considering C-USA chose to expand close to the northeast for its 11th member of the conference, the doors had seemingly opened for the Minutemen to jump on board and make it a perfect dozen.

But as conference realignment continues to dominate the college football landscape, there’s no imminent move forthcoming from UMass, according to Director of Athletics Ryan Bamford.

Bamford made it clear this week that his goal – both past and present – has always been to find a conference for the football program, which has played as an independent since leaving the Mid-American Conference (MAC) following the 2015 season. But while the window of joining a conference as a football-only member has seemingly closed, Bamford has stressed that returning to FCS is completely off the table. Thus, the UMass AD is willing to take his time to find the best long-term home for all athletic programs.

Bamford declined comment on potential conference expansion and specific destinations, but he did address the need for finding a football conference for the Minutemen.

“UMass is a proud member of the Atlantic 10 Conference in 19 of our 21 sports,” Bamford said earlier this week. “It is very important to the health and ultimate success of our football program that we find a long-term conference home. We recognize that being one of three remaining Independent FBS programs is not sustainable. Accordingly, we are regularly evaluating conference opportunities that ensure both excellence for UMass athletics competitively and in the experience we provide to our student-athletes.”

Attendance for the 2023 season saw the school average 10,598 fans, according to D1Ticker.com. That number was similar to the program’s attendance in 2022 (10,800) — about 62 percent of McGuirk Alumni Stadium’s capacity. While the program has just six total wins over the past five years, Bamford cautioned that those results don’t tell the full story.

Since taking over for former AD John McCutcheon in 2015, the football budget has increased nearly 40 percent from $7.5 million to just shy of $11 million, and coaching salaries across the board have increased exponentially. The school’s overall athletic budget has increased from $34.5 million to about $45 million during that same span. The football program now has six football analysts, each with a different role, on staff compared to zero almost a decade ago when the school made the move to FBS. McGuirk didn’t even have running water for bathrooms when the program made the FBS move. Simply put, the program was not resourced then at a level necessary for sustained success.

Add in the Martin Jacobson Football Performance Center, which opened in 2014, and there are many behind the scenes/off the field reasons why the football team is headed in a positive direction.

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In terms of financial support, UMass spends around $11 million annually on its football program. For context, UConn spends around $17 million a year, and former independent/Conference USA champion Liberty’s football budget hovers around $20 million. Those are two programs the Minutemen played against this season, and will continue to play for years to come – their direct competitors not just on the gridiron, but in the recruiting world as well.

That financial commitment hasn’t translated into sustained winning yet, but Bamford remains excited about what’s to come because his colleagues around him – like UMass football coach Don Brown – are pouring their heart and soul into building a successful program.

“I am pleased with the progress we are making in football,” Bamford said. “Of course, we would have liked to come away with a few more wins this past season, but anyone who follows the program clearly acknowledges progress is being made. Our team dealt with an unfortunate number of injuries to key personnel this fall while facing one of the most challenging schedules among Group of Five programs across the country.”

Power 5 teams aside, that 2023 schedule included New Mexico State, Miami (Ohio), Toledo, and Liberty – all teams that made it to their respective conference title games. Those programs – for now – also enjoy some recruiting edges over the Minutemen, thanks in some part to their conference ties. But UMass’ advantage comes elsewhere: Name, Image, and Likeness collectives.

Two of the four aforementioned programs (NMSU and Miami-Ohio) don’t even have NIL collectives, and Coastal Carolina, a program that spent nearly two full seasons in the AP Top 25 poll in 2020 and 2021, just shut down their collective entirely.

In contrast, UMass’ “The Midnight Ride” NIL collective raised $100,000 this past week, according to Bamford, and he expects that number to be matched come Early Signing Day between Dec. 20-22. That type of financial statement certainly provides the Minutemen a competitive lift moving into the offseason and beyond.

Come fall of 2024, UMass anticipates that nearly one-third of its scholarship athletes will have strong, legitimate NIL deals made, thanks in large part to “The Midnight Ride” and also “The Massachusetts Collective” – another donor-driven collective supporting the campus’ student-athletes.

Through continuously supporting UMass student-athletes via these collectives, and with a conference tie-in potentially coming down the road, the school’s football team, along with other programs, are hoping to hit big on recruiting.

“Our talent level has improved each of the last two years and we have an opportunity to add more pieces to the roster in this recruiting cycle which will provide depth,” said Bamford. “I remain positive about Coach Brown’s leadership, his program-building plan and our ability to execute and deliver a bowl-eligible competitive result very soon. Supporters of our program continue to invest in our vision allowing us to make ongoing strategic investments that will fuel winning.”

While there is no specific timetable in play for the school in regard to finding a potential new conference, the lack of a football home has remained the program’s biggest impediment for success. Where does that leave UMass in the coming months, as other schools jockey for positioning amid a constantly-changing landscape? Bamford urged patience, saying the school was on track for success over the coming months. Stay tuned.