Friday, January 04, 2013

Minutemen, what Minutemen? (Hey, we’ve got real Patriots.)

With the  exception of hockey, UConn women’s basketball, and (possibly) the Harvard-Yale Game, college sports are just not that big a deal in New England.

We may be sports-obsessed, but it tends to be the professional sports teams that obsess us.

So Boston College’s having a miserable football season doesn’t even elicit a yawn beyond the locker room at Chestnut Hill, and the only tickets that play hard to get are Boston College – Boston University hockey, and the Bean Pot final (especially when it pits BC vs. BU).

But college football, which is madly followed in many other parts of the country?

Maybe, given the Irish Catholic angle, there’s a bit of interest when BC plays Notre Dame. But, mostly, college sports is a big, fat ‘who cares’ for anyone other than those who play them, and those who know and love those who play them.

Yet our lack of appreciation for and interest in big time college sports has not stopped the University of Massachusetts (Amherst) from funneling millions of our precious taxpayer dollars into trying to build UMass football into something other than what God intended it to be: a nice little game played on a mellow, sun-dappled New England fall afternoon, at a stadium that students can walk to. If they leave at half-time to go get (more) buzzed, so be it.

But UMass, which somewhere along the way built up a marching band that would do any football factory proud, decided that they needed to field a football team worthy of the band.

This entailed a move from the Football Championship Subdivision, where you get to play in putz groups like the Ivy League and the Patriot League (home of West Point, Lehigh, and Holy Cross), to the Football Bowl Subdivision, where you get to play for the opportunity to compete in putz bowls like the Chick-Fil-A and Belk Bowls. But that means you get to play semi-pro, minor-league NFL teams. And that you get to offer a lot more “scholar-ath-a-letes” a lot more “scholarships.”

For its first season in the bigs, the only bowl UMass qualified for was the Toilet Bowl. They went 1-11, and that was against a pretty non-glamorous roster of opponents, including the Central Michigan Chippewas and the Akron Zips. When what you really lust after is playing the University of Michigan Wolverines and the Ohio State Buckeyes.

Well, on review of the UMass 2012 schedule, I do see that they got some dream fulfillment going there. The Minutemen did have the opportunity to get coldcocked by the Wolverines. But mostly they played against lesser lights.

Fortunately, they did get to play the Akron Zips, which provided them with their only win. (I was going to write that ‘they don’t call them the Zips for nothing’ but, like UMass, the Zips managed to eke out one measly win and, like UMass, went 1-11.)

Football factories are not, of course, built in a day, so we can’t expect that our boys are going to be beating Alabama anytime soon.

But as part of the grand experiment, the folks in Amherst decided that they couldn’t keep playing in their squinchy football stadium. They’d need to play in a bigger and better facility. To wit, the move to home gaming at Gillette Stadium, where the New England Patriots – our true boys of autumn, our true home town honeys -  bang helmets.

The bad news is that this is almost 100 miles from campus, making it difficult for students to get a bit of a buzz on and decide they want to stroll across the quad and take in a spot of football.

The good news was supposed to be that there are hundreds of thousands of UMass alumni living in the eastern part of the state. And they, presumably, would be more willing to head over to Gillette rather than trudge out to Amherst.

This calculus, of course, doesn’t factor in that, by the time you add in the time it takes to get out of the Gillette parking lot after a game, you would have had time for a leisurely drive home from Amherst, taking the slow route on Route 9, and stopping for dinner in Worcester along the way.

Whether traffic was the reason or not, UMass alumni weren’t showing up in droves to watch “their” team at Gillette.

When the Minutemen played their first homecoming game in Foxborough — a 24-0 loss in October to Bowling Green — they drew a crowd of only 10,846 to the 68,756-seat stadium. (Source: Boston.com)

I’ve been to a few New England Revolution (soccer) games, so I know what it’s like to rattle around at Gillette, but for UMass, things got even worse. For their final game of the season – a loss to the Chippewas – they drew a bit over 6,000 fans. Pretty grim, given that some of the reasoning behind moving up to the higher football division was to perk up alumni commitment (i.e., donations) to the school. So far, so bad.

The sea of empty seats was especially stunning because the Minutemen had been accustomed to nearly packing their campus stadium for homecoming games. Over the previous five years, they had played before average crowds of 13,937 at the 17,000-seat McGuirk Alumni Stadium, on the UMass Amherst campus.

This is, of course, costing both students and taxpayers.

Oh, it’s “only” costing about $5 million for the year (not counting the $3 million that went towards paying down the cost of upgrading the on-campus stadium that’s no longer in us).  But it’s the thought that counts, and this doesn’t seem like a very good one.

I understand the hunger on the part of some on campus for the “total” experience that big time college football brings. But at the same time it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that, for many schools, what comes with big time athletics is bit time trouble. The sham of bringing in so many students with no real shot at the pros, and providing them with a less than mediocre education, as happens in so many of the major programs. The slavish fawning over of the football system that ends up with Joe Paterno’s statue being taken down at Penn State. The glorification of athletes that results in crimes committed by those athletes getting swept under the rug – and not just at the total football factories; even at the so-called “good” schools like Notre Dame.

What’s wrong with having a nice little local program? Play the other New England state universities, and schools like Holy Cross? Why not keep it on campus, where students can attend more easily? What’s wrong with 13,000 people watching a football game on a nice Indian Summer day? Does it have to be 90,000 diehards screaming for blood?

Personally, I’d rather see that taxpayer money go for scholarships, or labs, or a few more professors.

Forget putting medical marijuana on the ballot. Can’t we vote on this?

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