UMass is following in the footsteps of the Huskies, who upgraded to the Football Bowl Subdivision (then known as Division I-A) more than a decade ago. Now the Minutemen are making the leap from the Football Championship Subdivision, joining the Mid-American Conference, and playing the Huskies in their first FBS game.
"It's like waking up in July and coming downstairs and finding out its Christmas," first-year UMass coach Charley Molnar said Monday.
Molnar, UConn coach Paul Pasqualoni, and many others are hoping the biggest present under the tree will be a fresh start for New England rivalries – including Boston College. The renewal of this series, which dates back to 1897, is a good place to start.
"I think that we're all very excited about it and the possibilities and potential of what a rivalry with Massachusetts can mean," Pasqualoni said. "With conference affiliations now being what they are, playing UMass will give us a chance to have an Eastern game regardless of the location [of our conference opponents]. It's exciting for the fans, easy to get to, and has a chance to be a great game."
UConn defensive coordinator Don Brown understands where this fits into the big picture – perhaps better than anyone. Brown was head coach at UMass from 2004-08, posting a 95-45 record and taking the Minutemen to the 2006 FCS championship game before losing to Appalachian State.
|UConn defensive coordinator Don Brown (Ken Davis)|
Before that, Brown was defensive coordinator at UMass in 1998 and 1999. The 1998 team went 12-3 and won the Division I-AA championship. Brown said the upgrade is a great thing for UMass and the Spencer, Mass., native says it is exciting to have three FBS teams now.
"It's a very, very positive thing," he said. "It's happening and it's nice for us to all be a part of it. When you are a New England college football coach, at times you felt like you were a red-headed stepchild, you really did. To see this happen over the last decade is good."
Brown wants all three schools to take advantage of the situation. He said as recently as 2007, his AD at UMass told him the upgrade would never happen.
"The people that make these decisions are bigger than me, but somebody's got to figure this out so that the three teams can find a way to play each other on a year-to-year basis," Brown said. "For New England college football to have three programs at the I-A level, they've got to play each other. It's really good for the fan base and really good for New England."
Conference realignment has made scheduling one of the toughest tasks in college football. Pasqualoni said a series with UMass it is something he needs to discuss with Warde Manuel, UConn's first-year athletic director. And in recent months it seems the cold war between UConn and BC might be thawing a bit. Those who believe that regional rivalries are good for college football will fight for a solution.
One of the oddities of the UMass-UConn situation is the fact neither school will play home games on campus. The Huskies had to build Rentschler Field in East Hartford as part of their upgrade to I-A. and UMass will take an evern longer hike from campus to Gillette Stadium, home of the New England Patriots in Foxboro, Mass.
Indiana, the same team that helped open Rentschler Field, travels to Foxboro on Sept. 8 for the first home game for the Minutemen. One week later UMass will play Michigan at Ann Arbor.
The non-campus settings do not bother Pasqualoni.
"I just think it makes a lot of sense from the geographic standpoint for our fans," Pasqualoni said of the possible series. "We drive up to Foxboro, they drive down here to Rentschler Field. It just makes it an overall win-win for everybody."
Molnar says UConn set the upgrade blueprint for UMass. Thursday night, both schools can start expanding on the plan.
It seems like a good idea. Molnar thinks it would bring new attention to New England football.
"I think everybody looked at UConn and said, ‘If they can do it, why can't we?' I think that's a fair statement," Molnar said. "UConn had a great advantage, being associated with a BCS conference with the Big East. That's a leg up. What UConn did is they built it right. They built a great football [facility] just like we're doing ourselves. They created a stadium that was appropriate for BCS level football.
"We have an opportunity to play a great game and create a new rivalry – or create an old rivalry, so to speak. What I want to happen at the end of the game, regardless of what the outcome is, is that fans from both sides – 40,000 people in that stadium – say let's do this again next year."