by John Furgele
The University at Buffalo Bulls football team is sitting at 5-5 with two winnable games remaining. Win both, a bowl game is a lock; win one and chances are still good that the Buffalo Bulls will be going bowling come December.
Does anybody care? That is the $64,000 question that resonates across Western New York and in many ways, the state of New York. It was the dream of athletic director Danny White to build Buffalo as a brand; a New York State brand that would garner attention from Niagara Falls to Yonkers; the Ohio State of New York if you will.
In order to build a brand you have to win in your backyard and that is something that the Buffalo Bulls aren’t doing. Western New York, for many reasons just doesn’t like college athletics. Last year, the Buffalo Sabres collected 54 points in 82 games, yet garnered almost all of the attention through the winter despite the fact that the Buffalo Bulls basketball team was on its way to its first ever NCAA tournament berth. And, in Buffalo and beyond, the Bills are never far from anyone’s mind. That is more than understandable; people like pro sports because of the coverage it receives and the passion it evokes. But, is there no room for the 30,000 student state university that sits right in the epicenter of Western New York?
The university is still searching for a sports identity. They play in the MAC, but deep down, think they could do better. Then, last Wednesday happened. The Bulls, at 5-4 and winners of three straight, hosted the Northern Illinois Huskies, at 6-3 in a pivotal swing game in the conference. They announced the crowd at 17,000 plus, when, in reality, they were about 2,500 milling about. It was Buffalo’s chance to provide some atmosphere on an ESPN televised game and there was…nothing.
Let’s begin with Wednesday Night Football. For some reason, Thursday Night Football works, but Wednesday? Not so much. It just feels sterile and looks uninteresting. We all know that the MAC does it for the money, but sometimes, values should hold out. If Buffalo is ever going to sell MAC football, they should play on Saturdays, preferably at 12 pm. Playing at 8 pm on a Tuesday or Wednesday just doesn’t make sense or cents. You are competing with too many things—homework, sports practices and parent fatigue. It’s tough to go to a three-hour football game, get home and be fresh as a daisy in the middle of the workweek.
That leads to the bigger question—should the University at Buffalo stay at the FBS level for football, or should they go back to FCS? It’s a legitimate question and the likely answer will be no, but is that the wise and right decision? FBS football certainly raises the profile of a university. Because there are games on TV and at the very least, highlights and score crawls, the university gets the always-desired slip of attention. But, even though running an FBS program might generate money, there are tremendous costs associated with having a small FBS program like Buffalo does. And, despite all the TV ratings and pomp and circumstance, only about 10 schools make money on their football programs. Buffalo is not one of them.
If you’re going to draw 5 to 6,000 legitimate fans per game, which Buffalo is doing now, then drop to FCS where a crowd like that is acceptable. There is nothing worse than 5,000 people sitting in a 29,000-seat stadium. FCS football is more “for show,” than trying to balance budgets in FBS. Schools have FCS programs as a way to recruit students and student-athletes, because we all know that students need diversions and contrary to belief, there has to be more to college than weekly keggers at the frat house.
Buffalo would be better off downsizing football and pushing a move for basketball. That would mean leaving the MAC and finding a better basketball conference, like the Atlantic 10. Football could find a home in the Colonial Athletic Association, which operates a separate football division. The CAA is a tough football conference with a geography ranging from New Hampshire to Elon, North Carolina. Buffalo could also help form an Eastern based conference if it so desired. Youngstown State would be interested so their fans could travel to some road games. The Penguins play in the very competitive Missouri Valley Football Conference, but most of the opponents are plane, not car rides away.
Massachusetts upgraded to FBS and after the 2015 season, they are being booted from the MAC and will play 2016—and likely beyond—as an independent. Tell me where that makes sense? A new Eastern (FCS) Conference could bring some schools from the Northeast Conference, and Monmouth, which currently is miscast in the Big South. Playing Bryant, Rhode Island and Central Connecticut is certainly not Ohio State, Purdue and Boston College, but do Akron, Western Michigan and Ball State excite anybody?
Buffalo and New York State has plenty of FCS talent and as we know is largely devoid of FBS talent. Why not cater to your strengths? Keep the local kids and build up a solid program that can compete for a national championship, something that will never happen in the MAC. This isn’t Florida, where a coach can fall out of bed and be surrounded by 100 legitimate FBS talents.
The Northeast Conference has seven football-playing members and there are several northeast teams like Maine, New Hampshire and Rhode Island that probably would enjoy playing schools that are more travel friendly. It can be done and at the same time, joining a conference that receives more than one bid to the NCAA tournament could raise the basketball profile and get the fans of WNY excited. When you go 20-11 and have to win the MAC tournament to get in, that doesn’t unite the fan base. At least in a strong conference, a 20-11 mark would likely warrant an at-large bid. The all-or-nothing conferences don’t do much for fans where professional sports exist.
As long as the Buffalo Bills are playing in the NFL, the University at Buffalo football Bulls will never win the hearts of the masses in Western New York. Admitting that and downsizing to FCS might just work and in the end, actually garner more attention than they are receiving now, which isn’t much.
Our chances of winning the lottery are better than Buffalo deciding to admit error and drop down to FCS. Simply, it isn’t going to happen. The problem with college sports in a pro sports town is the ultimate goal or prize. No matter how bad the Sabres and Bills might be, each year, they could conceivably win the Stanley Cup or Super Bowl. The Bulls could go 13-0 and there is no guarantee that they would even make it to the CFP. Deep down that bothers WNY sports fans. At least in the FCS, if they go 9-2 and get a playoff bid, there is a chance that they could bring home a national championship.
The MAC is not a horrible sports conference. They have had consistency over the years. The anchor schools like Bowling Green, the directional Michigans and Kent State have been there forever and that is commendable, especially when most schools are looking to move and capitalize on every single penny they can get their hands on. And, for the Olympic sports, the MAC fits the university well. But, football drives the bus, and if Buffalo can’t pull a Rutgers and find its way into the Big Ten, or at the very least, the American Athletic Conference, then the FCS/basketball upgrade might be the appropriate solution.