Exploring the timeline of events that ultimately led UMass to the MAC

Director of Athletics Ryan Bamford, center, speaks along with MAC commissioner Dr. Jon Steinbrecher, right, and Chancellor Javier Reyes during a press conference at the Martin Jacobson Football Performance Center on Thursday regarding the University of Massachusetts joining the Mid-American Conference.

Director of Athletics Ryan Bamford, center, speaks along with MAC commissioner Dr. Jon Steinbrecher, right, and Chancellor Javier Reyes during a press conference at the Martin Jacobson Football Performance Center on Thursday regarding the University of Massachusetts joining the Mid-American Conference. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

UMass football head coach Don Brown, from left, Chancellor Javier Reyes, MAC commissioner Dr. Jon Steinbrecher, Director of Athletics Ryan Bamford and men’s basketball head coach Frank Martin during a press conference at the Martin Jacobson Football Performance Center on Thursday regarding the University of Massachusetts joining the Mid-American Conference.

UMass football head coach Don Brown, from left, Chancellor Javier Reyes, MAC commissioner Dr. Jon Steinbrecher, Director of Athletics Ryan Bamford and men’s basketball head coach Frank Martin during a press conference at the Martin Jacobson Football Performance Center on Thursday regarding the University of Massachusetts joining the Mid-American Conference. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

CONNOR PIGNATELLO

Staff Writer

Published: 03-07-2024 6:54 PM

AMHERST – Though UMass only officially announced its transition from the Atlantic 10 to the MAC at Thursday’s press conference, it’s a move that’s been in the works for months, if not years.

UMass athletic director Ryan Bamford came into the job in 2015, the year the Minutemen ended their four-year stay in the MAC as a football-only school. The Atlantic 10, a conference UMass was a founding member of in 1976, does not sponsor FBS football, so UMass did not have a conference for football and became an independent.

“(Atlantic 10 commissioner Bernadette McGlade) understands that we have FBS football and we have hockey – no one else in our league has that,” Bamford said. “Our priorities are very different and she accepted that.”

McGlade acknowledged that in a statement last week.

“Massachusetts has been very transparent with the Atlantic 10 in its search for an FBS conference affiliation,” she said. “In turn the A-10 has been very respectful of this need and the environment needed surrounding FBS football.”

As schools across the nation changed their conference affiliations because of football, Bamford wanted to secure a conference home for the Minutemen, a relatively new FBS program that had never been a full member of an FBS conference. MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher admitted he thought UMass needed to find an all-sports conference home “at some point” and referred to their previous relationship as a MAC affiliate as “renting, not owning.” 

“Through every conference change that’s happened around us environmentally, I’d always check in with Bernadette,” Banford said. “It would have been nice if over the last eight years we could have found a football affiliate home and kept the A-10 as our all-sports league, but media rights agreements just weren’t built like that, that just wasn’t a structure that the media partners wanted and it wasn’t a structure the conferences wanted anymore. The opportunity to do that didn’t exist, and once that really was hammered home in the last two years – this thing’s going to move quickly again in the next two or three years – this was our moment.

“We had to be proactive and this opportunity was not likely to present itself again in the future, and I didn’t want to be waiting. Ultimately, being reactive a year, two years, three years from now (we would not be) controlling our destiny and our fate in the way we do now.”

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Serious conversations between UMass and the MAC started in late September. 

“The initial conversation was, ‘Commissioner, we might be interested in an all-sport opportunity, is that something that would be mutually beneficial and of interest to your members?’” Bamford said. “He initially said ‘I know I’m interested, let me get back to you.’”

Steinbrecher gauged interest with a few MAC university presidents and called Bamford back a few days later to tell him they supported the move. Steinbrecher said he was “working hard” in early October with MAC leadership to determine whether the move would be feasible. He attended a UMass football game in November and took a tour of campus.

Then, before Christmas, all 12 MAC presidents met to discuss the potential addition of UMass. The conference had not added a school as a full member since Buffalo in 1998 and had not seen its membership change since Marshall’s departure for Conference USA in 2005.

“We had a very lengthy conversation in and around this as a possibility,” Steinbrecher said. “The feedback was really strong at that point but we still had steps to go.”

“At that moment,” Bamford said. “I realized this has got a real possibility of coming to fruition.”

UMass chancellor Javier Reyes already knew of the plans, but Bamford began familiarizing “stakeholders,” including the chair of the UMass board of trustees Stephen Karam, with the potential conference move. UMass and the MAC exchanged materials and financial information.

Every week for the past two months, Bamford and Steinbrecher touched base about the move.

“Over the last month, it really got into a lot more of a ‘hey, let’s talk about if this happens, let’s talk about what this looks like for our program and what it would be to ramp up into 2025-26 for us to start,’” Bamford said.

After the MAC university presidents approved the addition on Feb. 26, the UMass Athletics Committee and Board of Trustees met to formally ratify the move on Feb. 29.

Bamford said joining the conference for the 2024-25 season was never a possibility because of existing league schedules, and the addition of UMass created an odd number of schools, another scheduling workaround. Both UMass and the MAC preferred an entry in 2025-26. 

Switching conferences almost always includes a phase where a program must still competed against the schools they’re going to be leaving behind, and UMass’ situation with the Atlantic 10 is no different.

“It’s a little awkward being in the Atlantic 10 for another year,” Bamford said. “But you know what? We’ve been in the league for 48 years.”

Multiple times in recent years, departing members of conferences have been banned from participating in conference tournaments after announcing their intentions to leave for a different conference. In 2022, the America East banned Stony Brook from its conference tournaments when the school announced it would be leaving for the Coastal Athletic Association (CAA). Bamford said that UMass has received guarantees that it will still be eligible for conference tournaments this season and next season.