Change of future-home for Minutemen disappoints student fan base

By Michael Wood

Jeff Bernstein/Collegian
On Sept. 8, 2012, the Massachusetts football team will line up opposite Indiana at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass. It will mark the school’s debut as a member of the Mid-American Conference and the first time UMass hosts a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent.

As a member of the MAC, the Minutemen will play all of their home games in Foxboro, nearly two hours disconnected from its student body in Amherst. Some argue that the move to Gillette shows that the university and its athletic department are losing touch with the students who support it, worrying too much about alumni and recruiting instead of its current fan base in the Pioneer Valley.

One thing is certain. There are plenty of fans in western Massachusetts who aren’t happy that their team is abandoning them and moving east.

“College football is all about the atmosphere and students go to immerse themselves in that environment and show pride and support for their school,” said 58-year-old James Laughner, a lifelong UMass football fan. “How many Division I football programs can you count that don’t have a real student section for support because they play two hours from their campus?

“I can’t think of a single one.”

One problem the Minutemen will face when they move to Gillette is drawing a crowd. While students argue that playing in Foxboro prevents them from attending each week, there seems to be as many supporters of the move as there are critics.

UMass and MAC administration argue that moving to a bigger stadium will attract more alumni and a wider fan base. Playing there, as the argument goes, brings to life a new faction of supporters who were previously unaware or unable to support the Minutemen in Amherst.

But, in creating this new sect of supporters, there are those on campus who can’t help but feel abandoned and a bit betrayed.

“There’s no way students will travel two hours out of their way on a Saturday morning to go see a football game,” said Jessica Quinn, a sociology student and frequent football attendee. “After a night or two of partying, the last thing anybody wants to do is drive or take a two-hour bus ride to Gillette for a three hour football game. It’s just stupid. The game becomes an all-day ordeal.

“Most people don’t even stay for the whole game when it’s at McGuirk [Alumni Stadium],” Quinn added. “If they don’t stay when it’s five minutes from their dorm, they’re definitely not going across the state to watch.”

Josh Robinson, an engineering student, echoed Quinn’s sentiment and offered another perspective on student attendance for the upcoming fall season.

“I honestly would be surprised if [the team] gets half the crowd of students this year as they have in the past,” said Robinson. “For most of the kids who go, it’s about the tailgating, not the game. If the team isn’t even going to be here after this year, I don’t know how many kids will go. It’s kind of a lost cause.”

Should UMass lose the support of its student section, the team might have a difficult time filling its new home.

Gillette Stadium has a capacity of 68,756 spectators. Last season, in the Colonial Clash against New Hampshire, 32,848 fans filed in to watch the game. While it was the biggest crowd in UMass history, it was less than half of what the stadium can hold. Take out the students and the crowd isn’t nearly as large.

And if the stadium isn’t full, one has to wonder how long it will take for the university’s decision to play two hours from its flagship campus to look like a mistake in the eye of the public.

Despite what will happen in 2012, there is still a season to be played in 2011. The Minutemen will tear through their banner at McGuirk Stadium for their home opener on Sept. 17 as they always do, but for the first time in recent memory, there might be more attention paid to those in the stands than the athletes on the field.

With the opener right around the corner, time will show how local residents support their Minutemen.

Michael Wood can be reached at [email protected]