Athletic Director Ryan Bamford weighs in on UMass’ winter sports struggles in 2016

By Andrew Cyr

Robert Rigo/Daily Collegian)
(Robert Rigo/Daily Collegian)

The turn of the calendar year has not been pretty for the three main Massachusetts winter sports teams. The excuses are growing old, the losses are quickly stacking up and the Mullins Center continues to be less than half full no matter which UMass team – hockey, men’s basketball or women’s basketball – is playing or who’s coming to town.

Across the board, the start of the winter sports seasons provided a glimmer of hope for Minutemen and Minutewomen fans alike. The hockey team started 6-1-2 and looked like it could finally get out of the cellar of the Hockey East, the women’s basketball team was sitting at .500 in non-conference play after a stretch of multiple bad seasons and the men’s basketball team started 5-1 and looked like it could exceed preseason expectations with its mix of veteran guard play and young members in its front court.

But between the hockey team and both the men and women’s basketball teams, UMass is a combined 3-27 in its last 30 games since the start of 2016 as the three teams had only two wins in the month of January, neither of which came at the Mullins Center. Since the start of the new year there has been only one home victory – men’s basketball defeated Rhode Island Feb. 2 61-56 in overtime – in 17 games.

“I think there are always lean times in an athletic department whether it be by program or as a whole,” UMass athletic director Ryan Bamford said. “I feel good about a lot of the success we’ve had with our winter teams. Our swimming teams and track teams are doing well. Obviously the basketballs and hockey are the three that people look at closely and we are not where we want to be in our results. I’m not going to shy away from that.

“We have high expectations for those three teams,” he added. “They are really well funded compared to their peers and I think we have the opportunity to be competitive to win games in all three of those sports. We need to do better.”

There will always be people on both sides of the argument of whether or not wins and losses play a major role in attendance totals too. Some argue that it’s more about the experience and brand name rather than the product on the playing service. But in an area of the country where college sports will always be on the back burner behind New England’s professional teams, it’s extremely hard to promote a program that’s lacking in production.

UMass hockey currently only trails Merrimack in conference attendance while men’s basketball ranks ninth out of 14 teams in the Atlantic 10 and women’s basketball ranks second to last, trailing only La Salle.

“I think we need to engage our students. There are 28,000 strong here right in our back yard,” Bamford said. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised with our crowds at some of the hockey games with the students. I’ve enjoyed that. There’s no doubt that students make our environment a much better one for us to win games and more conducive to success.”

“We need to engage those students in basketball and hockey and all of our other sports, but especially in those ones. In hockey and the two basketballs, it creates a home court advantage, really unlike any other sport in some respects,” he added.

During the Minutemen’s 2013-14 tournament run in men’s basketball, which was undoubtedly the most impactful season that the program has seen in years, the Mullins Center’s average attendance was 6,600 compared to its 3,491 this season. Some of those games, Providence and Virginia Commonwealth in particular, felt like real-time college basketball atmospheres. The student section was in full force and there wasn’t an empty seat in the building from court level all the way up to the rafters. Now, the Mullins Center gets only a handful of students with the t-shirt toss being the first thing that gets people out of their seats making noise.

But what’s next for the program as a whole? Bamford has been adamant on Twitter about fans remaining loyal to the program during the tough times, but as the losses begin to pile up more and more, people are growing impatient with the coaches and even calling for some to be fired.

“I think that any good (athletic director) takes stock of the entire season,” Bamford said when asked about evaluating coaches during the season versus after.

I hope (men’s basketball coach) Derek (Kellogg) and (women’s basketball coach) Sharon (Dawley) and (hockey coach John Micheletto) all go on a run here in February and have a great month and turn it around from where we were in January, then we’ve written a different story,” Bamford said. “I don’t write the story halfway through the year, or three-quarters throughout the year. I like to look at the whole body of work and evaluate.”

With the near future looking rather grim for UMass fans, there’s nothing left to do but wait. Barring some sort of miracle run for the three teams in either the Atlantic 10 or Hockey East conference tournament, the next time people will be talking about the main UMass sports will be in the fall when the football team takes the field with a new quarterback and the best recruiting class in the FBS-era.

Kellogg’s 2016 recruiting class is a good one too. With one ESPN top-100 recruit in DeJon Jarreau and another four-star recruit in Chris Baldwin, the Minutemen’s future certainly looks a lot better than the present.

But again, fans will now expect a group of 18 and 19-year-old kids to completely change the face of a program. It’s certainly not impossible, but it’s putting an awfully large amount of pressure on them to succeed, and do it instantly.

Until then, fans must wait to see if Bamford pulls the trigger on any of UMass’ teams or if he will patiently wait for the musket to reload.

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