Sunday April 24, 2011

The questions surrounding Wednesday's announcement that the University of Massachusetts is moving its football team up to the Mid-American Conference are many.

All of the questions concerning ticket sales, sponsorships, support from alumni and scheduling take a back seat to the single most important question: Is coach Kevin Morris' team and staff prepared to make the jump up?

Morris, the Williams College graduate, is 11-11 in two seasons as the Minutemen's coach. Not terrible, but not great for a school that has had difficulties replacing record-setting quarterback Liam Coen two years ago. Morris was the offensive coordinator under former head coach Don Brown and moved up when Brown -- now the defensive coordinator for Paul Pasqualoni at UConn -- took the defensive coordinator's job at Maryland.

When you talk with the third-year head coach, he says the pressure on the coaching staff isn't changing just because the Minutemen will be playing in Gillette Stadium in 2012.

"There's always pressure to win," Morris said. "We were 6-5 last year with a couple of losses that were heartbreakers -- they were 'woulda, shoulda, coulda.' We have to come back off that and whether we're playing in the CAA or the SEC or now with the MAC, coming into 2012, you've got to win. There's no secret there."

There's also no secret to winning at the FBS level -- better players. That, according to Morris, means better and more focused


recruiting.

"We really have to be sharp in how you recruit. There's no room for error now because you're looking at Division I athletes, and there aren't as many running around as there are for the pool for [Division] I-AA."

Right now, only Boston College and Connecticut swim in the Division I-FBS pool, or the deep end of college football, if you will. The Minutemen are swimming into the deep water starting in 2012, and while that presents challenges to Morris and his staff, it also presents opportunities.

"The kids were coming up to us [and saying] 'I hear you're going to the MAC. I heard you're going Division I.' When anybody's talking about your school when you walk into a high school and they say 'UMass is going Division I,' once it gets out, it's all over," Morris said. "It really helped us, just getting in the door at some schools. The lure of Division I really helped us in this year's recruiting class."

The bad news for the current crop of Minutemen is that they won't be able to play for a Colonial Athletic Association or NCAA Division I-FCS championship this year. That's because of the move up. And next year, while UMass will be a member of the MAC, it won't be eligible to play for the conference title or earn a bowl bid until 2013.

That leaves two groups of UMass seniors in a little football limbo. It doesn't mean the Minutemen are going to go through the motions in 2011.

"We're looking to win the CAA. Whether we can win it outright in terms of officially. That's our plan, to get back on top," Morris said. "It's our last shot at the CAA. Let's make it a great one."