ANN ARBOR -- Massachusetts football coach Charley Molnar had nothing but praise for his team's opponent this week. Because as Molnar begins to craft his own FBS program, he considers Michigan a template of sorts.
"If you want to be one of the best teams in the land, I think you have to know what a great team looks like and what a great program looks like," Molnar said. "Going to Michigan, this will really open the eyes of our football players and say, 'this is what a great program looks like, this is how hard they play, this is what the athletes look like, and this is what we want to be.' "
But as the Minutemen prepare to face the No. 17 Wolverines at 3:30 p.m., Molnar also provided some perspective.
"We're starting week three of being a I-A program," said Molnar, a 27-year assistant coach, most recently at Notre Dame, before UMass hired him last December. "So we've got a ways to go."
The UMass administration announced 18 months ago that the football program would transition from the Football Championship Subdivision level to the Football Bowl Subdivision and that it would join the Mid-American Conference in football.
UMass is one of five former FCS programs transitioning to the FBS, joining Georgia State, Texas State, South Alabama, and Texas-San Antonio. It's a move that comes with a certain caveat; a report last month by the Associated Press outlined several factors against a transition to FBS. While the move might bring more visibility to a college or university, it comes with risks including a change in the culture within and surrounding a football program and a college community, as well as potential financial shortfalls.
Though UMass established itself as one of the nation's top FCS programs -- it won a Division I-AA national title in 1998 and lost to Appalachian State in the 2006 FCS national championship game -- university administrators cited the move for financial stability as well as conference stability.
"Financially, the move will work well for us," UMass chancellor Robert C. Holub told the Springfield (Mass.) Republican in April, 2011. "We have looked at all aspects carefully, and we believe that in a short few years, we will be using less of our general funds for athletics [than currently].''
The most notable change so far? UMass' game-day operations have been temporarily relocated 95 miles east of its Amherst, Mass., campus to Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., as upgrades begin on UMass' current football facility.
After playing a 12-game FBS and MAC schedule this season, UMass will be eligible for bowl participation and to compete for the MAC championship in 2013.
But so far this season, the Minutemen (0-2) have taken their lumps.
In a 37-0 loss to Connecticut in its season opener Aug. 30, UMass finished with 59 yards of total offense and only three first downs; in its home opener, a 45-6 loss last Saturday to Indiana, the Minutemen gave up 596 yards of offense -- and attendance was listed at 16,304 in an NFL facility that seats nearly 70,000 and is 95 miles east of the UMass campus.
While he didn't build an FBS program from scratch, Michigan coach Brady Hoke can empathize to some extent.
"I know Charlie, and he's going through growing pains like we all do," Hoke said.
On a smaller scale, Molnar and his staff have to develop a group of players who may be an inch or two smaller, a half-step slower or a few pounds lighter than FBS-caliber athletes.
"They didn't grow bigger, faster, or stronger," Molnar said. "They just got moved up a level in competition. Our job, as coaches, is not only to train them physically but also mentally, to make them believe that they're going to compete with the guys that are on their schedule."
On a larger scale, Molnar said, he has to consider all that goes into building an FBS program, whether it's recruiting players, rallying the fan base or earning support from athletic boosters or appeasing administrators. And that's all on top of coaching a football team.
And Molnar is considering every prototype -- including that of the program he'll face this weekend.
"I'm looking at year to year [development] and saying, 'where is this program going to be five years from now?' " Molnar said. "I don't think anybody can do that task quite like a head coach can."
Contact Rachel Lenzi at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6510 or on Twitter @RLenziBlade.