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Getting To Know UMass: The Four Best Seasons In Minutemen History

MAC fans: I know you are all hesitant about accepting UMass into your exclusive club. And let's just acknowledge for a second that the MAC is most certainly that. Every other current member of the conference has been there since 1998. Excluding their newest member, this is something they can claim over every other FBS conference in the nation: they have been the most stable top-tier football conference in the country since the BCS was implemented.

So of course, any shake-up would feel unfamiliar and slightly unwanted. I'm here not to convince you that the Minutemen will stay forever. No, unfortunately I don't have that level of control over their future. I do plan to impart some of the proud history of the program, hopefully ensuring the faith that UMass football, like Buffalo before them, will be a mainstay in the MAC for years to come.

See, UMass comes from a place of comfort. They arrive in the MAC from the CAA, a football conference born of the former Atlantic 10. This basketball-focused conference ceased football operations following the 2006 season, the same year that UMass represented the league in the Division I-AA National Championship Game, and all teams joined the Colonial Athletic Association immediately afterwards. UMass had been founding members of the A-10 since 1976, and the A-10 itself was born out of the demise of the former Yankee Conference, which UMass was again a founding member of in 1947. In essence, the Minutemen have played out of the same group of football teams since the late 1940s. This school is not one that has a history of jumping around.

Not only have they been comfortable in their previous environment, they have been wildly successful during their time as a conference member in the NCAA. As I-AA national champions in 1998, the team appeared in two additional title games and won 21 conference championships, a league record. This is a team and fan base that does not expect poor performance, and has been less than tolerable during the tenure of their previous coach.

Large yet reasonable expectations accompany the hiring of new head coach and former Notre Dame offensive coordinator Charley Molnar, so it should be interesting to follow the team's progress this season. In lieu of any real forecast of this upcoming year, due to the multiple variables involved, I thought it would be a good idea to review some of the best seasons in UMass football history, as an introduction to your new conference foe.

The best years experienced by the University are certainly the National Championship season of 1998 as well as the undefeated season of 1963. In addition to those two fairly uncontested seasons were the years of 1972 (only bowl win to date) and 2006 (DI-AA runners-up). I'll give a brief recap of the awesomeness contained in each below, in chronological order because I'm making the rules here:

1963: The 1963 season saw the then-UMass Redmen complete an undefeated slate, finishing 8-0-1. That one tie came in a scoreless contest against in-state foe Harvard, a team that finished with a very solid record of 5-2-2 in what was then a formidable Ivy League. Led by coaching legend Vic Fusia, the UMass defense was stifling all season, allowing a meager 12 points in their nine games. Read that last sentence again. Twelve points?!

The Redmen allowed one touchdown to Maine in the first game of the year, then a field goal to UConn in the fourth contest. Other than giving up a safety in the final game of the season, they shut out every other opponent. These games weren't simple defensive standoffs either; UMass scored an average of 29.5 points per game, scoring over 40 in four of them (all defensive shutouts).

Arguably the best team in UMass history, this outfit featured future two-time Pro Bowler and College Football Hall of Fame tight end Milt Morin, who went on to star for the Cleveland Browns. In what was a probable consequence of the time and circumstance, their quarterback Jerry Welchel finished the season as their top rusher and top scorer, while also holding kicking duties (finishing a bizarre 0-1 on field goal attempts - this team apparently had no interest in anything less than a touchdown). The Redmen finished the season outscoring their opponents by a combined 265-12.

1972: No team in UMass history would come close to the point differential displayed by the '63 Redmen, but the 1972 Minutemen, in their first year exercising their new nickname, set a good example for all those to follow. UMass outscored their opponents in this season by an average of 19.5 points per game, finishing with a 369-155 point differential and a 9-2 record. The team swept their Yankee Conference schedule convincingly, winning these contests by almost 32 points per game.

