The State of the Program Entering I-A
UMass has a football tradition extending back to 1879, though they would only play at the highest levels of the sport until 1906. They would play a regional schedule for the next century, becoming a founding member of the Yankee Conference and a New England powerhouse. In the 1960s they would win the league title six times when the league was a Division II conference.
When the league moved to I-AA status in 1978, the Minutemen were the league’s first champion at the new level. Claiming one of the four spots in the first I-AA playoff, they beat Nevada 44-21 in Reno in the semifinal. UMass would take on Florida A&M in the inaugural I-AA championship game in Wichita Falls, Texas on December 16, but the Minutemen fell to the Rattlers 35-28.
But while they would win the league four more times over the next decade, Massachusetts would not return to the playoffs again until 1988. They fell in the opening round of the bracket to Eastern Kentucky, and suffered the same fate in 1990 against William & Mary.
The trend of fading over a stretch and peaking once a decade continued with their next playoff appearance in 1998. It would prove to be the school’s finest football hour to date, as they rolled through the four-round tournament to the championship.
They had moved to the Atlantic 10 Conference in 1997, and in their sophomore season in the league they claimed the crown with a nondescript 6-2 league record and a 8-3 overall mark through the regular season. Facing McNeese State on the road in the opening round on November 28, the Minutemen survived a 21-19 thriller to reach the quarterfinals. Playing at home against Lehigh on December 5, UMass prevailed 27-21.
Their reward was a trip to the semifinals, where they took on Southland Conference champion Northwestern State in Natchitoches. The two titans dueled in an offensive display, with the Minutemen pulling away in the second half of a 41-31 shootout. Finally earning another shot at the I-AA national title two decades after they had lost to the Rattlers, UMass seized the second chance. Trading punches with Georgia Southern under the dome in Pocatello, Idaho, the Minutemen repeated the formula from the semifinals and pulled away to claim the crown in a 55-43 victory.
Massachusetts repeated as league champions in the Atlantic 10 in 1999 with another 8-3 regular season. They would win their opening-round duel on the road in overtime, 30-23, over Furman. The dream of repeating as national champions ended against a familiar foe, as eventual champ Georgia Southern exacted their revenge for last season in a lopsided 38-21 quarterfinal defeat. It would take another four years to return to the playoffs, and it would end immediately in a 19-7 loss to Colgate.
2006 would mark Massachusetts’ next breakthrough. Winning the Atlantic 10 in their final season of membership, the team claimed another berth in the playoffs. They easily dispatched Lafayette 35-14 at home in the opening round, and stayed at home to knock off New Hampshire 24-17 the following weekend in the quarterfinals. They were forced to travel to Missoula to take on Montana in the semifinals. The game would turn into an instant classic, as the 2001 champions and 2004 finalists went punch for punch with the Minutemen to the final whistle. But the visitors prevailed 19-17, UMass advancing to the championship game against Appalachian State. Another title wasn’t in the works, though, as the Minutemen fell to the Mountaineers 28-17 in Chattanooga.
Massachusetts would leave the Atlantic 10 to become a charter member of the Colonial Athletic Association in 2007. The Minutemen were co-champions of the league alongside Richmond in the CAA’s first season, both teams reaching the playoffs. The Spiders would reach the semifinals before losing to Appalachian State as the Mountaineers cruised to a second straight title (to bookend a season where they upset Michigan in the season opener). UMass beat Fordham 49-35 in the opening round before being overpowered by Southern Illinois in the quarterfinals on the first day of December.
Head coach Don Brown would leave the team after the 2008 season ended in a 7-5 regular season to become the defensive coordinator at Maryland, and new head coach Kevin Morris would skirt the .500 line in each of his three seasons: 5-6 in 2009, 6-5 in 2010, and 5-6 in his final year in 2011 as the team went through their transitional period to the I-A level. As UMass moved to FBS football and the Mid-American Conference in 2012, they replaced Morris with Notre Dame offensive coordinator Charley Molnar. The first-time head coach would be the man to lead the ascendant program to the top tier of the sport.
The First Season
Of course, Molnar had a tough task ahead of him, and the team’s first season in 2012 was painful proof of the work that remained to build a legitimate I-A member out of UMass. The team’s inaugural game was a duel against UConn, the longtime rivals recommencing a football rivalry that had fallen fallow when the Huskies made their own leap to the upper division in 2000. The dozen-year head start was evident, as Connecticut shut out the Minutemen gained only 59 total yards in the 37-0 Thursday-night debacle.
The team’s home opener seemed to be going better at the beginning, as the Minutemen gave up an early touchdown to Indiana but responded with their first touchdown at the I-A level as quarterback Mike Wegzyn ran over the goal line from 16 yards out to pull UMass within one. (The extra-point attempt would fail.) And then the Hoosiers scored another long Tre Robinson touchdown, and another score before the first quarter had ended, and the final result was a 45-6 mismatch as the Minutemen fell to 0-2.
Their trip to Michigan would be even uglier, as Denard Robinson passed and rushed for 397 total yards and accounted for four touchdowns as the Wolverines rolled over Massachusetts 63-13. The silver-lining highlight in the contest was Christian Birt’s 32-yard return of a Robinson interception for a touchdown, the first defensive score in UMass’ I-A history.
Massachusetts then rolled into their first games of MAC competition. The Miami RedHawks knocked off the Minutemen 27-16 on September 22. A return to the cavernous confines of Gillette Stadium resulted in a fifth straight loss, the Ohio Bobcats emerging victorious in a close 37-34 showdown. October opened with a 52-14 pummeling at Western Michigan, followed by a 24-0 shutout loss at home to Bowling Green.
With a trip to Vanderbilt looming on the last weekend of October, UMass was 0-7 overall and 0-4 in MAC play. The Commodores made it eight straight losses in a 49-7 mismatch, and Northern Illinois routed the Minutemen even worse in their BCS Buster season in a crushing 63-0 whitewash to start November.
Akron proved the patsy that finally provided Massachusetts with their first victory at the I-A level. Playing against the Zips on November 10, Wegzyn completed 23 of 39 attempts for 266 yards with a touchdown and an interception as Massachusetts dominated Akron on the road for the 22-14 victory.
It would be the high point in a season with a long learning curve, as Buffalo came to Foxborough the following weekend and dealt UMass a 29-19 loss. Central Michigan completed the season of sputters at Gillette Stadium in a Friday-night MAC showcase, the Chippewas doubling up the Minutemen in the 42-21 beatdown. The victory concluded a 1-11 inaugural season that showed glimmers of promise for Massachusetts but revealed plenty of weaknesses that still needed remedying.
Outlook for the Future
The Minutemen will open their second season of FBS existence in 2013 hoping merely to maintain or (preferably) improve on their first campaign’s record rather than reverting to the only sophomore slump possible. With the MAC continuing to improve across the board in its level of competition as a mid-major league, UMass will likely have more growing pains to endure as they continue to evolve as a program. But there is still time for Molnar to prove his abilities, and consistent improvement is the main goal moving forward.
About the Author: Zach Bigalke
Zach is a historian and author who has been covering sports near and far for various publications since 2006. Formerly the managing editor of Informative Sports and Global Turnstile, he has also been featured at Helium, FanSided, the Portland State Vanguard and other online publications and is the author of three books, including "Dispatches from Vancouver: A Non-Traditional Sports Fan in America's View of the XXI Winter Olympiad". He currently lives in Eugene, Oregon. Follow him at Twitter @zbigalke; for more info on his books, visit Amazon.