UMass football linked to UConn’s impending move to independence

  • Warren P. McGuirk Alumni Stadium at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Photographed on Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019.

  • Warren P. McGuirk Alumni Stadium at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Photographed on Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019.

Staff Writer
Published: 10/23/2019 6:13:57 PM

AMHERST – The announcement wasn’t even official before social media started blowing up.

The reports of UConn’s decision to leave the American Athletic Conference in late June caused an avalanche of posts supporting UMass to fill the Huskies’ vacancy. At long last, the Minutemen had a feasible conference they could join and not miss out on the latest round of realignment.

At the same time as the reports and eventual announcement were being made, UMass athletics director Ryan Bamford was leaving Amherst on an anniversary vacation with his wife, Erica. Well before the plane took off on that June day, Bamford was aware of the impending move thanks to a good relationship with UConn athletics director David Benedict. He didn’t know the timeline of the announcement, he said, but he knew that the move would only stand to benefit the Minutemen.

“From my standpoint, the University of Connecticut – and really for that matter, any FBS program going from a conference to an independent status in football – is an advantage for the University of Massachusetts,” Bamford said in August. “It’s one more school that needs us, that needs games, that needs to build partnerships. Selfishly, the fact that it was flagship state institution in New England, one of three that’s playing FBS football, was a real highlight for us to say that it’s a great opportunity for us to have UConn on our schedule every year and build a rivalry.” In the three months since UConn announced its plan to leave the AAC and join the Big East for all sports while moving independent in football, the American has not openly sought any replacement for the Huskies. And behind the scenes, there isn’t much of an appetite for the Minutemen to jump the ship, either.

Bamford said UConn’s departure from the American made the conference a less appealing option than it did before when the AAC had both UConn and Temple as members.

“From a football standpoint, looking at a league like the American with UConn and Temple in there would have made some sense,” Bamford said. “Now, I don’t think it does and we’ve found that being an independent and getting a really good, competitive, balanced schedule is doable. Now having lived it for three years and scheduling for the next three or four, there’s no real impetus for us to get into a league when I think there’s going to be more independent football-playing schools in the next three-to-five years as there’s going to be conference realignment.”

Bamford’s hypothesis is based on the fact that UMass has proven it can break the mold of traditional college football with its scheduling philosophy. The stigma before was that it would be difficult to find games to craft a schedule as an independent, but Bamford and the athletic department have found ways to schedule home-and-homes with Group of Five peers and fit in the requisite buy games from Power Five foes. And as the number of independents grows larger, so too does the pool of possible opponents, stimulating the cycle anew.

The big challenge for UMass – and UConn starting next season – is being successful on the field as an independent. The current crop of independents, including the Huskies, is 18-30 this season with 11 of those victories belonging to the traditional three of Army, BYU and Notre Dame. Only Liberty has won more than one game – the Flames sit at 5-2 – while UMass, New Mexico State and UConn are a combined 1-18 against FBS foes. But even without the on-field success, Bamford said UMass’ stability could entice more programs to make the jump in the future.

“There’s going to be more schools that jump into independent realizing that we’ve done it and we can do it, and it’s not just Army and BYU and Notre Dame doing it, who are kind of outliers,” Bamford said. “It’s us and New Mexico State and Liberty and now UConn. We can do it, now all of us need to prove we can do it and win. It’s one thing to get a schedule, it’s another thing to go win against that schedule, that’s our next step, we need to start winning six, seven, eight games against a balanced schedule.”

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