By: Bob George/BosSports.net
September 16, 2010

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AMHERST -- This is a game that this writer never, ever, envisioned would take place. This Saturday, it finally will.

It should be said at the outset that this is an objective piece, but with a deep personal sentiment. It will focus on a football game, but it will also focus on an issue which comes up now and then in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, that being the quality of the state university system, and the problems the Commonwealth faces in dealing with budget cuts, reputation, and the angst over top Massachusetts college candidates bolting to other states for, in their minds, a better education.

This weekend, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the University of Massachusetts Minuteman football team will travel to the "Big House". They will head to newly refurbished Michigan Stadium to play the University of Michigan Wolverines, who opened the 2010 season with a 30-10 home victory over nearby UConn. It will be the second time in three weeks that Michigan will have played a New England flagship state school at home. It was the first ever meeting between Michigan and UConn, and likewise it will be the first meeting ever between Michigan and UMass. Both teams are 2-0 heading into Saturday's contest.

This is deeply personal in that this writer holds degrees from both institutions. Growing up in western Massachusetts, I graduated from UMass thirty years ago after having attended school at the Amherst campus for four years and receiving a Bachelors Degree in education. I made the decision to get my Masters Degree right away instead of waiting to get it later and possibly run the risk of not being able to due to family constraints.

Since most of the faculty in my area of study had come from the University of Michigan, they influenced me to apply there. I got in, and spent the next two years in Ann Arbor working on my Masters. I graduated in 1982, and am now in my 28th year as a teacher. Setting aside concerns over overqualification, getting my Masters when I did was the absolute right thing to do. It is now required in California, my current state of residence, to have a Masters or work on a similar program for all teachers.

But back to football. For years and years these two schools have carved out dipolar opposite sports legacies. Michigan is synonymous with athletic excellence as well as academic excellence. Michigan Stadium in and of itself is a college football cathedral in the same way Fenway Park is to baseball, and only the Notre Dame faithful can make a similar claim. Just to go inside that huge palace is awe-inspiring. To run out of the tunnel and onto the field with the marching band with 100,000 people screaming all around you is indescribable. And their fight song is the most recognizable in the nation, although once again Notre Dame loyalists can rightfully complain about that claim.

UMass has a good reputation in athletics, but football isn't one of them. The basketball team has been the highest profile athletic operation at UMass, with their impressive Mullins Center and a run in the 1990s that was a good slice of the big time. Of course, their one and only Final Four in 1996 was stricken from the record thanks to some shady dealings involving Marcus Camby. Soccer, softball, baseball and lacrosse enjoy national recognition, and hockey is making a comeback after being cancelled in the late 1970s.

But the football team doesn't get much spotlight. They play in Alumni Stadium, which is named for former athletic director Warren McGuirk. Alumni Stadium is a pitifully small 17,000 seat stadium near the Southwest area dorms, and UMass is lucky if they get half the stadium filled on game day. Other than some recent paint jobs and a new scoreboard, it looks pretty much like it did in the 1970s. UMass plays in the FCS division of college football, formerly known as Division I-AA. Except for three appearances in the title game (with a win in 1998), and a smattering of ex-Minutemen in the NFL and other pro leagues, UMass football simply doesn't have an impressive pedigree. It is not thought of with much enthusiasm in New England, though to be fair college football really isn't that big throughout the six New England states, with only Boston College and now UConn being of any national prominence.

This disparity between the football teams will be on display this Saturday at Michigan Stadium, but it goes far deeper than a game which should be a ghastly mismatch on paper.

The Globe recently ran an article on why top Massachusetts college-bound seniors are bolting out of state and not staying at home to go to UMass and pay a lot less for their college education. The article focused on a Wayland girl who happens to be going to Michigan. Some of what she and her folks said was very telling in trying to explain why UMass is what it is and why it isn't what it isn't.

Michigan is among the finest public universities in the nation. The article mentions UC-Berkeley, North Carolina and Virginia along with Michigan as some of the elite state universities in the nation, all being more attractive but more expensive options. This girl's family has to pay more than twice the money to send her to Michigan as it would to send her to UMass. But they will do that because they care more about the investment in her future than they do cutting costs, and they spare no expense in saying that they never considered UMass as an educational option.

It was interesting that the girl also showed off her season football tickets, and explained that the social impact the athletics has on the campus was another factor in her going to Michigan. Having been to both campuses myself, her point is very well taken, especially where football is involved, though the academic angle is just as important.

At Michigan, the football team rules. They have had over 100,000 people at the Big House for every game since early November of 1975. But beyond that, it is a sense of campus pride and identity. Michigan football gives the entire university a unique and special distinction and prestige. That distinction and prestige helps attract huge endowments, which then helps attract top professors, and then top students to come to Ann Arbor. Very few people connected with the University of Michigan claim to ignore the football program or its impact on campus. It is seductive to say the least, but once you're lured in, it literally becomes part of your soul.

UMass, on the other hand, has its party school reputation and a poorly funded state university system it keeps having to deal with. Michigan is simply not the "Animal House" school that UMass can often times be branded as. Students do party at Michigan, but at UMass it can be the central existence versus hitting the books. Students at UMass likely have memories of wild, legendary parties they went to. But while Michigan students will remember some wild nights here and there, they will most likely wax poetic over their times at Michigan Stadium than they will at some dorm party while enjoying the spoils of life thanks to the great job they got.

UMass and Michigan have met before in basketball. Johnny Orr coached both schools, and took Michigan to the Final Four in 1976. Michigan has the Fab Five and a national championship in 1989, UMass has Camby, Coach Cal and Doctor J.

But this is a first for football. You might think that poor UMass has no chance against mighty Michigan. The good people of Ann Arbor might think so too, since UMass is an FCS team, but then again, so was Appalachian State. That was strange back then in that in consecutive games, App State beat UMass (the 2006 FCS final in Chattanooga, Tenn.) and Michigan (the epic win in the Big House to open the 2007 season). UMass faces a Michigan team in a rare down cycle, in its third year under head coach Rich Rodriguez and undergoing a massive makeover on offense.

Michigan may be too quick and powerful for UMass, but if Appalachian State can do what they did in 2007, anything is possible. If Dennard Robinson gouges UMass like he did against UConn and Notre Dame (502 yards of total offense last weekend at South Bend for Robinson), it will be a long afternoon for the Minutemen.

As for yours truly, the problem now is who to root for. Or better, who to root against. I have never rooted against UMass and haven't rooted against Michigan since 1980 (I was a Notre Dame fan in the 1970s).

The answer? Not telling.

But here is what I really am rooting for. I am rooting for the day where UMass can stand tall and boast about its fine academic tradition just like they do in Ann Arbor. Maybe UMass ought to enlist someone like Bill Cosby, an Amherst resident who holds a Doctoral degree from UMass and doesn't mind telling you what he thinks, to help spearhead some change in perception as well as other material needs for the school.

Then all these top kids in the Commonwealth will be sweating it out over getting into UMass, instead of falling back on it.


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