By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
It has finally happened. The University at Buffalo athletic program has reached something of a tipping point.
It has achieved relevance in the national scene, a huge accomplishment.
Look around. The football team has only lost one game this season, and looks to be the favorite to win the Mid-American Conference title. The Bulls are knocking on the door of the Top 25 in terms of votes, and if they win out in the regular season they will surely get there.
Then there is the men’s basketball team. UB was expected to do well this season, as it was an NCAA team last spring – knocking off powerful Arizona along the way – and returning many of the same players. Already, the Bulls have a big win by defeating nationally ranked West Virginia on the Mountaineers’ home court no less. That’s been called the top victory of the young season by some experts. It pushed the Bulls into the No. 25 spot of the polls, the first time Western New York has had a nationally ranked team since 1970.
The women’s team is coming off an NCAA season of its own, winning two games in the tournament before falling to a terrific team named South Carolina. Those Bulls had some graduation losses, but still should be a contender in the MAC in the weeks ahead.
All of this is the best news that Western New York college athletics has had in, well, nearly forever. St. Bonaventure’s trip to the Final Four in ’70 probably is bigger news, in a different way. This run of success raises a couple of key questions about UB’s future.
Keeping them here
The first involves the University at Buffalo itself. The school has a good thing going here at the mid-major level, but everyone is familiar with how the system works. When a coach consistently wins at this level, a bigger school from one of the power conferences comes calling with a big pile of money. It’s tough for anyone to turn that down. Ask Bobby Hurley, the former UB basketball coach who headed for Arizona State.
Lance Leipold came up from Division III with a brilliant resume but needed a little time to get used his new football surroundings. But after going 2-10 in 2016, the Bulls were 6-6 last year and are 9-1 and bowl-bound this time. If UB has this sort of record again next year, Leipold’s phone is liable to ring. His only drawback might be that he’s 54 years old, and some athletic directors fall in love with young candidates. Maybe they can keep him here if they have the money to offer consistent raises.
Then there’s Nate Oats, who has won two conference championships in three seasons as the head basketball coach of the men’s team. He already has talked to other schools, and he’s likely to be approached again in the spring if another trip to the Big Dance takes place. While Hurley seemed like someone who was anxious to move up the ladder, Oats gives the impression of a person who is enjoying the ride here. But in this business, you have to grab the brass ring when you can. Reggie Witherspoon might have left UB had his team won a men’s MAC basketball title, but the Bulls fell short in a title game and he never had a second chance.
Felisha Legette-Jack certainly had a memorable run last spring, capping a six-year run at the school in which the number of wins by the women’s basketball team has increased every year. If she can reach the tournament again with a less talented team, then she might hear from one of the power conferences. Legette-Jack, 54, already has been a head coach at Indiana. Does she want another crack at that level?
Add it up, and the Bulls are in good shape for coaching in the three most visible teams in the business. Can they keep any of them around for a while, especially financially? If one or more departs, can they do as well finding someone else to take those spots? If the answer to those questions is yes, then UB could be set for a nice run as a mid-major power in football and basketball. Nothing sells like success.
That brings us to the second part of the equation. How will Western New York react to all of this winning?
UB athletics hasn’t been able to draw big numbers to games very often in the past 20 years. The reasons, plausible or not, have been repeated often. There is no tradition of athletic excellence, including a 25-year period where there was no Division I football at all. The Bills and Sabres take a lot of entertainment/sports dollars, leaving little for the colleges. The teams had dry spells in the win column, damaging interest.
That last one is gone for the moment. The test is that the Bulls need to develop a base of support that is with them and that can withstand a drop in success. That would mean more season tickets, more donations (a sponsor for the football stadium would be a nice start), and more people interested in buying suites if they were added to the current stadium. Speaking of facility improvements, replacing the track with more seats might make the place more intimate.
There obviously a ceiling on UB athletics as long as it plays in the MAC. Central Michigan’s name doesn’t send people sprinting to the box office to buy tickets. Some people always prefer to stay home and watch Alabama and Notre Dame on television instead of seeing UB in person. There’s no obvious landing spot in case of another conference shuffle.
Even so, for the first time ever, UB athletics appears to have a chance of reaching its current potential. That’s the best news that college sports in Western New York have had in years, and it’s a great foundation for further development.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB).