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Matt Vautour: Beating Northern Illinois a short-term goal for UMass, becoming them a long-term one

University of Massachusetts athletic director John McCutcheon was sitting in the Northern Illinois fan section of the Orange Bowl when he saw tears well in the eyes of a fan in front of him.

“They’re going through the lineups during the pregame and the guy got very emotional,” McCutcheon said. “He said, ‘This is just something we’ve been working for and hoping for, for so long. To be here now is overwhelming.’ To see what it meant to that person and all of those folks in that section, I think it was more appreciated because it took so long to get there.”

When the UMass administration, which has bet heavily on the potential of its football program, looks to the Gillette Stadium field Saturday at noon, on one side of the field, they’ll see the team that’s struggled in the present. On the other will be the type of program the Minutemen hope to become.

The Huskies have joined Boise State among the programs schools want to emulate outside of the BCS leagues. NIU is the ultimate role model for UMass as it has more in common than Mid-American Conference membership.

The DeKalb, Ill., school is about as far from Chicago as UMass is from Boston, and it is in a constant battle to emerge from long shadows cast by pro teams — Bears, Bulls, Blackhawks, Cubs, White Sox — and all of the nearby Big Ten schools. The Minutemen, who are in a constant battle for recognition behind the Red Sox, Patriots, Bruins, Celtics and Boston College, can certainly relate.

“I think they’re a great example of rewards at the end of the road,” McCutcheon said. “Whether it’s Northern Illinois or some other schools who have been through the transition, there are examples. It just takes a while. It can be turned around, but there aren’t any quick fixes. Hopefully the decisions will pay off at some point. The Red Sox going from worst to first is the exception not the rule.”

Six seasons ago, the Huskies were near the bottom of the MAC at 2-10, far from even the Little Caeser’s Bowl let alone the Orange Bowl. But a year later in 2008, under current Minnesota coach Jerry Kill, the Huskies reached the Independence Bowl and have reached a bowl each year since while continuing to improve in the standings.

Last year, under first-year starting quarterback Jordan Lynch, the Huskies lost their opener to Iowa and then ran off 12 straight wins before falling to Florida State in the Orange Bowl. Lynch has since become the MAC Offensive Player of the Year and a Heisman Trophy candidate as one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation.

Northern Illinois needs some things to break its way, but reaching a BCS Bowl for the second straight season is very realistic.

At 1-7, UMass won’t be playing in any bowl this year and the Minutemen will be a heavy underdog against the Huskies Saturday. But McCutcheon hoped that somewhere down the road, the fans who come to Gillette Stadium Saturday will get to experience what his new friends from NIU did in Florida.

“There are people who email me from San Diego or Georgia that went to UMass and take pride in what we’re doing. They might not be going to every game yet, but playing at this level is something they can connect with more readily than where we were before,” McCutcheon said. “They’re into it. They’re emotionally invested as we start out. When we get to whatever it is, and I’m not saying it has to be an Orange Bowl or anything like that, but there’s going to come a day where we’re in a game in a big situation and we can see the progress we’ve made and a lot of people are going to feel pretty good about that.”

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage.

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