By Budd Bailey
Last Tuesday afternoon, University at Buffalo Athletic Director Mark Alnutt’s phone rang. In that job, you never know what will happen once you answer a call. In this case, head football coach Maurice Linguist was on the other end ... and the process that led to a news conference at UB less than a week later was underway.
“He told me that Alabama had reached out to him, and he was making sure I was OK with having conversations,” Alnutt said. “I said, ‘Of course, and I appreciate your giving me a head’s up.’ Then Greg Byrne, the Alabama AD, called me about 10 minutes after that phone call – and he’s a great man, great person, and a courtesy person. And once I got that call from him, I knew it was going to trend that way that he (Linguist) was going to go to Alabama. I had further conversations with Mo in person later that afternoon, and even at that time he didn’t really tell me that he was going to commit to Alabama.”
Right after that first phone call, Alnutt started to work on the situation. He put a plan into place about what to do next if Linguist did indeed head South.
“Names, lists – you always have a list of names that are out there,” he said.
The situation became even more urgent a few hours later.
“Later that evening, I’m at home, and I see a Tweet from Adam Rittenberg (of ESPN) saying that (Linguist) was going to Alabama,” Alnutt said. “So I called Mo up and said I saw this, and he said, “Yeah, I was going to call you but it leaked out.’”
It wasn’t an unfamiliar moment for the Athletic Director. He had to hire a men’s basketball coach less than a year ago, and a women’s basketball coach the year before that. These are big decisions, with considerable pressure about getting it right. There are dollars and jobs at stake.
“This search, I felt very confident I could do it without assistance from a search firm,” Alnutt said. “Obviously, my network and relations with folks, who I could go to – I was very confident on how to move forward with this.”
What’s more, as soon as Linguist was officially out the door, the clock had started ticking. Every minute that the University at Buffalo was without a head coach was a minute lost in the process of recruiting freshmen and transfers to the program.
Once word of a vacancy leaked out, Alnutt’s phone and email blew up with inquiries from around the country. The candidate list soon became a mix of those Alnutt sought to interview, and others who contacts UB about the position.
“As you can imagine, you are bombarded with those who want to be a candidate,” he said. “It’s a phenomenal amount of people.”
The first questions centered on what Alnutt wanted in a football coach this time around.
“One of the main things was that someone has head coaching experience,” he said. “We wanted someone that this was not going to be their first time running a program.”
The name of Pete Lembo, who was an assistant coach at South Carolina at the time, quickly came up. He had been a head coach in the past. Lembo was the head coach at Lehigh in 2002 when that school came into Buffalo and knocked off the Bulls in a stunner. He moved on to Elon and Ball State before taking an assistant coach’s job at South Carolina.
“It was wonderful to be thought of as a potential candidate for this,” Lembo said. “My immediate response was that I was very excited about the opportunity, and I looked forward to seeing where this might take us. This was a fast-moving, efficient and thorough search that Mark and his team did. It was a whirlwind few days.”
“In this case, it was me wondering if he was interested (in the UB job) and available,” Alnutt said. “Once I got that confirmation, that’s when we started. I talked to him and his representatives, and we were able to go through the interview process. We had two other candidates that we talked to as well, but by the end of the week we knew what direction we wanted to go. Once we decided, and once we offered the job, the negotiation phase started. We were able to finalize everything Saturday evening.”
The two sides reportedly agreed on a five-year contract. Lembo was introduced as the new head coach on Tuesday at a news conference. After nine years as an assistant, Lembo was back in charge of a college football program.
“I was very happy and fulfilled in my role at South Carolina, but always deep down I trusted that the right opportunity would present itself for me to do it again,” Lembo said.
The time pressure now shifts from Alnutt to Lembo. The new coach has a to-do list that’s as big as a football stadium, between recruiting players to assembling a staff and so on. Lembo may need to buy a house along the way, too – when he gets a minute.
But his athletic director promises to support him throughout this period and beyond.
“We’re in this together,” Alnutt said. “It’s going to be a great partnership.”
And perhaps the most interesting part of the entire process is the chain reaction involved. The legendary Nick Saban retired from coaching at Alabama on January 10 – less than two weeks ago if you are counting. He was replaced by Kalen DeBoer of Washington two days later. Soon after that, DeBoer reached out to hire Linguist as something of a co-defensive coordinator.
In other words, if Saban decides to keep coaching, UB still has Linguist as its head coach, and Lembo is busy recruiting for the Gamecocks right now.
“Everything happens for a reason,” Lembo said. “My wife reminds me of that all the time. We’re very much a family that blooms where we are planted, so we’ve had some great stops. I’m sure this will be one as well.”
(Follow Budd on X.com @WDX2BB)