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The Boston Globe

Metro

Kevin Cullen

Super Bowl an ad for UMass

At the risk of sounding like a shameless homer, I hope the Patriots win the Super Bowl, but if not then I hope Victor Cruz catches the winning touchdown pass for the Giants.

Cruz is a Jersey boy, but he went to UMass Amherst and he’s forever a Minuteman. He also happens to be a great kid, as is Patriots safety James Ihedigbo, another UMass guy who during the offseason helps poor kids in Nigeria, where his parents were born.

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If timing is everything, then UMass’s is perfect. The people who sell Doritos and Bud Light are paying upward of $4 million for a 30-second spot during the Super Bowl. So, as UMass prepares to move up to the highest level of collegiate football, what is it worth to have not just one but two of its products suiting up for Super Bowl XLVI?

“It’s incalculable,’’ says John Sinnett, an assistant athletic director at UMass.

Charley Molnar, the new UMass head coach, has been on the road flat out since he was hired away from running Notre Dame’s offense last month, recruiting his first class. He has spent the last two weeks reminding his potential charges that while UMass is just now stepping up to compete with teams that play in all those college bowl games, Cruz and Ihedigbo are playing Sunday in the biggest bowl of all.

It doesn’t hurt when Molnar adds that UMass will play most of its home games on the Patriots’ field at Gillette Stadium.

Not everybody is convinced that UMass moving up to the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision is a good idea. They say New England hasn’t the mind-set for big-time college football. They’d rather UMass focus its attention and ever-precarious budget on other areas.

But there’s a chance the addition of big-time football can help UMass, from raising its national profile to diversifying its applicant pool, to maybe even, in the long-run, making it more affordable for in-state students.

Boston College’s transformation from a regional to a nationally recognized university was no doubt assisted by Doug Flutie’s Hail Mary pass to beat Miami in 1984. And while the Flutie Factor of athletic success translating to a more prestigious university tends to be exaggerated, UMass officials see what happened at BC and what is happening at UConn as encouragement at least.

Not for nothing, but with six of its products on the Patriots and Giants rosters, BC has the most of any collegiate program in this Super Bowl.

There are huge differences between rich, private universities and a state university that is perpetually begging the governor and Legislature to properly fund it, but UMass officials are approaching the football experiment with realistic patience. This won’t happen overnight. It is not a panacea for the cultural and political indifference peculiar to Massachusetts.

It is symbolically appropriate that neither Cruz nor Ihedigbo was drafted. UMass has to fight for everything it gets, including respect.

“I’m from North Carolina,’’ Sinnett said. “And UMass as a school is more respected out of state than in state. It should be as respected in state, and that’s where we’re going.’’

Playing football at the highest level, like these UMass kids will on Sunday, will raise the school’s profile. But it also provides UMass with another tool to better harness the 250,000 UMass grads in Massachusetts, to coalesce alumni power and influence. That power has the potential to change any dynamic.

UMass will never be a football factory. And it’s more important that the people who run the high-tech factories along the Route 128 and I-495 corridors are telling the governor and Legislature they need to invest more in all that is UMass.

It shouldn’t take football to focus minds on such things. But watch those $4 million commercials this Sunday and try to say it doesn’t.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.

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