At some level, failure was expected.
As UMass football started the transition from the FCS level, where it was a fairly regular playoff participant and won a national championship as recently as 1998, to the FBS level in 2012, everyone from the administration to the fan base understood that there would be bumps in the road.
But when university leadership determined that the on-field failure had transitioned into off-the-field failure, as well, with certain subsections of the fan base becoming more and more disillusioned with the current leadership of the program, it decided a change had to be made.
So on Thursday, UMass athletic director John McCutcheon met with Charley Molnar to tell him that he was being fired as head coach after two identical 1-11 seasons produced a 2-22 overall record in the Minutemen’s first two years as an FBS program.
“Really when you’re in a situation like we are with the transition,” McCutcheon said by phone Friday, “it’s vitally important to be perceived in a positive fashion by a number of groups, be it alumni, potential recruits, the coaching community, the high school coaching community, our donors, our season-ticket holders, current players, current student body. We need all those groups really energized and engaged, and we know we’ll never get 100 percent from everybody but [we need] as many as we can pulling in the right direction.
“And there just was a sense that we weren’t where we needed to be looking forward if we’re going to make the kind of strides that we hope to make.”
McCutcheon, who prior to the Minutemen’s final game of 2013 told Matt Vautour of the Daily Hampshire Gazette that he expected Molnar to be back as coach and that the team was making progress, said the final decision was made this weekend after a “more thorough evaluation” of the program’s position by McCutcheon and UMass-Amherst chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy.
Coming as it did the day after Christmas, McCutcheon acknowledged the timing of the firing wasn’t ideal.
“It wasn’t perfect, and we realize that,” he said. “But there never is a good time to do these things.”
McCutcheon wouldn’t get into details of his meeting with Molnar, but he did say, “Charley was very professional.”
“He’s been involved in this profession for a long time,” McCutcheon said. “It’s always difficult news to deliver and difficult news to receive. But I can say he handled it with professionalism and I respect him for that.”
Molnar had three years and $836,000 left on his contract. McCutcheon said that money will be paid via “external sources,” and that fundraising efforts are ongoing to account for that cost.
The AD sent an email to the current members of the Minutemen roster on Thursday, alerting them to the decision before the department made an official announcement. Later that day he held a conference call with the players -- who have scattered to their various homes for winter break -- to explain the decision and outline the timeline for hiring a replacement.
“There was pretty much silence,” McCutcheon said with a laugh, when asked what the players’ reaction was to the news. “As is usually the case on a conference call like that. It was difficult.”
Though the players didn’t say much on the conference call, McCutcheon knew there would inevitably be many questions and he encouraged them to contact him. He said he’s already heard from a few players and their parents, and that many were concerned about the fate of the team’s strength and conditioning program -- the first season in which the football team has had a dedicated strength and conditioning coach -- which they felt strongly about keeping.
McCutcheon said the school plans to do just that, but he declined to say whether any of Molnar’s former assistants were candidates for the head-coaching position.
“Certainly [the current assistant coaches] would have an opportunity to apply for it. Realistically ... in regard to the head-coaching job, I think [hiring one of the current assistants] would be a challenge,” McCutcheon said. “But certainly what we’re gonna give the ones who are on the staff now is an opportunity to sit down with whoever does get the head-coaching position to have a conversation to see if there might be an opportunity to continue on with the program.”
Though Molnar could not be reached for comment, the former Minutemen coach posted a message on his Twitter account Thursday afternoon:
No coach, staff, or team worked harder to build a championship program than we did. Disappointed in the results but proud of the foundation!
— Charley Molnar (@CharleyMolnar) December 26, 2013
The Minutemen have hired CarrSports Consulting to help with the search for a replacement, which McCutcheon said he hopes to complete “within a matter of weeks.”
“We hope to get it done as quickly as we can,” he said. “We’re talking weeks, not months.”
Though Molnar and his staff are currently under review after video surfaced of players engaging in one-on-one wrestling and boxing matches during winter conditioning sessions in 2012, with a report expected to hit Subbaswamy’s desk in mid-January, McCutcheon said that is coincidental and was not a factor in Molnar’s firing.
“It really was not a part of it,” he said. “The interim reports [Subbaswamy’s] gotten from that, there was nothing that came forward from that review that prompted us to take the action that we took.”
And while the results on the field were clearly lacking, McCutcheon said that also wasn’t an “overwhelming” factor in Molnar’s dismissal.
“Most of the folks that we talked to were fairly understanding about the win/loss [records],” he said. “I think we all weren’t that naive going into this transition, that that was going to be difficult. It was gonna take some time for us to get into a position where that would translate into more wins than losses.
“No one is ever happy when you’re not winning,” he said with a laugh. “You’d be disingenuous to say so. Had we made significant strides in wins and losses, that would’ve been one factor to consider in the overall [evaluation]. ... Certainly that wasn’t an overwhelming factor. I think people were fairly understanding of that component.”
The reality right now is that UMass football -- to borrow a phrase popularized by the more successful football coach to call Gillette Stadium home -- is what it is. After two years as a Mid-American Conference team, UMass is 2-22 overall and 2-14 in MAC play. That’s an overall winning percentage of 0.083 and a conference winning percentage of 0.125.
The Minutemen aren’t ready to win at the FBS level, a point hammered home by the likes of Wisconsin (in a 45-0 win in the 2013 opener) and Central Michigan (in a 37-0 win on Nov. 23) alike. They have struggled to draw crowds to the cavernous Gillette, which is roughly 90 miles from the school’s former home on campus, McGuirk Stadium, and haven’t had great success on the field or on the recruiting trail under Molnar.
“Across the board, I think whether it’s with the players, whether it’s the on-campus staff and students and externally,” McCutcheon said, “we just weren’t getting the kind of positive support and excitement about the potential for the future that we need.”
And though the reality was bleak enough, in the end it was that failure combined with the negative perception of the program and its progress -- or lack thereof -- that doomed Molnar.
Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.