What made UMass an appealing option for the MAC to offer its first full membership spot since 1998?

MAC commissioner Dr. Jon Steinbrecher, right, speaks along with Director of Athletics Ryan Bamford and Chancellor Javier Reyes during a press conference at the Martin Jacobson Football Performance Center on Thursday regarding the University of Massachusetts joining the Mid-American Conference.

MAC commissioner Dr. Jon Steinbrecher, right, speaks along with Director of Athletics Ryan Bamford and Chancellor Javier Reyes during a press conference at the Martin Jacobson Football Performance Center on Thursday regarding the University of Massachusetts joining the Mid-American Conference. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

By GARRETT COTE

Staff Writer

Published: 03-08-2024 12:43 PM

AMHERST — About a decade ago, the UMass football program wrapped up its four-year stint (2012-2015) in the Mid-American Conference having started, and finished, as one of the least successful programs during its time in the conference.

Given that the Minutemen had just begun life as an FBS team when they first joined the MAC, an 8-40 record over those seasons can be somewhat excused.

But the bottom line is that UMass struggled mightily in the MAC not that long ago, and hasn’t seen better results since then (24 wins in 12 seasons, 1-10 against MAC opponents since leaving in 2015). Yet MAC officials, including commissioner Jon Steinbrecher, feel much different about UMass’ dedication to its football program now nearly 10 years later. And last fall, road wins over Army and New Mexico State raised their collective eyebrows.

On Thursday, the commissioner said the opportunity to add an overall athletic program as deep in tradition and wide-ranging as UMass – with a blossoming football team – was too good to pass up.

“I very much enjoyed our relationship with Massachusetts at that time, but when you’re an affiliate member, you’re renting, not owning… UMass is all in now, and that helps,” Steinbrecher said when asked what’s different this time around. “I think they’ve continued to make wise investments. I really like what I see out of the leadership of the program. You can just see, some of the wins they had last year, you step back and go, ‘Wow, those are really nice stair steps to future success for the program.’”

Steinbrecher mentioned that, as the commissioner, he only expands for two reasons: to survive, or strengthen. It’s clear the MAC lives by that adage, because the conference hadn’t accepted a full member since 1998.

UMass averaged two wins per season in its previous partnership with the MAC. Come 2025, Steinbrecher expects the Minutemen to compete at a high level and push their peers to improve on all fronts.

“Again, I think we expect us to build off of each other,” Steinbrecher said. “You don’t bring in programs to come and languish at the bottom. You bring in programs where hopefully everybody pushes each other. We’re all competitive, and I expect that to occur here.”

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One of the most important developments in the ever-changing landscape of college football has been Name, Image, Likeness (NIL), and having a strong, established collective goes a long way. Well, UMass has just that with the Midnight Ride Collective, and Steinbrecher admitted that appealed to the MAC when discussing the program.

“You look at the breadth and width of a program, and I liked what they were doing [on the NIL front],” Steinbrecher said. “That will pay dividends with their program and for our conference down the road.”

UMass director of athletics Ryan Bamford wasn’t the least bit surprised when conversations with the MAC progressed in the fall to the point where joining the conference became very likely. When UMass played in the MAC in the mid-2010s, the football program – from a financial standpoint – was ranked at the bottom of nearly every category.

That certainly isn’t the case now.

“We gave away the Eastern Michigan game, we gave away the New Mexico game; I think we had a chance to win five or six games last year,” Bamford said. “I’m excited to play these five MAC games this fall. I think it’s a great entree for us as we go into the league and play eight the following year.

“When we left the MAC in 2015, I referenced all of our materials back then,” he continued. “Out of 13 schools at the time, in football, we were 12th out of 13 in spending and 12th out of 13 in coaching salaries. If we were in the MAC right now, we’d be one or two in all of those categories with Toledo. And I can tell you, when we go into the MAC in two years, we will be No. 1 in all those categories. That is very different than it was 10 years ago.”