Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

A Puzzlement

This isn’t about politics.

Well, it’s not about national, Presidential-level politics. At least not in spite of the first few paragraphs.

It’s a little bit about local politics, but perhaps not the way I’ve set you up to think.

It’s more about dilemmas.

It hasn’t been too often that I’ve stepped into my local voting booth and filled in the little circle for a candidate for President. Much more often, in my lifetime, in a general election, I’ve voted against someone I definitely didn’t want to be President.

It’s said that in primary elections, you fall in love (with a candidate) and you vote with your heart … and in general elections, you fall in line (with your party) and vote with your head, or at least with a bit more recognition that certain things just kinda happen; that things have been done the way things are done … that you’re participating in “politics as usual”.

And sometimes you come out feeling conflicted, and a bit at sea: I wish it were different than it is, but it is what it is, and for all kinds of reasons that aren’t always as pure as “I frickin’ love this candidate and what they stand for and I think they have my personal best interests at heart”.

You’re participating in democracy, as filtered through a party-oriented political system that is, we are forced to admit, almost hopelessly in thrall to money. Therefore you’re participating in a system prone to corruption, even while you are personally against corruption.

You’re often choosing a candidate that you perceive as the lesser of two evils; and you’re often feeling like you’re part of a political setup that is definitely the lesser of two good things.

The grownup, adult world is full of these dilemmas. There are folks who wish to see the world in strictly black-and-white terms; but, sadly, it’s much more grayscale. Takes more thought, more pondering, more head-scratching in the effort to try and see a solution, or a way out, or a way forward.

Which brings me to my alma mater.

Via the good offices of my college band’s alumni association, yesterday I became aware that the UMass Faculty Senate was to vote on a motion to recommend that University administration [1] downgrade UMass football to Division I-A status, or [2] eliminate it altogether. Their reasoning had to do with finances, as well as some other considerations. The motion was voted down, but not before it got me to thinking.

Setting aside for a moment the unlikelihood of the latter [1], within American culture – although my colleagues and I from Boston University in the late 1990s might offer a bit of perspective about killing football programs – and set-ting aside the attractiveness of the former proposal [2] … I will admit to being more than a bit conflicted.

Football has almost always caused me to at least raise an eyebrow. Long before former NFL players were putting it to the NFL that concussions were not just a roster-management nuisance to teams, but were in fact a health crisis generated by the very nature of the sport, I saw football as dangerous to the health of its participants, and let’s face it, a bizarre sport. Football has never been my idea of a great sport to play, myself – I’m pleased that my young nephew is all about baseball – and is assuredly not my favorite sport, period.

On the other hand, as regular readers of The Blogge will know … I did marching band for eight years in high school and college.

The original idea was that American scholastic bands marched because of football games. Then we invented band competitions, so we could have somewhere to perform wherein the spectators were entirely made up of people who cared at least a bit about marching music. But it’s the uncommon ensemble that is deprived of its football context and still thrives. Rarer still is the school marching band that never had a football team to root for, to begin with.

I’m sure that studies have been conducted to determine the adverse effect upon band recruitment of “no football games for your band to play at”, but I can’t quote any right off the top of my head. Do band people care much about that? Would it keep them from continuing to march? (Some of the college bands with whom I have worked have contained people who lived for the exhibitions at high-school band shows, and gritted their teeth all the way through football games. On the other hand, how many people join the Michigan Marching Band and don’t get a little worked up for games against the Spartans or Buckeyes?)

At the same time as I must acknowledge that cutting the football program at a major state university is unlikely … I must also acknowledge that Donald Trump as a major-party presidential nominee was considered most unlikely. So … Starred Thought: never assume anything.

For a brief moment, upon hearing about the vote (before it happened and ended up being a big Emily Litella “never mind!”), I had a Moment: –would the hypothetical axeing of UMass football lead to the end of my beloved Power and Class of New England? If so, at what pace? Via implosion, or erosion?

Now, not just because the motion did fail, but even if it had passed, non-binding as it was … and even if passage had meant something (which current University administration officials appeared to think was highly unlikely anyway!) … in the cold morning light … I’ve decided that I’m not losing sleep over this. (I *am* mixing metaphors like a one-armed bartender.) (And my similes are feeling similar pain, apparently. Sorry.)

After all, if the Boston University Terrier Marching Band could have its football team yanked out from under it (fall 1997; I was there) and still survive and thrive and get into movies and such … then surely the 380-member juggernaut from the Pioneer Valley (with a Sudler Trophy and a DCI-Hall-Of-Fame instructional staff and, dang it, a reputation) ought to be okay. Yes?

I think?

I’m already on record about the decision to move UMass football to Division I (or the BCS, or whatever the folks in charge are calling it). From the get-go, I felt it was among the more ill-considered, more pie-in-the-sky, more arrogant decisions my alma mater has ever made. No need to go into the reasoning behind that opinion, here, since all you have to do is click here and read.

From a strictly football point of view, I never felt there was either the existing interest or even the potentially-develop-able interest (from current students, from local alumni, from the general eastern-Massachusetts public) in supporting Your Alma Mater’s Football Team At Gillette Stadium Squaring Off Against the Mighty ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Big-Whoop Famous Football Teams. And (as it became quickly clear) there was hardly a hope of attracting the kind of football talent necessary to keep UMass from being perennially “Your 2-and-10 Minutemen”. Let’s be honest: this is New England. We don’t have anything remotely like Alabama/Auburn – and, at least as importantly, we don’t have anything remotely like Texas high-school football. (Which for many reasons might be just fine, actually.)

Downgrading (or, as I prefer to think of it, returning) UMass to Division I-A would mean that football would be played in the cozy confines of McGuirk Stadium, not the cavernous one-sixteenth-full Kraft Family Canyon. And it would be enjoyed by the relatively small but loyal constituency of western-Massachusetts fans which has been propping up that little UMass football program for decades. It’d be shorter money (you don’t get a big payday from a major network for playing against the University of Maine) … but UMass would get much closer to breaking even. And the student section would be full of kids who actually would be able to roll out of bed at noon and walk down to the game, rather than having to hop a bus at Absurd O’Clock and kill an entire Saturday.

And the relationship between the band and its halftime and postgame audiences would be far less diluted by the physical distance from stands to front sideline. Which, at UMass, has always been a pretty big deal at least as far back as the first time George Parks perched on that narrow concrete rail at the base of the McGuirk home stands. At Gillette Stadium, when the band crashes the sideline, the audience is still in another zip code. At McGuirk, the band crashes the sideline and the audience can see individual band members’ smiles.

One big part of me agrees with the Faculty Senate (if not its tactics). Football is, at best, a double-edged sword – one that benefits greatly from the phrase about tradition that goes, “but we’ve always done it this way”. It often offers more long-term risk than long-term reward for its participants. From the standpoint of concussions alone, some commentators have advocated abolishing the sport altogether, and I grasp their passion on the subject, oh yes I do. And the Division I version of American college football opens its participating schools up to great sweeping plains of temptation and corruption and mistreatment of people and academic hypocrisy that would make a mud bath feel clean and pristine.

But another, equally large part of me knows that a fall Saturday afternoon at halftime is a great place for the Minuteman Marching Band to do its thing.

It is … a puzzlement.

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April 29, 2016 Posted by | band, BUMB, football, marching band, politics, sports, UMMB | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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?

December 27, 2013 Posted by | band, current events, football, marching band, sports, UMMB | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments