UMass coach fighting headwinds to build a program

Charley Molnar would like you to know he’s not crazy. Really, he isn’t. He has a vision for fielding a competitive University of Massachusetts football program some day soon, even if everything fans saw on the field last season belies such a notion. 
A year ago, UMass finished its first season as an FBS program 1-11 and ranked dead last among 124 teams in points per game and total offense. The Minutemen weren’t much better on defense. They ranked 118th in points allowed and were outscored 482-152
So yes, it’s no wonder why some might question Molnar’s grasp on reality when the second-year UMass head coach says his team will be “darn good in the near future.” But you can’t change a man’s convictions so easily, and he understands there will be no shortcuts to see his vision through.
“I knew it was going to be a process,” Molnar told FOXSportsWisconsin.com. “I didn’t want to speed through the first year. I wanted to use due diligence. Put the foundation down and I’m very, very confident that we did that. 
“I’m confident we’re making a program that’s built to last as opposed to going for the quick fix and trying to win three games our first year and recruiting all sorts of players that didn’t necessarily fit the profile of what we think a UMass football player should be.”
UMass will open its second season as an FBS program at 11 a.m. CT Saturday against No. 23 Wisconsin in Camp Randall Stadium. The Minutemen are 45-point underdogs, on the wrong end of the biggest point-spread for any FBS team in Week 1. 
Given last year’s results, it isn’t a surprise many pundits are considering the Minutemen to be among the worst teams in the FBS again. USA Today’s Paul Myerberg ranked UMass No. 124 out of 125, noting, “10 losses seem a safe pick.” The only team ranked worse is Georgia State, which has yet to play a game as an official FBS program. 
The reasons for such minimal expectations are plain to see. Aside from the statistics on the field, UMass has struggled to transition from the FCS to the FBS, when the program suddenly leapt from 65 scholarships to 83. The Minutemen hardly had an FBS-ready program to begin with, and tracking down enough talented players to fill out the roster proved difficult. This season, college football guru Phil Steele has calculated UMass will be comprised of 71.11 percent underclassmen, the third-highest percentage in the nation among 125 FBS teams.
“When you’re a transition team, there’s so many factors that are against you,” Molnar said. “The first thing is even at our best moment in time we were only in the 70s of scholarship football players. The rest of the guys were non-scholarship guys that we put on aid in order to get to the NCAA minimums. Every team has to go through that. 
“We weren’t trying to win the national championship last year. What we were really trying to do was just put the foundation of our program down, and I think we’ve accomplished that.”
Molnar spent a good deal of time last season trying to keep morale manageable, while UMass got pounded by the likes of Connecticut (37-0), Indiana (45-6), Michigan (63-13), Western Michigan (52-14), Vanderbilt (49-7) and Northern Illinois (63-0). For a group without the skill set to compete in its first season in the Mid-American Conference, it was a shock to the system.
“There were a number of players on our team that had been recruited as FCS players that were MAC-level players immediately,” Molnar said. “The vast majority of the team was FCS-quality football players. You can’t win in the Mid-American Conference or against Big Ten opponents with a team comprised of guys like that.”
This season, Molnar has added 22 signees, and seven of them are offensive linemen. He said the line was decimated by injuries a year ago, creating even more problems up front that stalled an already point-challenged Minutemen team. Molnar has also added wide receiver Ricardo Miller, a fifth-year transfer from Michigan, and freshman running back Lorenzo Woodley, one of the most highly touted players in program history.
Whether any of those additions generate more victories remains to be seen, but it appears to represent a good start. Molnar also hopes he can convince fans to be a part of something from the ground up, increasing interest and potentially donor money. At Molnar’s previous stop, as offensive coordinator at Notre Dame, hundreds of thousands of fans moved with the rhythms of Fighting Irish football every fall.
Molnar has tried engaging the fan base on the Eastern part of the state, but in an area with plenty of pro sports — the Celtics, Red Sox, Patriots and Bruins among them — UMass football lags behind.
“A lot of these alumni, different maybe than Wisconsin or other major universities, they didn’t necessarily make it their Saturday ritual to travel back to Amherst to come and watch the Minutemen play,” Molnar said. “Now, people that have never gone to UMass games since the day they graduated all of a sudden started coming to games again. Not in droves. And why would they? It’s a process to build a fan base just like it is to build a football program.”
That process was not kind to UMass a year ago, when the Minutemen played 100 miles away from campus at the New England Patriots’ Gillette Stadium while the team’s home venue, McGuirk Stadium, was being renovated — a scenario that will continue in 2013.
Gillette Stadium seats 68,756 fans. Last season, UMass drew an average of 10,902 fans per game — down from 13,008 the previous season. And because the NCAA has rules for FBS programs that average home attendance must be 15,000 at least once every two years, the Minutemen already are on the cusp of facing a 10-year probation period.
Making matters worse? The school spent $7.16 million on football last year but brought in just $6.44 million in revenue. The athletic department reported a deficit of $715,068 for football. As a means of comparison, Wisconsin spent $24.23 million on football and generated revenue of $48.41 million — more than $24 million in profit.
And then there is the issue of the Faculty Senate at UMass, whose indecision about whether the school should continue at the FBS level threatened to scare off recruits in the offseason and hurt Molnar’s cause even further.
In December, the Faculty Senate was so concerned over the increase in spending on the football program that it voted on a motion to have the team leave the FBS and return to the FCS. The vote failed by a 19-18 margin with one abstention. The lone abstention, professor Max Page, was adamantly opposed to the program’s FBS move in the first place, but he was out of the country and couldn’t vote.
A different outcome wouldn’t have changed the course of UMass football because it was merely a suggestion from the faculty. Still, it did show how divided people at the school were on a UMass ascension into the FBS.
UMass will try to offset its debt by playing sacrificial lamb to several top-level FBS programs over the next few years. The Minutemen will earn $900,000 for playing at Wisconsin in the season opener and another $750,000 for playing at Kansas State on Sept. 14. The program will then take home an $850,000 paycheck for playing at Penn State next season, $1 million for a game at Notre Dame in 2015 and $1.25 million for playing at Florida in 2016.
Despite all of these drawbacks, Molnar remains confident about the future of a UMass football team expected to win no more than two games this season.
How many wins would constitute success in his mind?
“I’ve been asked that question about 100 times and the answer is always going to be the same,” Molnar said. “I can measure progress from the inside out easier than you can from the outside in. I see where our players are, how we’re handling our business in the classroom, on the field, on campus and I see the great improvement that our guys have made. 
“From that standpoint, I’m sure the progress will continue. We’ll be darn good. It may not be in 2013. Might be. But we will be darn good in the near future, so that’s what I’m really looking forward to.”
Is Molnar’s optimism crazy? Or crazy enough to create change against the forces at play? Only time will tell.

Follow Jesse Temple on Twitter