AMHERST — For generations, the University of Massachusetts Marching Band has rallied students before the football team’s home games by parading through campus, horns wailing, flags spinning, drumline popping.
No longer. The tradition will end Saturday morning when the band’s 350 musicians board a convoy of motor coaches for a two-hour trek to the school’s home opener — at Gillette Stadium.
The journey to Foxborough, by far the longest commute to a home game in American college sports, will signal a turning point in the 130-year history of UMass football — a test of whether relocating the school’s home games to an NFL stadium nearly 100 miles away and investing millions of dollars to try to catapult the state’s flagship university into the gilded realm of big-time college football is visionary management or a misguided gamble.
The fact is, no one foresees a financial bonanza anytime soon. Amid the turbulent currents of major college football, UMass leaders have crafted a blueprint for the upgrade that aims to limit the risks of a potential failure but offers little promise of a significant payoff through at least 2020, according to a Globe review.
Any notion of UMass joining Boston College and the University of Connecticut in the rarefied ranks of big-time college football will have to wait. Amid the funding crunch in higher education, UMass has embraced a humbler goal: reducing its annual investment in football.
“I hope people see this as a balanced, modest approach,’’ said new UMass Amherst chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy, whose predecessor, Robert Holub, spearheaded the upgrade. “We really are managing to keep our eyes on the downside, and we will under no circumstances sacrifice academics for the sake of moving up in football.’’
UMass football has long relied heavily on school funding. Nearly two-thirds of the team’s budget this year — $4.2 million of the $6.5 million total — will be derived from institutional support, including student fees and a direct subsidy.
Yet little is expected to change, at least for many years. The university’s plan for the upgrade forecasts no reduction in the football subsidy until 2016, when it would drop by only $3,000. After that, the school plans to incrementally cut its football investment each year until 2020, when it would decline by $475,000 — still a nominal amount considering the total football budget is projected to top $9.3 million by then.
Worse, critics say, the budget projections do not include $30 million the university system has borrowed to construct a football training facility and renovate the outdated McGuirk Alumni Stadium on campus for possible future use. Because the debt service on the project will total $1.8 million annually for 30 years, the program effectively could continue losing money far beyond 2020, campus critics contend.
“The difference between the actual costs of running the football program and its revenue is millions of dollars, and it’s going to get worse,’’ said Max Page, an architecture and history professor who co-chairs the Faculty Senate’s ad hoc committee on the cost of the football upgrade.
University leaders said they plan to defray the building costs through fund-raising and will adjust the football budget if necessary to ensure the subsidy does not increase.
“If things work out very differently than planned, we will take another look and see if this is the right thing to do,’’ Subbaswamy said. “But right now I’m very comfortable with where we are.’’
He said the university’s spending on athletics is less than 4 percent of the school’s total budget.
“The way we are approaching this is completely consistent with the scale of the role of athletics in our lives,’’ Subbaswamy said. “We are committed to making this work, and we think we can do it responsibly, without putting the university at risk.’’
Beyond reducing the subsidy, university leaders hope to reinvigorate alumni, enhance fund-raising, boost the university’s national prestige, and position the school to one day cash in on the cascade of big money that now flows to a small circle of elite college programs. UMass leaders yearn for the kind of national recognition the university commanded when the basketball team advanced to the Final Four under John Calipari in 1996 — an achievement later tarnished by scandal.
At worst, the football team will return to Amherst amid finger-pointing and questions about its future value on campus.
The Minutemen opened their season Aug. 30 with a 37-0 loss at UConn.
“If they do things the right way and win football games, this could have an enormous impact, as it has at the University of Michigan and Florida,’’ said Matt Carlin, who championed the upgrade as chairman of the athletic committee for the UMass board of trustees before his term ended in 2010. “But the truth is, it could go in a couple of different directions. The jury is out.’’Continued...