Archive for December, 2014

Michigan, Harbaugh and the Changing Times of Midwest Football

December 24, 2014

Is One Name That Big of a Deal?
By John Furgele

Jim Harbaugh is a name that elicits; a name that resonates. For Michigan alums and fans alike, they believe that he is the answer, the Wolverine State’s response to Urban Meyer and Ohio State. The Michigan followers truly feel that if they bring Harbaugh back to the place where he spent his undergraduate days that Michigan football will be reborn to that national power that it once was.

That said, Michigan is doing something that Michigan has never, ever done before. Beg. This is the proud university that wouldn’t allow Bill Frieder to coach the 1989 Wolverine basketball team in the NCAA Tournament because he had accepted the head coaching job at Arizona State. Because Frieder was no longer a “Michigan Man,” he was relieved of his duties immediately and replaced by assistant coach Steve Fisher. All Fisher did was go 6-0 and lead the Maize and Blue to the national title.

But things have changed in Ann Arbor and for that matter, across the country. Simply put, there is way too much money to be had and the longer a program suffers, the longer it takes to get that money. Michigan fans have always had a sense of arrogance and truth be told, it’s a good arrogance. That arrogance also exists at Notre Dame, Alabama, Texas, Ohio State and perhaps Oklahoma, too. These are the blueblood programs in college football. It’s that arrogance that reveals admiration, or deep seated hatred. We saw the arrogance when the four team College Football Playoff field was announced and Ohio State, the blueblood, leapfrogged Baylor and Texas Christian to garner the coveted fourth and final spot. If Texas was 11-1 and ranked third, and then blew out Iowa State 55-3, you think Ohio State would have jumped them? What if Oklahoma was 11-1 and did the same? You think those two would be fifth or sixth in the rankings? No chance.

Michigan is a lot like Notre Dame and in some ways Oklahoma. They no longer are true national powers, but they still think like ones. Notre Dame hasn’t won a national championship since the 1988 season; Oklahoma hasn’t won since 2000. Sure, both the Sooners and Irish have played in BCS title games, but in many ways, their cache has diminished. At Michigan, it’s even worse. The Wolverines haven’t been champions since 1997, and that year, they shared the title with Coaches Poll champion, Nebraska.

Michigan reminds some as the old British Empire, clinging to its colonies and traditions while the nations they once controlled have broken away and declared independence. An example is little Boise State, which truth be told has done more on the national stage since 2000 then Michigan. Like Notre Dame, they think they can wave their wand and prospective coaches will come running to interview for the job. They’ve waived the wand at least twice with LSU coach Les Miles and both times, he never left Baton Rouge to interview in Ann Arbor. Now, the Wolverines are trying to summon their former, hard-nosed quarterback home, only this time, they’re dangling $49 million in addition to the wand.

How important is a good coach? Naturally, it is important and there is no doubt that Harbaugh is an elite coach. He won at the University of San Diego, a Division 1-AA school that does not offer athletic scholarships. He won at Stanford, a rigorous academic school where few players are admitted no questions asked, and a private school as well. He then went to the San Francisco 49ers and turned the team around in three seasons. In those three seasons, he reached the NFC Championship Game with Alex Smith (losing in overtime), then switched quarterbacks and came within a play of winning the Super Bowl, and then lost a tough road game in the NFC Championship Game against Seattle.

Harbaugh can recruit and more importantly, he can coach the recruits. He made Alex Smith a winner, and then allowed him to go to Kansas City, where he keeps on winning. He tutored Colin Kapernick into an exciting, winning quarterback and though he’s fallen back some this year, the potential still is there.

Things have changed in Michigan and that arrogance could get the Michigan leaders in trouble. For decades, the Midwest was chock full of blue chip talent. The steel and auto workers lived in Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and Pennsylvania and those states supplied generations of football players. The blue collar parents saw football as a tough guy sport and the supply of great talent seemed endless. But, then the shift began. The factories began closing, the population of these states began to drop and the demographics began to change. The laborers packed up and moved to the Sun Belt or to the West to raise their families. The blue chip talents no longer had allegiances to the Midwest anymore. They grew up in Florida; why not play for Florida, Florida State, Miami, Alabama or another SEC or ACC school? Why come east when you can play football in California or Arizona?

The other change was the type of people who remained in the rust belt states. Because the economy changed from manufacturing to service, the parents and priorities changed. Instead of working Monday-Friday from 6 am to 2:30 with perhaps some overtime, the workers were working swing shifts and on weekends. Now, the days off might be Wednesday and Friday or Tuesday and Sunday and that it makes it harder to take “Football Jimmy” to practice, watch his games and to watch on TV. For the new workers, Friday night was no longer the night to relax, it might be a night to work or a night where one has to get to bed for the 6 am Saturday shift. Even though Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania are still top ten states in terms of population, the demographic has changed and the other states are growing at a much faster rate than these states. Census data suggests that for every one person Michigan adds to its population, North Carolina adds 10.

The service industry also includes more white collar jobs like lawyers, insurance agents, professions where nothing is produced, but the salaries are higher. The people who work in these professions have different mindsets. They may have been cross country and track runners, tennis players and golfers or soccer players. Because they work for themselves, they work when they want and have to, and as a result, they don’t watch as much college football on TV, and as a result, their kids are less likely to play the game of football and more likely to go for a run or swing a golf club.

Deep down, Michigan knows this and that is why they’re making the hard press for Jim Harbaugh. Because the Midwest is no longer a football factory that produces enough to feed Ohio State, Michigan State, Penn State, and Michigan, the Wolverine brass believes that coaching is more critical than ever. Ohio State knows that the demographics have changed, but they’ve had two coaches in Jim Tressel and Urban Meyer that understood that, worked with it and relished in it. Michigan State seems to have a guy in Mark Dantonio that also understands how it works, making the next coach of Michigan a monumental decision.

The only problem is with Harbaugh himself. Is he really interested in coming back to the college game? Is this the work of his agents, driving the price up so high that an NFL team offers him $49 million or more to coach their team? What will Harbaugh do if he comes to Michigan? Will he stay for five years? Ten? More? He was so close to winning the Super Bowl, could he really walk away from the NFL game without a Super Bowl title?

Nobody knows what Harbaugh is thinking, in fact, I’m not sure he knows either, but there is one problem. What is Michigan’s Plan B? What if Harbaugh signs with the Chicago Bears next week, or the Oakland Raiders or some other team that’s going to fire their coach on Black Monday? Do the Wolverines have a list of other coaches that can understand the landscape like Meyer and Dantonio do?

We’ll know the answer soon enough. Michigan has reportedly made the offer. They know that by New Year’s Day, Harbaugh will be somewhere. If it’s Michigan, then Wolverine Nation will rejoice. If not, then what?

In the End, Another Year of Mediocrity for the Buffalo Bills

December 22, 2014

by John Furgele

Most observers say that the Buffalo Bills have a nice little team. They have a great defensive line, very good linebackers, scrappy cornerbacks, a very good kicker and a solid punter. On offense, they have a potential star in wide receiver Sammy Watkins, an emerging Robert Woods, a decent tight end in Scott Chandler and serviceable running backs. Yes, the offensive line needs some reinforcements, but the Bills will never be a playoff contender until they find the one missing piece.

Quarterback.

The Buffalo Bills have been searching for this missing piece since 1996 when Jim Kelly retired. That’s 18 seasons of below average QB play. The Bills missed the playoffs in 1997 but did advance to the AFC Wild Card round in both the 1998 and 1999 seasons under, for the most part, Doug Flutie. Flutie sparked the Bills in 1998, going 7-3 as a starter and that team lost to Miami in the ’98 Wild Card game, 24-17. The next year, Flutie went 10-5 as starter, took the season finale off and then watched as Wade Phillips—and the Bills brass—benched him for Rob Johnson in the 22-16 Music City Miracle loss at Tennessee.

Some call this the Flutie Curse, or maybe the Flutie Flake Curse, but since 1999, the Bills have come up dry. They did have a shot in 2004, when all they had to do was beat a Pittsburgh team that was resting its starters, but the Bills with Drew Bledsoe, lost at home to finish 9-7 and out of the playoffs. Since 2004, the Bills have never had a .500 season until this year.

Have the Bills improved? Yes, but in the end, this was a wasted season, a season where there will be more questions than answers. The head coach, Doug Marrone took a gamble after the fourth game when he benched the struggling E.J. Manuel for the veteran Kyle Orton. Nobody can blame Marrone for making this decision. Be that as it may, it was a gamble, a risk and the only way the risk/gamble would be rewarded was with a playoff appearance. By delaying Manuel’s development or non-development, Marrone was saying that Orton was good enough to get the Buffalo Bills into the playoffs. He had to be right.

There are many that will backtrack here. They will say that the coach should have kept Manuel on the field so the organization could see what they have—or don’t have. But, after the Bills lost in Houston, those people were screaming for Orton and as we know, the backup quarterback is always the most popular player on a team when the number one guy struggles.

No one can blame Marrone for taking the gamble, but like a gambler who gambles away $10,000 hoping to win $100,000, Marrone came up with nothing, in fact, he lost the $10,000. The Bills are not only out of the playoffs, but they have more uncertainty than ever at the most important position in professional sports. What they do now is anybody’s guess, and there is not only pressure on Marrone and the front office, there is enormous pressure on new owner Terry Pegula.

The Bills could have done what the Oakland Raiders did and that is start their rookie Derek Carr for 16 games, take massive lumps, but at season’s end, see what they may have at quarterback. The jury remains out on Carr, but he may have played good enough to warrant 16 more starts in 2015. In fact, assuming he starts in Week 17 against Denver, he will have as many starts (16) as the second year Manuel.

The difference is pretty obvious of course. The Raiders know they’re in a rebuilding mode and sure, they could have played the veteran, Matt Schaub and made a run at 7-9, but in the midst of what will be a 3-13 or 4-12 season, they found that their rookie quarterback may be a decent, quality starter in the NFL.

What did the Bills find out? Well, they confirmed what we already knew and that is that Orton is a competent backup quarterback who will win half and lose half of his starts. He can hold serve, but he’s not breaking serve and upping his winning percentage to 60 percent, which is required to qualify for the NFL playoffs. Orton can’t move, and he’s not accurate enough to start full-time and help a team make a run. It’s not Orton’s fault. He is a backup, a decent backup and always has been. The Bills were hoping that he could find that magic season, and do enough to get the Bills into the playoffs. The good defense, coupled with the game manager quarterback and presto, an end to the playoff drought.

The Bills also found out that they have no idea whether Manuel can “do it,” in the NFL. He started 12 games in 2013, four in 2014. His 2013 season was broken up by a knee injury and his 2014 season was derailed before the train was set in motion. The Bills knew that this could happen; that they could bench Manuel, take the gamble with Orton and come up empty-handed, and that’s precisely what occurred.

Now, after one meaningless game at New England, the Bills will head into the always topsy-turvy offseason. They will lose key players on defense, they will have to plug holes on both sides of the football and they’ll have to determine what to do at quarterback. Eerily silent has been Terry Pegula, the new owner with all the money. As much as fans despise meddling owners, Pegula has to meddle this offseason. He has many things to meddle with. First, he has to decide to retain or dismiss Doug Marrone. Most think that despite some questionable game management scenarios; that Marrone will be back. In the end, Marrone will be either 8-8 or 9-7, an improvement from 2013. And, because he improved without a bonafide, quality quarterback, you can make an easy case for him to be back.

Pegula is going to have to weigh in on what to do at quarterback, too. If he leaves it up to Doug Whaley, Marrone and Russ Brandon, they may wallow again and go with Orton, another middle-aged backup, or Manuel. Pegula has to sit the brass down and lead the discussion. It’s very simple; Pegula has to look the three in the eye and ask if E.J. Manuel is the guy. If they say yes, then Manuel gets the entire season to show his goods. And, that might mean a 5-11 or 6-10 season if Manuel struggles. There can’t be panic or false hope like there was this year. The Bills have to do what the Raiders did and that is sink or swim with the youngster. If they say no, then Pegula has to tell the three to find another quarterback via free agency (slim), or the draft or through a trade.

Finding a quarterback is not easy. Of course, some teams get lucky. The Colts had Peyton Manning for 14 seasons, then, after going 2-14 in the year that he missed, they got Andrew Luck. They may go through two quarterbacks in 28 years, while teams like the Bills change them like you and I change our underwear.

They have to be out there, somewhere. Is it really this hard to find a decent enough quarterback to play in the NFL? Apparently, it is. Jay Cutler they say has the tools, but they said the same thing about Jeff George. Acquiring Cutler would be a colossal mistake. Mining in the draft is hardly a recipe for success. For every Aaron Rodgers, there is a J.P. Losman.

There is no proven formula when it comes to finding quarterbacks. Ton Brady was found in the sixth round. The Colts were torn between Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf, the Cowboys found Tony Romo at Division 1-AA Eastern Illinois and the Ravens found Joe Flacco at Delaware after he transferred from the University of Pittsburgh.

The Bills went for broke this year and it didn’t work. They missed the playoffs for the 15th straight season and are still looking for the guy to be the guy for a decade. Jim Kelly retired in 1996, and 18 years is a long, long time.

For the Big 12, Go East and West

December 11, 2014

by John Furgele

There is a part of me that wished this never happened; that conference expansion, the lunacy that it became never happened. But, it did happen and because college football continues to grow in size and stature—sorry baseball, you’re number three now—it probably had to happen. America is in love with football for a myriad of reasons. The betting and the fantasy leagues are a major reason because football lends itself to gambling with things like the road underdog and the always exciting backdoor cover. Love it or not, football is the king, and one of the many reasons is that women like it. The best reason why football is so beloved is that it is once a week appointment television. Even with the days of the DVR, most Americans can make time on a Saturday or Sunday—or both—to watch at least one football game. The other sports—they never had a chance.

Americans love events and football is event television. You can watch a game on the weekend and then forget about the sport for five or six days. You can get things done like pay bills, pay attention to your kids and much more. It doesn’t require that daily commitment that the die-hard Yankee or Red Sox fan has to devote to.

The inaugural College Football Playoff has the sports world buzzing. Even with another NFL Sunday in the books, college football talk got its share of time on the sports talk shows. That’s how much we like football. Truth to be told, to me, Sundays are a letdown as the college football game is more exciting with more action and more unpredictability. The only drawback with the college game is the 20 minute halftime and the fact that most games take nearly four hours to complete.

Everybody is beating up the Big 12, but they played their hand and they came up empty, but it wasn’t the worst hand ever played. If Florida State would have lost, Baylor likely would have made the field; had Ohio State lost, both Baylor and Texas Christian would have made it in. As far away as they were, they were also that close to getting 50 percent of the CFP field.

All that said, it is time for the Big 12 to expand by at least two teams. The ACC has 14 schools (15 for basketball with Notre Dame), the Big Ten has 14, the SEC, 14, and the Pac 12 has—12. I think the committee in its own silent way was penalizing the Big 12 for being the only conference to not forge ahead and add more teams. There is still room for growth and many around college athletics think that someday, each conference will have 16 teams. The other conferences may not be mad at the Big 12, but when they not declined to expand, they sort of in a snarky way, thumbed their noses at those who did.

If the Big 12 had the right vision, they would take the University of Cincinnati and Brigham Young University. This would give them an east-west footprint. West Virginia would have their old eastern brother back and BYU, with 30,000 students and a national following would also help. And, both the Cougars and Bearcats would be formidable football and basketball schools. In Bronco Mendenhall’s tenure, the Cougars are 17-18 against Big 5 schools, far from dominating, but certainly representative and we already know that they are better than Kansas and Iowa State. They are also perennial participants in the NCAA basketball tournament and with the cache of the Big 12; their recruiting would no doubt improve.

Cincinnati would also fare well, too. With admittance to a Big 5 conference, they might be able to steal some kids that would normally choose Michigan, Ohio State or another Big Ten outfit. Cincinnati would also give the Big 12 some leverage in the Mideast, something that they really don’t have enough with only West Virginia. The Big Ten went east to New York/New Jersey with Rutgers and Washington DC with Maryland, so it behooves the Big 12 to do something similar. The Big Ten announced that it will play its 2017 postseason basketball tournament at Madison Square Garden in a further attempt to expand its brand. And, that’s what college athletics is all about these days; brand expansion.

If you’re a big state university that’s willing to spend money on new facilities, then the Big 5 conferences will be looking. The Big 12 may also want to look at Colorado State. There are plans for a $220 million on campus football stadium, so that could make the Rams appealing to not only the Big 12, but the Pac 12 as well. If the Pac 12 can have Arizona and Arizona State, why not Colorado-Colorado State? It wouldn’t hurt the Big 12 powers to study CSU.

Central Florida is another big public university and it already has a 45,000 on campus stadium. Is Orlando too far away from the core of the Big 12? Perhaps, but if you’re a major conference, having Florida in your league can’t hurt. In Florida, you can fall out of bed and find 150 to 250 Division 1 football recruits walking around.

Memphis would also not be a bad choice. The Tigers would elevate the basketball profile significantly, and under Justin Fuentes, the football program appears headed in the right direction. Having Memphis also dips into SEC country and with that conference being the best of the land, that’s another plus.

It is not an easy decision and it doesn’t have to be rushed, but the Big 12 should act sooner than later. BYU, Cincinnati, Central Florida, Memphis and Colorado State; yes that’s five schools for four or probably two spots and that’s a bit ambitious, but there will be more tweaking to the Big 5 in the future. Football is driving the bus, eventually Notre Dame will have to find a conference and for that matter, Army, too. I could see UCF landing in the ACC or even the SEC and it would shock no one if the Pac 12 had BYU on its radar. If Stanford, a private school can make headway in the Pac 12, BYU could too.

My hunch says Cincinnati and BYU are the top two targets for the Big 12 with Memphis and Colorado State not that far behind. UCF is the wild card because it gives you the Florida breeding ground, but one has to think that the SEC and ACC are all over the Knights. Perhaps nothing will happen, but the speculation sure is fun, isn’t it?

Big 12 Can Only Blame Itself for CFP Snub

December 7, 2014

by John Furgele

There are four spots and five conferences, so naturally, inevitably, something had to give. And, sorry SEC fans, your conference isn’t good enough to warrant two spots, so in the end, one conference was going to be shut out of the inaugural College Football Playoff, and that conference is the 10 team, Big 12. Of course, the fact that a 10 team league calls itself the Big 12 is a problem right away, but nonetheless.

College football is a game where the haves (the Big 5) and the have nots try to play nice enough to make it all work and for the most part, it has worked well enough. Not great, mind you, but well enough. The Big 12 will be in full spin from 1:00 PM today until the bowl games come around, but if they want someone to blame, they need to look themselves in the mirror.

Four of the five conferences have championship games, and call them what you want, these championship games are playoff games. If Missouri beat Alabama, the SEC would likely not have a team in the CFP, no matter what the coaches, athletic directors and conference commissioner said; they would have been out. On the flip side, Alabama’s impressive performance in the title game cemented them as the number one team going into the CFP. So, as you see, there are benefits to playing a conference title game in addition to the money that it generates.

People have been trying to find ways to rip both Florida State and the ACC all year, but their win in the ACC title game helped the Seminoles because trust me, Georgia Tech is no joke. If you were surprised how close that game was then you haven’t been following college football enough to know that the Yellowjackets are pretty darn good. Furthermore, Florida State played a very good schedule this year. They played Oklahoma State, Florida and Notre Dame in their nonconference games; did Alabama do that? Oregon?

Here is what did the Big 12 in. First, they didn’t play a conference championship game. Remember, this is a conference that was burnt by conference championship games in the past when the weaker team beat the heavyweight and took the heavyweight out of the then BCS Championship Game. These losses occurred when the Pac 12 and the Big Ten did not have title games and there was a lot of squawking by Big 12 coaches like Bob Stoops and others saying that it wasn’t fair. When the Big 12 lost Missouri and Texas A&M to the SEC, they decided to stand pat with 10 teams and because the NCAA requires 12 teams to have a conference title game, the Big 12 had to abandon its title tilt.

The Big 12 then stated that they are the most complete conference because they play a true round robin of nine conferences games and thus, can crown a true champion. The Pac 12 also plays nine conference games but only the Big 12 plays a true round robin, so we’ll grant them that.

Second, they let the round robin format bite them in the foot. By refusing to declare Baylor the conference champion because of its head-to-head win over Texas Christian, they dared the committee to pick both teams, something the committee wouldn’t do at gunpoint. Even Art Briles was furious at the conference by its sitting on the fence, and Texas Christian coach Gary Patterson didn’t do conference solidarity any favors by not taking one for the team and admitting that the 61-58 loss at Baylor should be the tiebreaker for Big 12 supremacy.

The conference title game hurt the Big 12 the most. Earlier this year, the NCAA allowed the Big Five conferences more autonomy when it comes to its football programs. They can pay players and do other things that they see fit to make more money for themselves and their conferences. Because of this new autonomy, they could have hosted a conference title game. The SWAC is a 10 team 1-AA conference that divides its teams into two five team divisions and plays the SWAC Championship Game every December. If the SWAC can do it—and they’re part of the NCAA—then certainly the Big 12 can.

For fun, lets’ say that the Big 12 had two five team divisions and were divided as such:

North: Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State

South: Texas, Texas Tech, Texas Christian, Baylor, West Virginia

If this was the setup, Baylor’s win over Texas Christian would have made them South Division champs even though both would have the same record. The Bears would have faced Kansas State (yes, two times in one year, but didn’t Oregon play Arizona twice this year?), for the Big 12 championship and it would have given them the same stage that Ohio State had last night in its dismantling of Wisconsin for the Big Ten title.

The Big 12 comes off as the crybaby here. Their coaches cried and really, they have nobody to blame here. We all think that eventually, this will be a six (my preference) or eight team playoff, and had that been the case, the Big 12 would have two tough teams in the CFP. There is no denying how good Baylor and Texas Christian are, but they were done in by their own conference in the end. As mentioned, Briles’ frustration and Patterson’s silence didn’t help when it mattered most. As my father said, “you can’t be upset at someone for whupping you.”

There are many that call Ohio State’s loss at home to 6-6 Virginia Tech a bad loss and I say nonsense. Virginia Tech has been good for many years and they are a Big Five school, so to me, that’s a game that should be scheduled. Baylor played 1-AA Northwestern State, Buffalo and SMU, a 1-AA school and two Little 5 schools. To me, losing to Virginia Tech is better than beating Buffalo.

College football needs to get its act together. As much as I love seeing FCS schools playing FBS schools to enrich their athletic budgets, Big 5 schools should no longer be able to schedule these games. The SEC does this all the time; Alabama will schedule Western Carolina the week before Auburn if they don’t have an outright bye, and that has to stop—right now. If you have an FCS school on your 2015 schedule, make a call tomorrow and dump the game. Let the MAC, CUSA, Sun Belt, Mountain West and American play FCS teams, but there’s no reason why Baylor and Auburn should be playing the likes of Northwestern State and Samford. The Big Ten has forbidden its schools to do this, so why not make this an across the board policy?

Another thing they should do is require the Big 5 conferences to play nine conference games. College football is hot now, a weekly commodity that brings people to their televisions and isn’t it better to see Ohio State play Purdue rather than Kent State or Navy?

No FCS opponents; 9 conference games; conference championship games. It’s that easy and it’s that simple. And, to me, a five team CFP is not of the question either. In a five team scenario, each conference could send one team, and the opening game of the CFP would be the always exciting 4/5 matchup. I won’t go as far to say that the team should be the winner of the conference championship game because if a 9-3 Wisconsin beats a 12-0 Ohio State, the conference may want to have a say on who they send. Of course, the six team CFP would work best because it would allow room for a Little 5 school to make its way in should they go 12-0 or 13-0, but once again, the CFP is the Big 5, the big boys so let’s not kid ourselves here.

Under a five team scenario, Baylor would visit Ohio State this weekend with the winner advancing to the Sugar Bowl to take on Alabama. Texas Christian would cry but they had their chance when they lost to Baylor.

This will all be forgotten this Wednesday. The controversy will be great for talk radio Monday and Tuesday, but by mid-week, it will be on to Army-Navy, the Heisman Trophy and the Michigan coaching search and of course, the NFL. The Big 12 will get today thru Tuesday to vent, but they should be venting to each other because they did themselves in.

Buffalo Bulls New Coach is Substance Over Style

December 3, 2014

by John Furgele

Nobody knows for sure. The seeds of doubt will always be there until the new coach goes out, wins games, and graduates all his players. It’s that simple, really, for a head college football coach. Expectations are high at every school. For a school like the University at Buffalo, the expectations are division titles, MAC championships and bowl bids. Of course, those are the same expectations at Kent State, Akron and Eastern Michigan. Just because Buffalo has won more in recent years than an Eastern Michigan doesn’t mean expectations don’t exist. And, despite all the bowls that exist, for every 9-3 team, there has to be a 3-9 team.

Until Monday, only the die-hards of die-hards had even heard of Lance Leipold, the man who turned Division III Wisconsin-Whitewater into the proverbial juggernaut. His record is 106-6 and every year, the Warhawks are usually undefeated and most of the time facing Mount Union in the Division III championship game. Perhaps there are some Buffalo State fans who remember when the Bengals visited Whitewater a few years back and pulled off a 7-3 upset. But, even that win didn’t get much attention locally in the Buffalo area.

Each year, the pressure to win at the Division I level is enormous. Will Muschamp was a top notch defensive coordinator, the next big thing, and when he was hired at Florida, great things were expected. Now, after back-to-back down years, he is out. Bo Pellini coached Nebraska for seven years and won at least nine games each year, but no conference titles, no BCS bowl appearances and he was shown the door. Brady Hoke had success at Ball State, then San Diego State and then was dubbed the next Michigan man. Now, after four seasons, the door has been shown to him.

