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Kraft rose to occasion

Rent-free deal at Gillette allows UMass to climb to FBS

By Mark Blaudschun
Globe Staff / April 21, 2011

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FOXBOROUGH — Bob Kraft has always been a big-picture guy. He saw it 17 years ago when he bought the Patriots, then built a stadium, turning a mom-and-pop NFL franchise (in terms of facilities) into a state-of-the-art operation.

So when University of Massachusetts administrators asked Kraft for help in their quest to elevate the program from the FCS to the FBS level, Kraft not only helped, he made the biggest donation any backer could: He gave them Gillette Stadium rent-free. For the foreseeable future.

“I’m passionate about the sport of football,’’ Kraft said yesterday at a press conference to make official UMass’s move to the Mid-American Conference — in football only — starting in 2012. “I want to see it develop in a lot of ways.’’

UMass supporters have been dreaming about the move for years. It never happened, because no league would bite on taking a Division 1-AA (FCS) program as an expansion team. And you can’t survive at the FBS level without a conference — unless you have your own television network, like Notre Dame and most recently BYU.

Kraft knew this, and he worked hard last fall to persuade the Big East to consider UMass. But the Big East had gone the 1AA route with Connecticut and then Villanova, which is still debating the issue. And UConn, quite frankly, probably didn’t want the competition of another New England school.

So UMass switched targets. Athletic director John McCutcheon went to the MAC and bargained for the same deal it gave Temple a few years ago. The Owls had been kicked out of the Big East and needed a home for football. The MAC took them in because it wanted to expand its footprint to the East. All it asked for in return was a guarantee of four games a year against MAC teams in men’s and women’s basketball.

The MAC made the same offer to UMass. But UMass needed a better venue. McGuirk Stadium in Amherst has a capacity of only 17,000 and is remote to the 120,000 alumni who UMass officials say live in Eastern Massachusetts. It was not FBS-quality.

Enter Kraft. He knew UMass was far from a cash cow, but he also knew he could make a deal that would be profitable — eventually. He wouldn’t charge the Minutemen rent, but he wanted a share of the revenue when and if the crowds came.

They came a year ago, when UMass played the University of New Hampshire at Gillette Stadium and drew 32,848, a remarkable crowd for two New England schools at the FCS level.

Kraft is smart enough to know that MAC games against Central Michigan or Akron in October and November won’t draw half that. But he also knows that schools such as Michigan, which hosted the Minutemen last year, might come here to play a UMass team at the FBS level.

Sure, the deals will be on a two-for-one basis in term of home dates. But the big schools are looking for paydays against competition they can beat — which should be the case against a UMass team that will be in a transitional stage for a few years. Schools such as Virginia Tech, Washington, and Texas A&M have already talked to UMass about possible dates in Foxborough.

Kraft knows that UMass-Boston College would be a decent draw in Foxborough, if BC agrees to play. So would UMass-UConn. McCutcheon has reached out to BC and UConn.

“We play [BC] in a lot of sports,’’ said McCutcheon. “We go there. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, isn’t it?’’

Perhaps. BC says it will think about it. But BC is wary of the newest FBS team in New England. The Eagles won’t play UConn because of Big East bad blood.

And if a program gets too good too quickly, watch out. BC is now having problems finding dates to play Harvard in basketball next winter, which is strange until you look at the last three seasons, which brought three Harvard victories over the Eagles.

But that is a problem for the future. For now, UMass ventures into what it believes will eventually be a more profitable operation than FCS football (almost no program makes money at that level).

It’s all hugs and kisses right now. The future looks brighter than it did a week ago, and the people at UMass should bow to Bob Kraft & Co. each day.

Asked if there would have been a deal had Kraft not offered the use of the stadium rent-free, McCutcheon said, “Probably not. That was the linchpin for everything. A world-class facility which can attract big-time nonconference opponents. There is no way we could get that done without it.’’

Truth be told, the deal with the MAC is not perfect. Rivalries will be hard to manufacture, and playing your sports in two different conferences can cause some headaches.

And if the Big East called tomorrow and invited the Minutemen as their 10th team in football and 18th team in basketball, a deal would be signed in a Massachusetts minute.

“UMass is a sustaining football member with no fixed term to the agreement,’’ is the way the language is worded.

An affiliation with a BCS conference and BCS money is what every non-BCS school wants. It is the kind of deal Kraft wanted.

It didn’t happen, but UMass came up a winner, and the man who deserves the most credit for that is Bob Kraft.

Mark Blaudschun can be reached at blaudschun@globe.com.

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