by John Furgele
What’s in a name? For those who support the University at Buffalo athletics; a lot. When Danny White became athletic director in 2012, he wanted to broaden the scope of Buffalo and its athletic program. He wanted Buffalo to be “The Ohio State University,” of New York. In Ohio, much revolves around the Buckeyes. If you’re a student at Bowling Green and you grew up in Ohio, chances are great that you would rather watch the Buckeyes play Purdue on television instead of attending a Bowling Green-Kent State football contest.
White wanted Buffalo to be the flagship university of the Empire State. He wanted people in Poughkeepsie, Plattsburgh and Yonkers to think of Buffalo as the University of New York. This ruffled the feathers of the scrap iron natives of Buffalo and Western New York. These are people that endure criticism, snow, constant skies of gray in the winter and decades of no championships in their major sports of football and hockey. They are both loyal and proud of their city and when White wanted to emphasize “New York,” over “Buffalo” on uniforms and for marketing they were hurt.
There are people in Western New York that didn’t attend the University at Buffalo, but because the school had Buffalo in its name, they embraced it. It’s the Buffalo school, and because it has the Buffalo moniker, it appeals to those who live in the region. That is similar to many communities across the country. If you live in Boise, you embrace Boise State, if you live in Morgantown; you do the same for West Virginia. Ditto for Pittsburgh, Louisville and Cincinnati. Imagine if the University of Cincinnati changed its name—or at the very least its branding— to Ohio State-Cincinnati, or if Boise State became the University of Idaho at Boise? The natives would be upset and justifiably so.
White didn’t do anything wrong; he hired a marketing firm which researched the issue and concluded that the school might be able to both broaden its reach and make more money by adopting what was called the New York Bulls Initiative, or NYBI. By emphasizing New York, the thought was to lure in more support across the state, which, despite its troubles, is home to over 19 million people. The Buffalo metro area is home to about 1.2 million people, so on paper, White’s vision was not necessarily, bad.
The problem is not the name or the NYBI branding; the problem is the athletic program itself. Buffalo plays in the Mid American Conference, the MAC, a nice little sports conference. The MAC has 12 schools and all are similar in size, scope and reach. All 12 are public; all have enrollments between 18,000 and 30,000, they all play football and geographically, they are close enough to take buses over planes. In this day and age of bloated conferences that expand two time zones, the MAC should be celebrated.
Some suggest that the MAC has the proverbial chip on its shoulder because many of the schools are directional like Central, Western and Eastern Michigan and Northern Illinois. But, with an enrollment of 29,000 is the University at Buffalo really suffering from an identity crisis? The conference is set up beautifully. In football, its members hold their own and once-in-a-while beat schools that play in the Big Ten or other Power 5 conferences. They have success in basketball, too. Kent State made the Elite 8 in 2002, but in recent years, their success has been limited.
Is Buffalo content in the MAC? Many say that the NYBI was Buffalo’s attempt to see if a conference upgrade is possible. Some think Buffalo, because of its academic excellence should be in the Big Ten. It is a public university that has a dental, medical and school of law, all very impressive. Others think that at the very least, they should be in the American Athletic Conference. All athletic programs want to make money and improve their national images. Having a successful sports program does increase contributions to the school. When Doug Flutie won the Heisman Trophy at Boston College in 1984, applications and endowment increased. Boise State is the role model for all the Buffalos of the college athletics world. The Broncos have played in three BCS bowls, won them all, and increased their national exposure. It’s tough to sustain and Boise State hasn’t seen its basketball program rise. But the Broncos seem content to teeter on the edge of being a football power. Let’s not be fooled; if the Big 12 came a calling, the Broncos would go there in a second.
The problem for Buffalo in the MAC is that it leaves them half-baked in the revenue sports. The football conference will never see a team in the College Football Playoffs and right now, the basketball conference is nothing more than a one-bid league. Buffalo has made the NCAA tournament in 2015 and 2016 and received a 12 and 14 seed respectively.
What should Buffalo do? Option one is to stay in the MAC and there is nothing wrong with that. They can stay there, put Buffalo on their uniforms and try to win as many MAC championships as possible in all sports. Option two is to pursue membership in a better conference such as the Big Ten. Academically they fit there and if Penn State, a remote outpost can play there, why can’t Buffalo? And if Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey can do it, so too, can Buffalo. Of course, the Big Ten has to invite Buffalo, something that right now, is nothing more than a pipe dream.
The other option is the controversial one. Drop football to FCS and upgrade the basketball program to big-time status. The model is Villanova. The Wildcats were in the Big East when there was a divide between those who played football and those who played basketball. Eventually, the league broke up and the current Big East has 10 basketball-centric programs. Villanova and Butler play football but it is FCS football and doesn’t take precedence over basketball. Villanova won the 2009 FCS championship, but that didn’t affect the basketball program one iota. Villanova’s 2016 basketball title was a big one for schools that emphasize basketball, proving that you don’t have to be a Power 5 school to win it all on the hardwood
Buffalo could play football FCS football and that would free them up to pursue a “bigger” basketball program and conference. The Bulls could play FCS football and basketball in the Atlantic 10, or another multiple bid league. They would really have to commit and that means upgrading the basketball facilities, paying a coach at least $1 to $2 million in annual salary and really going for it.
Would the Big East take Buffalo? On the surface, no, because the Big East is comprised of 10 private schools, all Catholic, so Buffalo doesn’t really fit the mission. But, there is nothing wrong with trying is there?
The other thing Buffalo could do is form their own basketball conference. Go and out and find schools that play FCS football but want to be big-time in basketball. Massachusetts is in a similar situation as Buffalo. The Minutemen moved up to FBS football, but didn’t want to give up Atlantic 10 membership. The MAC dropped them as a football-only school and right now, the Minutemen are football orphans, playing as an independent for the foreseeable. The higher-ups at Massachusetts saw the green that FBS football is and took the leap and thus far, it has not been a success. In basketball, the Minutemen are fine, but what do they do for football? Can they remain an independent? Do they leave the Atlantic 10 for full-time membership in the American? Conference USA?
Could Buffalo help them? There are plenty of schools that play FCS football and Division I basketball that have the potential to be bigger players on the basketball stage. Rhode Island. Duquesne. Robert Morris. Delaware. James Madison. William and Mary. Towson. Those are eight schools that are located in decent metropolitan areas, play FCS football and could make the move to major Division I basketball. But, in order to be play in such an affiliation, the schools would have to have a Villanova-like commitment to make it work. If you’re going to form a new conference, you can’t pay the basketball coach $500,000. As absurd as that seems, it takes a strong conviction to get that done. And, maybe there aren’t enough schools to make this happen.
Buffalo has re-branded; back to the old brand. And maybe that’s all they needed to do. Downsize, go back to being just Buffalo and continue to play in the MAC where 15,000 fans constitute a good crowd for a football home game. On the other side, playing FCS games in front of 7,000 fans followed by crowds of 8,000 for big-time basketball could also work. The decision will be made by the persons-in-charge at the University at Buffalo. At the end of the day, it’s about maximizing profit potential, attracting students and increasing endowment.
Branding is just a part of the equation.