UMass announces intent to play fall football

  • The UMass practice bubble at McGuirk Stadium will be seeing more activity as the team prepares for the fall season. The school announced on Monday that it will play a limited number of games this fall, reversing a decision it made on Aug. 11 that it was moving football to the spring season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • The UMass practice bubble at McGuirk Stadium will be seeing more activity as the team prepares for the fall season. The school announced on Monday that it will play a limited number of games this fall, reversing a decision it made on Aug. 11 that it was moving football to the spring season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Sports Editor
Published: 9/21/2020 6:58:22 PM

University of Massachusetts head football coach Walt Bell was changing a diaper Sunday morning when he received news that didn’t stink.

Bell handed young Charlie to Maria, his wife, listened to what Athletic Director Ryan Bamford had to say, then headed to his office for a full day’s work.

Bell met with his team Monday morning and told them that the school was calling an audible and shifting football back to the fall season.

While details of a season haven’t been released, UMass announced that it will play a limited number of games this fall, reversing a decision it made on Aug. 11 that it was moving football to the spring season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“That was a great room to be in this morning. We’ve got a lot of kids that are really, really happy,” said Bell, who thanked UMass administrators for getting it done. “It was a great morning, you enjoy it, but now the work starts.”

UMass pivoted from its plans due to the changing college football landscape. The Big 10 Conference recently jumped back into the fall season, while the Pac-12 is re-evaluating its decision. Other conferences could follow suit.

With more teams playing now, spring football suddenly looked less appealing than it did in early August.

“The opportunities in the spring were starting to dry up,” Bamford said in a virtual press conference. “We put our heads together and ultimately said ‘what’s in the best interest based on where we are today with our young men and the program,’ and this is in the best interest of them and our football program moving forward. So we are going to do everything we can and fully intend to play some games this fall.”

Budget concerns

The shift to fall football comes less than a week after the athletic department announced that 57 staff members would see a reduction of work hours and/or furloughs.

Bamford said the financial situation is not related to the football announcement.

“We’re going to be mindful of our expenses, but those didn’t weigh in here,” Bamford said. “We’re in the business of creating opportunities, competitive and otherwise for the young people in our program and that was at the end of the day our top priority in making this decision. … Obviously we’re in a really challenging time from a financial standpoint, but we’re going to be fiscally responsible as we move forward, not just football but all the scheduling we do and all the decisions we make through the end of this academic year.”

“We’re back to a base budget and the decisions we make moving forward have to be cost-neutral,” he added. “That’s how we’re looking at this.”

Record of health

UMass has been one of the healthiest and safest programs in terms of testing in the country since players returned to campus in June.

When UMass postponed the season in August, the program has conducted 764 tests, with 763 being negative. The one positive test came from an arriving player. Over the past 13 weeks more than 1,800 COVID-19 tests have been administered to members of the football program with only one additional positive. That second positive test came from a player who returned home for personal reasons, then returned to school, according to Bamford.

All players, coaches and support staff will continue to be tested multiple times per week.

“As a football coach today you’re fighting two battles. You’re fighting the battle of keeping your team as safe and clean as humanly possible, and then the opponent at the end of the week,” Bell said. “That is a huge part of our ability to have a chance to play games and our ability to be smart and take care of ourselves.”

Since the season started, several college football games have been postponed due to positive COVID cases.

“The scary part is there is some luck involved,” Bell said. “We’ve done a good job up until this point. We have to continue to do so if we are going to be able to have the opportunity to play football.”

Amherst Town Manager Paul Bockelman said he trusts that the university and the program’s opponents will be following state guidelines designed to prevent COVID-19 infections, including having a negative test result that has been administered up to 72 hours before arriving in Massachusetts, or quarantining for 14 days.

“Our concern is in maintaining public health and protecting the general population, including students, from the pandemic,” Bockelman said.

Playing possibilities

UMass will target a mid-October starting date. Bamford was hopeful to schedule anywhere from three to six games. It’s possible the Minutemen could play every other week.

“I don’t know where we will be two-three weeks from now,” he said. “It’s kind of why we really just settled into how we want to schedule. We need to keep observing what’s happening across the country and make some good decisions that are in our best interest.”

When UMass postponed the season the Minutemen had lost six of their 12 opponents, including Auburn, which carried a $1.9 million payout for UMass.

UConn, Albany, New Mexico, New Mexico State and Akron pushed their seasons to the spring, while Auburn is playing a Southeastern Conference-only schedule.

Troy, Auburn, Appalachian State, Temple, FIU, Army and Liberty are currently playing fall football. Bamford said playing them is possible.

“You start there because you already have contracts with them and if you need to shift things you have those preexisting relationships,” he said. “We’ve opened our opportunities and eyes to a whole host of other games and other opponents.”

UMass players stated their preference to play this fall in a social media post last week.

Redshirt sophomore tight end Jaret Pallotta tweeted: “Earlier this summer, the University of Massachusetts showed faith in the commitment and discipline of their football staff and student-athletes. Through thoughtful and conscientious choices, we responded to that faith by proving to be possible the safest program in the country. After over 1,000 tests administered to our players and staff, we have had 2 positive. We stayed healthier than almost every other team in the country and somehow find ourselves in the minority group of teams that do not have a season in the fall or possible spring. Those efforts and sacrifices were made with a reciprocal faith that upon our success, we would be rewarded a chance to play the sport we love. We fulfilled our obligation and, like almost every other FBS program in the country, the University of Massachusetts needs to find a way to fulfill theirs. #WeWantToPlay”

The post was liked and shared by many, including Bell, former coach Jim Reid and UMass Hall of Fame running back Rene Ingoglia.

“Our kids want to play and obviously we support there want to do so,” Bell said.

Players who choose not to practice or play this fall can opt out of the season with no impact to their NCAA eligibility, roster status or scholarship aid agreement.

Bell said only three players have opted out of the season.

UMass will not host fans for home games at McGuirk Alumni Stadium this fall.

Staff writer Scott Merzbach contributed to this report. Mike Moran can be reached at mmoran@gazettenet.com. Follow on Twitter @mikemoranDHG.



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