Cyr: UMass football is the future for college football in New England

By Andrew Cyr

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(Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian)

(Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian)

It’s a typical fall Saturday in New England, and the Massachusetts football team waits to take the field at Gillette Stadium. Temperature in the mid-60s with a slight breeze makes it your stereotypical “perfect” day for football.

As the Minutemen run through the tunnel and take the field, the sites and sounds are all the same. They look up at the Super Bowl banners from the New England Patriots; occasionally you might be able to see the faint outline of the Patriots logo at midfield and in the end zone.  The average fan would have no idea that UMass was the home team unless they noticed the small banners hanging along the bottom of the stands.

The stands are partially filled, many of which are dedicated alumni from the Boston area that traveled down either I-95 or I- 495 to get to Gillette. The student section, however, is vastly empty. There are small groups of people scattered throughout the stands, but not nearly enough to give UMass the home field advantaged it hopes for.

Can you really blame the students for not showing up to these games, though?

They’re asked to drive two hours each way to watch a struggling team in transition into FBS football. After back-to-back 1-11 seasons, it’s clear that the younger demographic of fans isn’t committed to the program quite yet.

But with Mark Whipple back as the head coach, that all can change, very quickly.

The change, and the future, took its first step in the right direction last Saturday, when the Minutemen hosted Boston College in the first annual Battle of the Bay State in front of 30,409 fans. It was the most fans UMass has ever had at an FBS home game.

Was it as big as, say, Alabama vs. Auburn, or Florida vs. Florida State?  No.

But was it a step in the right direction for college football in the northeast?  Absolutely.

The tailgate scene at Gillete was legit. There were UMass flags, there were Boston College flags. There was drinking and grilling and there was plenty of buzz in the air in preparation for kickoff.

And that’s what college football is all about: the environment.

Sure, there were still plenty of empty seats at Gillette and the top level was completely vacant, but would anyone really be opposed to an annual game at Gillette?  It’s not only great for both programs to get publicity, but more importantly it’s great for the fans.  Yes, college football in New England will never get as big as it is in the South or Midwest. But for that one Saturday a year, fans should get to experience that atmosphere.

Boston College has done its part in building a football tradition. From Doug Flutie to Matt Ryan, the Eagles have had success in their program’s history. It’s UMass’ turn to gain some street credit now. The new performance center and improvements to McGuirk Stadium will likely lure in new recruits, but it’s what the Minutemen do on the field that will determine how invested the fans will become.

How cool would it be for 60,000 fans – half wearing maroon and white, the other wearing maroon and gold – to pack Gillette to the rafters?  That’s still many years away from happening, but we can all dream, can’t we?

Andrew Cyr can be reached at [email protected], and can be followed on Twitter @Andrew_Cyr.