A look inside UMass football’s decision to cancel its season

Team was “preparing to play” less than a week ago

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Parker Peters

Parker Peters/Daily Collegian

By Dan McGee, Assistant Sports Editor

Last Wednesday, Massachusetts athletic director Ryan Bamford stated that the UMass football team was “preparing as if they’d be playing football this fall.”

Less than a week later, the UMass athletics department has decided to pull the plug on the fall 2020 football season. The Minutemen will instead hope to play during the spring 2021 semester, barring a positive change in the COVID-19 pandemic.

“After consulting with university, state and public health officials, we have made the difficult decision to cancel the 2020 UMass football season,” said athletic director Ryan Bamford via the athletic department’s press release. “We have been in constant communication with university leadership and our football staff since March, with the health and safety of our student-athletes, coaches and staff remaining our top priority. The continuing challenges surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic posed too great of a risk, and we reached the conclusion that attempting to play a season would not have placed the members of our program in the safest situation possible.”

Bamford said while the team always prepared for a potential season cancellation, he maintained a positive outlook on the fall football season through much of May and June, noting that the team felt comfortable bringing players back to campus for OTAs. With growing uncertainty and a worsening country-wide pandemic however, that hope slowly faded away.

“The reality is the landscape across our country has changed in a way that hasn’t been positive as it relates to the pandemic,” Bamford said. “Ultimately, some of the ambition we had in June was curtailed by some of the things we’ve seen nationally.”

Before cancelling, the Minutemen saw four different games on its schedule postponed due to other teams’ deciding to postpone play this fall. The most recent change to the UMass schedule—an October 17 game against Akron—occurred after the Mid-American Conference became the first FBS conference to cancel college football entirely this fall.

“I think that this decision today, while agonizing for us and our university to take competition away from our young men, is one that we feel comfortable with moving forward,” Bamford said in a conference call. “We’ll try to build an opportunity for us in the spring to play some games if it’s healthy to do so.”

As an FBS independent, UMass was afforded the opportunity to make its own decision to cancel the football season, rather than depending on conference decision-making. However, the decision to cancel the Minutemen season became a more realistic possibility after the MAC’s decision to cancel its season.

“It became the responsible thing to look into cancelling the season and to try to postpone until the Spring,” Bamford said, citing conversations with Bell and other colleagues. “Certainly, over the past week, the grip started to tighten on this decision.”

Since the Minutemen’s decision on Tuesday morning, the Big Ten and PAC-12 became the first two Power Five conferences to cancel their football seasons this fall.

UMass’ decision to cancel largely comes as a result of external factors. Though the team is comfortable with the safety protocols and environment its cultivated on campus and in its facilities, travel concerns and uncertainty on how the pandemic will progress over the coming months raised red flags.

“I think our young men are as safe as they’ll ever be in our care right now,” Bamford said.

Coach Walt Bell stated he spent countless hours on Tuesday conversing with players, recruits, and parents to clarify any questions they may have had regarding the season cancellation. Bell said that telling his players that the season was cancelled was one of the hardest things he has ever had to do, even harder than losing his parents.

“It’s one thing when it’s in your own family and you have a job to do to take care of other people,” Bell said. “When you have to look 109 18-to-21-year-old kids in the face and tell them their dreams aren’t going to come true, it’s a devastating deal.”

Bell and Bamford each said a lot of the questions they have received are pending answers from the NCAA, such as eligibility rules and accountable practice hours. At this point, the team is preparing as if they will be allowed to practice as if there was a season.

Minutemen players will stay on campus through the fall to continue practicing and stay enrolled in classes. As coach, Bell feels responsible for the livelihoods of the UMass roster on and off the field. He says keeping the team on campus will help him foster the Minutemen into a better group of men, and in turn, a better group of players. Safety is a big part of that process, Bell noted.

“The fact that we’ll be able to keep a lot of those guys here makes me feel better about this entire process,” Bell said. “I know they’ll be safe. I know they’ll be tested and have immediate access to medical care. I know they’re going to be fed and they’ll be in a gym with a mask on and properly distant.”

While the lack of a fall season takes away from game reps, Bell is hopeful the team can use the time to better themselves in practice. With one of the youngest rosters in the country, all developmental time is crucial toward building a winning program. UMass could have up to16 weeks to develop together if the NCAA rules in favor of allowing teams to do so.

“For us as a young football program, any bit of time we get to develop is awesome,” Bell said. “I look at this as a positive for us, this is going to be huge for us. I think we’re going to see another huge amount of growth like we had from January till we got sent home in March.”

Though the cancellation of the football season comes as a disappointment to the players and coaching staff, Bell is mindful of making the most of the situation.

“These are the opportunities that are presented to us,” Bell said. “We have anywhere from four to six months to prepare our guys and get them ready to play. Sometimes if you just change the way you look at things, then things change.”

Dan McGee can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @TheDanMcGee.