After Wednesday's press conference, all talk about the University of Massachusetts football program naturally revolved around its future. But lost in the chatter and debate about Gillette Stadium, the Mid-American Conference, bowl games and exciting potential nonconference opponents were any thoughts about the present.
Minutemen will have little to play for in 2011 football season
AMHERST - After Wednesday's press conference, all talk about the University of Massachusetts football program naturally revolved around its future.
But lost in the chatter and debate about Gillette Stadium, the Mid-American Conference, bowl games and exciting potential nonconference opponents were any thoughts about the present.
The rest of 2011 figures to be an odd time for UMass football. Fans are already talking about this fall like it's the brussels sprouts they have to finish before they can have dessert.
Who can think about a game at Holy Cross when a game against National Power Du Jour could be coming down the road? One game at a time? Even one season at a time seems unrealistic right now.
NCAA rules leave the 2011 Minutemen with little to play for. Even if they have the best record in the Colonial Athletic Association, CAA spokesman Scott Meyer said the league wouldn't recognize UMass as its champion and the Minutemen won't get to play for an FCS championship, previously the stated aspiration of every UMass team, according to coach Kevin Morris. Without that carrot dangling, Morris is pointing to immediate goals.
"This is a very focused group. We're focused on being a great day-to-day team," he said. "Can we be a great practice team? Can we be the best practice team ever at UMass? That will translate into great Saturdays in the fall."
The Minutemen players said mature things on Thursday morning after spring practice. They want to leave the CAA as champions, even if it's unofficially. If this is to be the last season at McGuirk Stadium, they want to close the old stadium in style.
"It's exciting, but we feel bad for our seniors," said freshman quarterback Brandon Hill. "They're losing something to play for. This is the last year of football for some of them. We have to make it one to remember and give them a good year."
Seniors-to-be Tyler Holmes and Julian Talley, who lose any chance for postseason this year, and will be gone before FBS play in 2012, were understanding of the situation.
"It's definitely a little bit weird for me," Talley said. "For the young guys, it's going to be a good experience for them, a good step for them going up against the best competition they can. I'm happy for the program. It's unfortunate for me that I won't be here by the time they make the transition, but I'm happy for the program. We still have an opportunity to be the best in the CAA. We want to take care of that," Talley continued. "We have to try to go out with a bang. Being the last group to play in McGuirk is definitely special."
Holmes said an chance to play football would be enough to keep him motivated.
"It's bittersweet," Holmes said. "I'm excited for the program, seeing their advancement going to FBS. But it's also my senior season. This might be the last time I get a chance to strap on the pads. So I'll still have the same level of excitement getting to play every Saturday."
Holmes said the seniors weren't surprised by the announcement.
"We had a little senior meeting in December so we knew this could be happening," he said. "We'll be ready to take care of business in the fall."
Sympathy is easy to muster for Holmes. The linebacker has been as good as any player on the field for the Minutemen in recent years. He's a leader, and a talented athlete with a knack for making big plays. Off the field he's been a class act, a great ambassador for the program. If anybody deserves the chance to finish their career in the playoffs, it's him.
Many people in Holmes' position would have been tempted to ask for a redshirt. He played as a true freshman and therefore could sit out this year and complete his college career against FBS opponents in 2012. But he didn't seem interested in that.
"I had a great junior season last year. I want to build off that season and kind of get it while it's hot," Holmes said. "I'll be excited to come back as an alum and watch them in MAC play. I wish I could be playing in the MAC, but I'm very excited for the young guys and where the program is headed."
The upgrade puts Morris is a difficult position. With an 11-11 record in two seasons, he'll certainly come under an extra helping of scrutiny as the program moves up. His performance will be judged on his ability to lead a team with nothing truly tangible to play for. That's a difficult spot for anybody.
Morris said there was pressure on him to win, but he didn't think the upgrade increased that pressure.
"It's right in my wheelhouse. That's why I'm here. This is a great program to begin with. Going I-A is great for the program. Our kids want to play at the highest level. I want to coach at the highest level," he said. "Winning is my job. If we were (staying) in the CAA and we don't win there, I'm not going to be here anyway. There's no difference in that. When you're in Division I as a head coach you've gotta win."
Opinion is mixed on the upgrade. While some fans have called it one of the greatest things to ever happen to the athletic department, others predict playing unknown rivals 100 miles from campus will be a disaster.
But as everyone waits to find out whether the future brings heaven or hell, they can agree 2011 figures to be an odd purgatory.