McGuirk has its quirks

AMHERST, Mass. -- Perhaps it should be named McQUIRK.

After all, strange has long been the norm at McGuirk Alumni Stadium, home to the University of Massachusetts football team for the last 46 years. This weekend the Minutemen take the home field for the last time in the foreseeable future when they close out their season against James Madison. Expect the unexpected.

Witness three of the wacky happenings at McGuirk over the last decade:

Public Safety Day in Every Sense

In 2005, UMass opened its home season against Albany and billed it as "Public Safety Day." Police officers and firefighters got in with discounted tickets. To celebrate the occasion, the Minutemen put on a two-point display for the ages.

In the second quarter, the Minutemen recorded a safety when John Hatchell (more on him later) tackled the Albany quarterback in the end zone. In the third quarter, UMass picked up another deuce when Albany's substitute long snapper, Seamus McLaughlin, overshot his punter and sent the ball out of the end zone. Then, astonishingly, McLaughlin did it again for No. 3.

McLaughlin's final snap also eluded the Albany punter but didn't quite carry into the end zone, as UMass took possession at the 4-yard line and easily went in for a touchdown as part of a 40-0 rout.

Still, three safeties on Public Safety Day was impressive. It set a record for I-AA (now FCS) football. Only at McGuirk.

Extra, Extra, Read All About It

The extra point is one of the most incidental things in sports, generally as automatic as home baseball fans booing when an opposing pitcher has the audacity to throw over to first base more than once. In the Colonial Athletic Association, the league with which UMass parts company after this weekend, there have been 342 extra points attempted this year and 319 converted: 93.3 percent. Even with occasional bad snaps or holds and blocks, most kickers at this level have the extra point down PAT.

So how (other than the quirks of McGuirk) can one explain this sequence of games against longtime rival Maine?

In 2004, UMass defeated Maine at McGuirk, 35-34. The overtime win was sealed when a Maine extra point was blocked by the appealingly named L.A. Love.

Maine's next visit to McGuirk came in 2006, and UMass again prevailed by a point, 10-9. This time the margin came when Maine's Devin McNeill sent his PAT wide with 1:44 remaining.

And just to show that the home team was not immune to snakebites, the next UMass-Maine game at McGuirk, in 2008, was a one-point loss, 21-20. In the fourth quarter, the Minutemen's Armando Cuko sent his game-tying extra point bid thudding off the right upright.

Batting Down the Hatchells

One of the great New England rivalries heading rapidly for the rearview mirror is that between the football foes of Massachusetts and New Hampshire. It reached its peak in 2006, when the teams were two of the best in FCS.

The Wildcats had an explosive offense led by quarterback Ricky Santos, who would win the Walter Payton Award as the best FCS player in the country. UMass had a dynamic defense, led by brothers John and Jason Hatchell from Mullica Hill, N.J.

Though not twins, the brothers shared a lot. For one thing, both tore ACLs and wound up playing several games with the injuries before surgery. For another, well ... there was UNH.

In the first meeting of 2006 between the teams, in New Hampshire, the Minutemen were ahead 28-20 late as Santos led a furious drive to try to tie the score. With 15 seconds remaining, the Wildcats faced fourth-and-1 from the UMass 3-yard line. Santos rolled out and sent a pitch toward a running back, only to have it batted away by John Hatchell.

The teams met again at McGuirk in the national quarterfinals. UMass led 24-17 as the clock ticked down, with Santos yet again leading a relentless drive downfield. The Wildcats pushed to the UMass 6-yard line with 33 seconds left, facing fourth-and-1. Santos rolled left and fired for the end zone. The ball never got there -- it was batted down by Jason Hatchell.

That kind of funky football just seems to happen at McGuirk. So who knows what's in store when the Minutemen take the home field on Saturday? All we know for sure is that we won't be seeing any more UMass football in Amherst for quite some time.

After more than two decades of study after study, the Minutemen are finally taking the plunge for the proverbial next level. In 2012, they will play their first season in the Mid-American Conference at the FCS level, the sport's top shelf. "Home" games will be played almost 100 miles from campus in what school officials hope will be the far greener pastures of Gillette Stadium in Foxborough.

"This is where the university should be with our athletic program, in particular the football program, as a flagship campus for the state's university," athletic director John McCutcheon said. "We should compete at this level."

The transition came about because of two primary factors. One is a sweetheart deal with the Kraft family that is allowing UMass to play at Gillette for five seasons without paying a dime of rent. The revenue-sharing arrangement negated the university's need to build a stadium, which would have been necessary to meet FCS specifications. "Probably the cheapest [alternative] would be $200 million-plus to build a 35,000-seat stadium," McCutcheon said. "That would have ended the conversation right there."

UMass' contract with the Krafts requires the Minutemen to play all of their home games at Gillette for the next two seasons, meaning that lots of students, in the spirit of John Denver, will be coming home to a place they've never been before.

The other big factor prompting the move was, of course, the MAC, whose football members are heavily concentrated in Ohio (Kent State, Miami of Ohio, Ohio University, Bowling Green, Akron and Toledo) and Michigan (Eastern Michigan, Central Michigan and Western Michigan).

(While regionally awkward, the shift seemed linguistically inevitable for UMass. After all, the last five athletic directors at UMass have been named Warren McGuirk, Frank McInerney, Bob Marcum, Ian McCaw and John McCutcheon. If ever a school was on a collision course with the MAC truck, UMass was the one. Don't be shocked to see golden arches over the stadium this weekend and a free giveaway of a certain chunky patty.)

At the UMass homecoming game earlier this month against Villanova, there were some mixed feelings about the move.

