Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

A Sense of Proportion

On Saturday, October 16, 2010, there was a football game about which I have written before in this space – but the writing was not about the athletic activity itself. As a marching band alumni of the University of Massachusetts, I have spent a very long time paying not very much attention to the actual sports going on in the games that I attended.

A few games were memorable enough for me to remember the final score, but those were a scant few. My last home game was a 52-10 smackdown by Holy Cross – but I remember that the score at halftime was something like 20-7, and friends, being down by just thirteen to the HC then-juggernaut was a moral victory for the Men in Maroon. There was one exciting finish against “the hated UConn” that we witnessed, from the end zone that our guys were trying to defend (since we’re going on the field for postgame anyway, let’s go support our team!!), and I remember we lost heartbreakingly. The score was something to something, but the postgame show was killin’.

Well, whatever school I’d attended, I’d have been cheering for that team. But UMass football has a certain following, and even in the best of times that following can be described as local. Boston sportswriters over the years have written about UMass sports with a Bostonian’s faintly condescending view of the quaint little backwater burg of Amherst that most of them have never been near. The number of times that UMass athletics has been front-and-center on Boston newspapers’ sports sections can be counted on the fingers of two hands, at best.

But in a region where professional sports teams win championships with relative regularity, even the Boston College football program, a member of the mighty Atlantic Coast Conference which annually battles the Florida States and Miamis of the world, struggles for media coverage around here. New England loves its Sawx and its Broons and its Celtics if they’re winning; and in the last decade, we’ve gotten used to saying the word “Patriots” without having to look apologetic. Meanwhile, the UConn women’s basketball team is truly a team for the ages, and has been for years and years, but if you’re not standing in the 203 area code, you don’t hear much about them. And if you don’t live in western Massachusetts, college athletics based in Amherst don’t cross your radar.

So, people around here could have been forgiven if they heard the announcement, nearly three years ago, that UMass football was headed for the same college football stratum that features Notre Dame, Michigan, Ohio State, USC and Alabama … and gave out with the English translation of “quoi?”

 

Rumors had already begun to fly, on that October afternoon in 2010. The FBS days are coming. Just a matter of time. And UMass had experienced national football limelight before: they’d been to two Division I-AA championship games and won one of them. So, sensible. Success at one level causes people to consider the next level – in the spirit of “onward and upward”. Make the leap. And oh by the way, there are bucks to be made at that level of collegiate football. Very important.

That afternoon in 2010, though, UMass managed just ten points and lost to a University of Richmond team that itself only put up eleven – two of which came thanks to a safety, which means they didn’t exactly generate those points. The home-side stands’ muttering became more insistent as the game progressed.

And while those home-side stands were mostly full, the game was Homecoming. And there were legions of band alumni present for the celebration of the life of their recently-fallen leader. So the relative crush of fans was explainable by elements other than pure love for the game of football. Significantly, the visiting-side was its usual ten-percent full.

I have a distinct, clear memory of thinking out loud, “…and they think they’re in any way ready for prime time?”

Understand: I’m not someone who takes great pleasure in saying “I told you so”. Schadenfreude is not a hobby of mine. When I take part in it, it’s for a very darn good reason. Even then, only a limited number of people get alerted to its presence.

But for the record: the following April, when that announcement was made, and UMass committed to making the transition to Big Time College Football, I worried. A lot. And when UMass went 1-11 in its first FBS-schedule season, in 2012, I worked hard to consider that all the expansion teams of my youth had also endured initial campaigns that ranged from the paltry to the disastrous. The Montreal Expos, the Los Angeles Clippers, the California Golden Seals … there’s a rich history of humble beginnings that were overcome through patience and good planning, leading to heights of glory and success that …

Oh, wait. No there isn’t.

There had been lots of promises made. There had been lots of grand plans profferred. There probably had been lots of assumptions made, too, but surely those assumptions were based in careful aforethought and consultation with stakeholders?

Who knows.

 

But what didn’t happen included:

[1] Hordes of students boarding buses early on Saturday mornings, enjoying the ride from Amherst to Foxboro, filling the Gillette Stadium student section to overflowing, replicating the atmosphere of an Alabama home game, and happily re-telling the great football moments on the way back to their evening arrival back on campus. And telling those stories to more students, inspiring them to be part of the experience too.

[2] Multitudes of alumni, living in the Boston area and on Cape Cod and in Rhode Island, discovering that they had a shorter, more convenient, mostly-highway ride to UMass home football games than they would have if the games were held in the 413 area code – and becoming repeat UMass customers, when otherwise they might only have made an annual pilgrimage.

[3] Work starting immediately and in earnest, following the FBS-transition announcement, of a sweeping renovation of McGuirk Alumni Stadium, to accommodate tens of thousands of fans (and to satisfy NCAA requirements). I’ve seen the artists’ conceptions of the new McGuirk. It’s beautiful. A little out-of-character for the Pioneer Valley, true, but if you’re going to dream, dream big. Problem: the first time I saw construction activity that could be considered remotely significant was when I stood on nearby parking lots, teaching with the Drum Major Academy, fifteen months after the initial announcement.

And how fortunate to have an NFL stadium close-by, to stand in for the home stadium while the renovations were carried out. Well … sort of close-by.

Here, what rears its ugly head is my membership in the marching band alumni association … joining my membership in the general alumni association, as well as my membership in the association of people who enjoy football … in making a few observations.

The band followed the team to Gillette, of course. And in a facility far too large for any group (band, fans) smaller in number than 30,000 to make a true impact (go to a New England Revolution game: no matter how many seating sections they cover with tarps, and no matter how much gleefully incessant drumming and chanting and singing goes on, the joint is still not jumpin’) … the band continued to do their thing.

The band kept on performing their field shows regardless of how far away the small audiences were, or how dwarfed were the audience reactions by the sheer size of the room – you’re our audience, and whether you’re 20,000 or just twenty, we’re gonna put on a show for you. The band kept on cheering for their team, regardless of how little success that team was having – never our role to critique or complain while we’re in uniform and on the scene, but instead energy! enthusiasm! Regardless. If the joint is not going to jump, it’s not going to be because we lay down on the job.

And even so, the band has in fact adjusted their product to attempt to fit the needs of the moment, and of the new reality. The pregame show is now much more involved and active; more appropriate for an Ohio-State-like big-time atmosphere … and the difference is that much more obvious when the band’s energy isn’t met by a response from tens and tens and tens and tens of thousands of spectators, but that of only a couple of thousand early arrivals. Thanks mostly to NFL stadium security requirements, there aren’t any sideline tuba-pyramid (and other) antics. Noticeably, halftime field shows are populated much more often by productions that involve volume and musical “muscle” than, as its late director used to call them, “pretty moments”. And that’s not the band’s fault. It’s not really a fault at all. It’s a response to external stimuli. Here’s what will work in a 70,000-seat stadium that is the closest thing New England has to the Grand Canyon … and here’s what will not work. As long as UMass football is played amidst architecture of that scale, a delicate mezzo-piano clarinet section passage will be lost somewhere between band and cheap seats.

Yes, the plan is to return a portion of UMass’ regular-season schedule to Amherst next fall, and all of it soon thereafter. So it’s not fair to say that we’ll never again hear music such as we long-time band fans heard during the legendary Phantom of the Opera show in 1990 (“Christine, I love… you…”). But as rare as delicate musical sounds are, in the college marching band game, they can’t survive a Division I-A crowd. At the half-dozen Boston College home games that I attended some years ago, it struck me that most of the home-side fans appeared to be utterly ignoring the band on the field at halftime. To get FBS football crowds’ attention, you have to play at jet-engine decibel levels. It ain’t right … but it’s life at the top.

Lastly, but of “alumni importance”: the last two Homecoming games at Gillette Stadium were snarkily but accurately nicknamed “Faux-coming”. Homecoming – an event meant to bring alumni back to campus and reunite people and organizations – has been fractured, even as the university has gamely tried to re-package it into a week-plus-long celebration. I attended the annual “Multiband Pops” concert this fall and noticed that – by contrast with many past year in which the audience was packed into the Fine Arts Center like sardines – the hall was not close to sold out. I suspect this was partly because it was being held eight days and 93 miles away from the football game, instead of seventeen hours and a brisk walk. The numbers, and the intensity of the experience, have been diluted.

Sorry. As a band guy, I seem incapable of talking about college football without worrying in a disproportionate way about how it affects the band. Habits of a lifetime. But regarding the broader football product – is the damage done?

 

What was it that drove the University of Massachusetts to make the move to the football Big Time? Speaking of responses to external stimuli: what dreams and schemes rose up and insisted that attention must be paid, perhaps at the expense of more sober understandings of what is vs. what could be?

As is so often the case, I can imagine that money talked loudest – in spite of the documented fact that very few big-time college football programs actually turn a profit for their schools, even the famous ones. The lure of increased ticket sales, better access to government and business leadership (leading to greater investment), and more network television exposure (leading to greater media revenue) conceivably could have been too much to resist. Now, money is not the root of all evil. That aphorism gets screwed up all the time. Money just sits there. It’s love of money that is the root of all evil – or at least certainly it’s something that encourages really bad decisions.

I can imagine that the siren call of increased revenue trumped, as writer Douglas Adams once put it, a sense of proportion. I can imagine that there were plenty of people in the UMass-Amherst community who saw weaknesses in the logic of moving UMass football to the bigger time. And now, at least one article in a major newspaper suggests that this grand experiment could lead to the demise of UMass football.

Hyperbole, perhaps. A columnist writing as if his hair was on fire, to ensure readership. But whether or not this experiment is a fatal one, from the get-go it seemed flawed to me. And at least based on everything that I’ve known about UMass in general for the past thirty years, I can’t think of nearly enough about UMass football and the environment in which it exists that would justify Going Big Time.

Is it really so bad to be a relatively big fish (decently successful football team most years, with occasional elevations to Division I-AA title games) in a relatively small pond?

Advertisements

December 27, 2013 - Posted by | band, current events, football, marching band, sports, UMMB | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

3 Comments »

  1. Rob, it’s interesting to note that part of the motivation for the move (or at least this has been the line for a number of years) was to build recognition and fundraising to finally get an invite to join AAU. So, an academic motivation. Of course, BU was invited to join in 2012. But they have been a fundraising juggernaut the past 15 years and focusing most of those $$ on research and not undergrad education necessarily. Every institution goes about it in their own way. UMass may yet get invited to join, but likely not because of the football move, but because of its new academic leadership and actual fundraising for research.

    Comment by Barry Pilson | December 27, 2013 | Reply

    • See, this is why I’m pleased to hang (electronically) with folks like you … because you *know* stuff that I don’t.

      Comment by rhammerton1 | December 27, 2013 | Reply

  2. […] made. No need to go into the reasoning behind that opinion, here, since all you have to do is click here and […]

    Pingback by A Puzzlement « Editorial License | April 29, 2016 | Reply


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: