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