"We're kind of spoiled here," said Bill Durkin Sr., a man whose hat read "Thud" (a supersonic fighter bomber used in Vietnam) and whose UMass football jacket said "Durk" (the nickname of his son, a former UMass football All-American). "It's great having it on campus."

Durkin was tailgating behind a maroon Ford F-150 truck decorated with a UMass football decal. He said he has been coming to games at McGuirk since his son played for the Minutemen in the early '90s. Earlier this season, he went to a UMass game played at Gillette (the Minutemen have played once there in each of the last two seasons, both times losing to New Hampshire). "It was great. It's a beautiful stadium. But it took us an hour and a half to get out of the parking lot -- and it wasn't even full."

Still, Durkin favors the move, in part because his son is now an assistant coach at Bowling Green.

Nearby, the Loughlin family from West Brookfield defined some of the split sentiment. J.D. Loughlin, a process engineer who graduated from UMass a couple of years ago, said he mostly favors the move. "I like it. It's closer to me out there. It's a bigger stadium. It's a better opportunity for them. I think it's great. It's tough for students here."

One of those students is his kid sister, Jordan, decked out in a UMass ski hat and sweatshirt. Will she go to the games next year?

"Yeah, we'll take the bus," she said, and then shrugged her shoulders. "I mean every now and then."

It will seem odd next fall to have no UMass football games in Amherst. In various incarnations, the school has been playing football there since 1879 (a program-opening 4-0 victory for Massachusetts Agricultural College over the Amherst College freshmen).

In the early days, they might not have been thinking globally, but they certainly acted locally. In 1885, Mass Aggie played six games, four of them against Amherst.

In time, Mass Aggie would become Massachusetts State College (in 1931) and the University of Massachusetts (in 1947). The Aggies would morph into the Redmen (in 1948), and then -- ahead of the politically correct curve -- to the Minutemen (in 1972).

And, in truth, league affiliation has been moving away from the local for quite some time. The original Yankee Conference was a true New England league when it was established in 1946 with charter members Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont.

In 1986, Delaware and Richmond joined, and the southern expansion has continued ever since. New England college football has seen some real erosion. Vermont dropped football in 1974, and more recently Boston University and Northeastern abandoned a sport viewed at one extreme as an expensive albatross and at the other as a fundamental showcase of a university.

Another charter member of the Yankee Conference, Rhode Island, is about to downgrade its program and cut costs by joining the Northeast Conference, where there will be fewer scholarship commitments. UConn made the opposite decision, upgrading to the highest level in 2000. Now, after two decades of debate, UMass is going the same route.

"Change is always unsettling," McCutcheon said. "There are good things that come along with change, and there are some things that are lost. I think the advantages for what we're doing outweigh what the alternatives would be."

Football at the FCS level is inevitably a big money drain. And even with the great fortune of being able to play rent-free in Foxborough, UMass will still have to invest significantly in this upgrade.

There will be more scholarships, a bigger staff and greater travel. There will also be more outlay for scholarships for women's sports to keep the Minutemen in Title IX compliance. Unsaid at this point is the possibility that the school might also choose to invest in eating the remaining two years of head coach Kevin Morris' contract, to the tune of about $400,000. With UMass coming off 5-6 and 6-5 seasons, and entering this weekend's finale at 5-5, McCutcheon might conclude that the new era demands new leadership.

Regardless of the coaching decision, the bet the school is making is that these extra investments will all prove worth it. McCutcheon sees Gillette as a bonanza that should boost recruiting and high-profile scheduling. The school hopes to be able to sell substantially more (and more expensive) tickets, given the fact that more than 100,000 UMass alums -- by far the most of any school -- live within a half-hour of the stadium. In theory, at least, there should be more income heading UMass' way from media contracts and sponsorships.

The school also hopes to avoid alienating its student body and local fans who have grown up considering football fall Saturdays in Amherst a birthright. In the last three years of the Gillette contract (2014-16), UMass is strongly considering playing at least one game at McGuirk.

According to McCutcheon, the MAC's contract to televise midweek games in November on ESPN would seem ideal to create a special event on campus. Here, too, the school will need to lay out some big bucks in lean economic times.

There are plans to upgrade the coaching office space (watch out for those heating ventilation ducts), locker rooms and the McGuirk pressbox. (It is scarcely wired for the digital age. Also, it is accessed only by ascending 95 steep steps and features only one small bathroom -- meaning that even if you make it, you might not make it.)

For all those liabilities, McGuirk retains a quirky charm. Weird stuff happens there. The 1997 team went 2-9, and the 1998 squad won the I-AA national championship -- a turnaround perhaps more extreme than any in the history of college sports.

You just never know what you are going to get. The homecoming game, on Nov. 4, seemed to be a gimme on paper. The Minutemen came in at 5-3 (3-2 in the CAA), fresh off a great road win at Richmond. Villanova came in at 1-8 (0-6), reeling from six straight losses.

Then UMass turned the ball over six times and got thumped, 35-17. If that had been the final game at McGuirk, the Minutemen would have gone down in a blaze of gory.

But now there is at least one more game at McGuirk. One more time for the Minutemen to march in under the sign "Play Like a Champion Today." One more time for the renowned marching band, the self-proclaimed "Power and Class of New England" to play the alma mater: "Twilight Shadows." One more game at the old stadium.

Expect the unexpected.

Marty Dobrow is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. A professor of communications at Springfield College, he is the author of "Knocking on Heaven's Door: Six Minor Leaguers in Search of the Baseball Dream" (2010, University of Massachusetts Press).