Their out-of-conference schedule proved to be their true test, as they dropped consecutive games on the road to Bucknell and Holy Cross by about two touchdowns each. The team was quick to recover, however, destroying rivals New Hampshire and Boston College en route to winning the Boardwalk Bowl against UC Davis in Atlantic City. UMass controlled the affair from the start, playing in the arena that would later host the A-10 Basketball Conference Tournament. The game ended with UMass winning 35-14, hoisting their only Bowl trophy to date.

1998: The UMass football team endured somewhat of a lull after their 1978 National Championship loss to Florida A&M, culminating in a brutal 2-9 season in 1997. Coming into the 1998 season amid very low expectations, the Minutemen dropped their first contest against #3 Delaware on the road before winning every remaining regular season game - except for the two against Connecticut.

UMass had a standing rivalry with UConn, stretching back to 1897. Losing both games against the Huskies in the only season they played them twice was heartbreaking for the Minutemen faithful, especially due to the way the team fumbled away their chance in the second contest, the final game of the season. Driving the football, trailing 27-28, UMass's star running back Marcel Shipp took a hand-off - and was stripped by UConn backup safety Jamar Wilkins, effectively preserving the UConn win.

UMass got their revenge, however, as eventual foe Georgia Southern defeated the Huskies in the DI-AA playoffs and advanced through to the National Championship Game to face the most unlikely of opponents: the 12th-ranked UMass Minutemen. After dropping that regular season finale to Connecticut, Massachusetts went on the most unexpected of runs, defeating McNeese State, Lehigh, and Northwestern State en route to the National Championship in Chattanooga. There they faced #1 ranked and heavily favored Georgia Southern.

UMass was given nary a chance in the game, yet refused to lose, employing Shipp to the tune of 244 yards and three touchdowns in that final game. Shipp finished with the Championship Game record in both rushing attempts and rushing yards. Shipp would finish the season with a school-record 2,542 yards and 18 touchdowns including this phenomenal championship performance. The Minutemen rode Shipp's offense as well as the defensive effort of Kole Ayi (2 FF, 3 FR) to a 55-43 win against the top-ranked Georgia Southern Eagles.

2006: UMass favorite and coaching great Mark Whipple, who led the team to their unlikely '98 Championship in his first season, left after the 2003 campaign to coach the Pittsburgh Steelers' quarterbacks. In his place stepped Don Brown, offensive coordinator during the Minutemen's 1998 run and former head coach of the conference rival Northeastern Huskies.

Brown began to mold the Minutemen in his own design, which culminated in the 2006 season which saw the Minutemen finish undefeated against FCS opponents. Their only regular season loss came against FBS Navy, in which UMass dropped the contest 21-20 in a heated battle. UMass entered the postseason undefeated in their conference and ranked #3 in the nation, beating their opponents by an average of 18 points per game.

This team featured perhaps the greatest quarterback in UMass history, Liam Coen, who finished the season as the sixth most efficient quarterback in Division I football (FBS and FCS) after leading the nation most of the season. Coen also finished the season with the second-highest passing yards in school history with 3,016, the third-most TDs in a season with 26, fourth-most completions with 217, sixth-most single-season attempts with 334, and finished with a school-record completion percentage for a season of 65.0%. Basically, this guy was a god on campus, and rightfully so.

Unfortunately, despite their historical run through arch-rival New Hampshire and #3 Montana, UMass fell short in their final game, unlike all other teams on this list. They may have had the most talented team, however, featuring Coen, All-American running back Steve Baylark (A-10 Co-Offensive Player of the Year), offensive lineman Vladimir Ducasse (current New York Jet), the defensive standout Hatchell brothers, and James Ihedigbo (current New England Patriot). However, despite their talents, the team fell short to repeat champion Appalachian State in the National Championship Game, 17-28.

While these four teams are for sure among the greats in school history, whomever I consider to be the four best teams to represent UMass may not jive with the opinions of Minutemen fans or our readers, and that should certainly be expected. Feel free to leave comments discussing your favorite memories of UMass football throughout the years below, and as always, Go UMass, and Go MAC!