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Kevin Cullen

Homecoming is more than an annual event

Bob Luz stood up and looked at his watch.

“Guys,” he said, “we better get in there.”

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It was halftime of the University of Massachusetts football game against Bowling Green and Luz and his crowd hadn’t even made it into Gillette Stadium yet. It was homecoming, 94 miles east of the Amherst campus.

This year, UMass moved up to the top division in college football, giving them a shot at playing in bowl games. They are playing in the Mid-American Conference, which is a contradiction in itself, because there is nothing about Amherst that reminds you of middle America. They don’t call it Happy Valley for nothing.

But you have to start somewhere, and for UMass it’s the MAC. There is a lot riding on this. It’s a huge investment, aimed at bringing higher visibility for the university, which will hopefully translate into more support from a state government that has been woefully negligent in recent years, forcing students and their parents to foot more of the bill. The games are being played at Gillette on the premise that a lot more UMass grads are likely to drive down to Foxborough than out to Amherst.

Still, UMass has yet to win a game at this level, and there were few giving them much of a chance against Bowling Green yesterday. The announced attendance of 10,846 yesterday looked generous.

This matters absolutely nada to Bob Luz and the five other guys he became lifelong friends with at UMass when Jimmy Carter was president. For the last 32 years, they have been getting together every year at a UMass football game, and they would do this even if the Minutemen were playing Stonehill.

‘The places we meet are just backdrops. It’s an excuse to get together and catch up.’

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“Would I like to see them do well at this level? Of course,” Luz said, trudging toward the stadium as the strains from the UMass Marching Band rose over the Gillette ramparts. “Do I think it’s going to happen overnight? No. Am I going to lose any sleep over it? No.”

Luz is a bear of a man, and he is the titular leader of a group of men — Tim Doherty, Tom Leonard, Ted Adams, Greg Fanning and Tim Ryan — who came of age at UMass and never lost touch. They lived together in Washington Tower in the Southwest residential area. They served as best man at each other’s weddings, and were brutally honest with prospective spouses, telling them they had to buy into the UMass thing to make the marriage work.

Leonard was Luz’s best man, but that didn’t stop him from taking Luz’s fiancee aside right before the wedding and saying, “If you decide to walk away right now, that’s OK.”

The priest who presided at Ted Adams’s wedding took his bride-to-be Angela aside and said exactly the same thing. Angela went to UMass, too. She didn’t walk away.

When they got out of U­Mass, they scattered. Luz lived in Kansas City. Ted and Angela Adams were in Phoenix, then Hong Kong. But the reunions continued. The tradition of meeting up at a UMass football game survived the years. Now once again everyone is within driving distance.

It isn’t just football games that bring them together. In the winter, they go to New Hampshire, where Doherty has a place across from Loon Mountain. And they never go skiing. In the summer, they go to York, Maine, where Luz has a house, and they never go swimming. “The places we meet are just backdrops,” Doherty said. “It’s an excuse to get together and catch up. It beats meeting at funerals.”

The sun was shining on the UMass side of the field. Gillette looked cavernous.

“Hey, it’s only 7-nothing,” Luz said, looking at the scoreboard as they settled into Section 102 after the second-half kickoff. “We’re still in this thing.”

Not for long. The UMass offense sputtered, turned the ball over and soon it was 24-0 and that was how it ended. Luz, a senior executive with the Ninety Nine Restaurants group, sat amid a group of managers he’d bought tickets for.

“I’d say 10 percent of the 500 managers we’ve got nationwide came out of UMass Amherst,” Luz said, which is probably a better testament to the school than anything a big-time football program could do.

It was a long walk back to the parking lot in front of Bed Bath and Beyond. In seven games at the highest collegiate level, UMass has yet to win, losing by a combined score of 285 to 83. This did not seem to faze Bob Luz and the five guys and the wives who will be friends until they’re all on the wrong side of the grass.

Next to the open tailgates, Leonard grilled up peppers and onions. Luz turned the steak tips. Tim Ryan and Greg Fanning tried to remember how many schools Fanning tried before he ended up at UMass.

Doherty pushed his young son Griffin around in a shopping cart. Susan Doherty, Marie Leonard, and Ann Luz sat in folding chairs and shook their heads, because after all these years their husbands get very young when they get together.

The six friends promised to stick this football experiment out. When UMass finally gets to play in a bowl game, they vowed to be there, wherever it is. Tim Doherty made a stipulation.

“I’ll be in an urn,” he said.

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