Buffalo could have done the easy thing by hiring an assistant from another mid-major school; the defensive coordinator at Marshall for example. They could have gone to a Big 5 school and tapped a linebacker coach and brought him in to lead the Bulls going forward. There are also those who think hiring a Lane Kiffen type would be the best move, but then forget that Kiffen makes five times the money as the offensive coordinator at Alabama than he would as the head coach at Buffalo.

The hiring of Leipold is a good move. The Bulls tried to nab the top assistant when they hired Jeff Quinn from Cincinnati, and in the end, it didn’t work. There is a difference between being a great assistant/coordinator and being the guy who runs the program. For Buffalo, it was obvious that they wanted their next coach to be a person who was in charge. They could have gone out to the Division 1-AA level and brought somebody in, and they may have tried to do just that. Only the inner circle knows who was offered and who may have turned down the job.

Leipold has had enormous success. He has recruited and he has not only won, but has dominated. No matter what the level, this will be a guy who knows how to organize and set up summer camp, practice, and will use what worked at WW at Buffalo. Players are players, no matter the level. The biggest challenge for Leipold is that he will be recruiting against the other MAC schools and all the other schools, too. At UWW, he could convince the Division 1-AA or II kid to come to UWW and help secure a dynasty. The player who was thinking about Youngstown State might be talked into going to UWW for those reasons.

Leipold no longer has that advantage, the built in advantage. We know that Buffalo’s facilities are not tops in the MAC. Their stadium, though renovated is not a palace and they don’t have the indoor facility that many of their conference brothers enjoy. But, Leipold obviously had better than Division III talent on his Warhawks teams, so he was able to do something to persuade some very good football players to turn somebody down to come and play at a Division III state institution.

What will the expectations be at Buffalo? Every school thinks they should be the next Boise State, that mid-major school that upset the apple cart two times by landing in—and winning—BCS bowl games. But, think about it. How many Boise States’ are there in college football? There are those and that may include athletic director Danny White that think Buffalo could be the next Texas Christian, a school that plays its way into a Big 5 conference.

I’m sure those expectations were discussed with Leipold and only he, White and a few others know exactly where Buffalo wants to be in the next ten years. Many think Buffalo athletics should find a better conference for their teams, such as Conference USA or the American, but unlike the MAC, those conferences don’t require universities to field as many overall sports teams as the MAC. We all know that the MAC is not the greatest conference in the land. In basketball, it’s a one bid league, and in football, they can never pay a high enough salary to keep a great football or basketball coach. The Buffalo sports fan laments the fact that the Bulls play in a stepping stone conference for coaches. When Bobby Hurley was hired to coach basketball, the celebration was muted in part because the fan knows that if Hurley has success here, he will parlay that into a bigger—and better— job elsewhere. And, when that happens, you have to start all over again and hope you get another guy like the one who just left.

Many believe that Buffalo athletics should aim for the Big Ten, a major conference. If the Bulls were to ever get there, a guy like Leipold, if successful, could stay here for 15 years and be a Bob Stoops or Nick Saban type. Despite those ambitions, the Bulls have a lot in common with the other MAC schools. All are public, all are state funded and for the most part on similar footing. This isn’t the SEC with 13 publics and Vanderbilt; the Big Ten with 13 publics and Northwestern or the Big 12 with eight publics plus Texas Christian and Baylor.

Some will think that the Bulls reached when they hired Leipold to direct the ship, but I like the move. They picked a leader, a guy who has won and most importantly a program builder and program maintainer. It’s been done before. Brian Kelly had success at Division II Grand Valley State, then Central Michigan, then Cincinnati and now, Notre Dame. The Bulls could have down the Terry Bowden thing that Akron did; hiring a brand name only to see average results (the Zips also hired the fired Gerry Faust from Notre Dame), but I like the thinking—go after a winner, a proven winner and see if the formula that worked in Division III can work in Division I. Leipold could be the next Bo Ryan, who had success at Wisconsin-Platteville, then Milwaukee before landing the head job at the flagship, Wisconsin.

Time will tell, it always does and if Leipold goes 4-8 in his first two seasons, we may be having a different conversation. But, right now, if you’re a Buffalo Bulls fan, you have reason for optimism