By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page
This is the time when newspapers love to run year-end summaries – perhaps because it fills space in a period when the news can be a little slow. I used to do the year-in-review for local sports at The Buffalo News. Not only was it good to put things into perspective, but the complaints were even fun (“How dare you rank my favorite team so low!’).
This holiday season offers the added bonus of being the end of a decade, as the 2010s wrap up inside of a week. It’s fun to go back that far and see where we’ve been – and figure out what was the biggest surprise. Let’s, then, take a wider look at the recent past.
The biggest story of the decade is an easy one. Terry Pegula was only known in fracking circles of Western New York in 2010, I would guess. First he bought the Buffalo Sabres and Bandits in 2011, and then he bought the Buffalo Bills in 2014. In the process, Pegula kept both teams here and secured their future. It’s hard to top that. Both teams could have easily ended up elsewhere.
Terry and wife Kim found out the hard way that ownership comes with a bright spotlight, and that it’s not easy to build a winner in professional sports. The Bills are coming out of a tailspin that more or less started at the turn of the century, while the Sabres hit depths in the 2010s rarely seen by that franchise. The Pegulas’ time as owners hasn’t been error-free, but guaranteeing a happy future for those teams bought them plenty of good will.
Elsewhere, the Bandits generally have been contenders from year to year. Buffalo didn’t win any championships, a first for the team by decade, but it usually has offered an entertaining night out. The same could be said about the Bisons. The front office has no influence on the team’s record on the field, so the lack of playoff games is merely disappointing, but the games are fun and the organization is well-run.
The area’s record in women’s pro sports is a bit spotty. That’s to be expected, as the growing pains of leagues for that half of the population have been plentiful. The Western New York Flash joined the big-time ranks early in the decade, but moved away a short time later. Maybe things would have been different had the games been played here instead of Rochester. In women’s hockey, the Beauts are still standing, and there’s something to be said for that. However, they along with the rest of us are waiting for a structure in the sport to emerge to allow it to become more than a regional curiosity.
That brings us to the local colleges. There are many stories to be told there, but let’s concentrate on the glamour sports – football and basketball. At Canisius, the men’s basketball team found some success through the efforts of familiar faces in Jim Baron and Reggie Witherspoon. The women’s team sunk under .500 in 2010 and pretty much stayed there. For Niagara, Joe Mihalich continued a good run as coach of the men’s basketball teams at the start of the decade. Then he left, and the Purple Eagles have not really recovered. The Niagara women have followed the Canisius example.
It was a stable and successful decade in men’s basketball at St. Bonaventure for Mark Schmidt. The Bonnies had one losing season in the entire decade, and had two trips to the NCAA tournament. You can’t ask for more; Schmidt just might be the best coach in school history. Meanwhile, the Bona women have run up five postseason tournaments in this decade. That’s not a bad 10-year stretch at all, although success has been hard to find since Jim Crowley left.
That brings us to the University at Buffalo, the best story of the area in the decade. In football, the Bulls lost head coach Turner Gill to Kansas after the 2009 season, and struggled under Jeff Quinn (although UB made a bowl game in 2013). Lance Leipold came here for the 2015 season, and he’s turned the arrow upward. The Bulls have made a couple of bowl games, including a win this year, and seemed poised to be regular contenders in the Mid-American Conference in the foreseeable future.
In men’s basketball, the Bulls usually were good under Witherspoon. A slip in 2012-13 led to his departure in favor of Bob Hurley, who got UB to the Big Dance in 2015. Then he left for Arizona State, leaving everyone to wonder if good times were going with him. Instead, things got better under Nate Oats. The Bulls won 32 games last season and were nationally ranked as they reached the NCAAs for the third time in four years. Plus, Alumni Arena was – surprise! – filled. Oats departed for Alabama, but his legacy of showing that the community can get excited about college basketball remains.
The women’s team has a similar story without the coaching turnover. Felisha Legette-Jack came here in 2012, and slowly built up a relative powerhouse program. UB has been to three NCAA tournaments in the past four years.
All that leads this story to its key point. If you tried to guess on Jan. 1, 2010, what was ahead for all of Western New York sports teams, the University at Buffalo would be the nicest surprise from those expectations – which were pretty low at the time. The Bulls have come close to fulfilling their potential for success, and become more relevant on the regional and sometimes national stage.
UB never is going to be confused with Ohio State or Texas. The Bulls’ programs are limited by their facilities and their conference. But this decade has shown that UB can put together winning teams on a consistent basis, which is something that we never could say at 10-year intervals in the past.
That’s progress. It makes us wonder what’s ahead for all of the Bulls, and for the rest of our sports teams. Let’s hope the good times multiply in the next 10 years.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)
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