Big city, small conference hampers efforts
by John Furgele
The Buffalo Bulls appeared to be heading in the right direction. In football, they hired a proven winner, and more importantly, a program builder when they plucked Lance Leipold from Wisconsin-Whitewater. In basketball, they got the big name in Bobby Hurley and even though he had no head coaching experience, the name alone was enough to get Buffalo basketball on the radar. The only better hire might have been Christian Laettner.
We can dissect the Hurley departure any way we want do, but at best, Hurley would have been gone in two years. There are certainly no guarantees that the Bulls would have made the NCAA Tournament in 2016 because of the one bid nature of the Mid American Conference, but the odds would have been good for next year’s team to win at least 20 games. And, each successful year put in by Hurley would have just led to more and more speculation that he would leave.
Personally, I thought Hurley would have stayed at Buffalo for one more season. He certainly garnered enough attention and one would think that three years at Buffalo would have landed him the higher profile job that he would ultimate covet and want. Fortunately, for Hurley, it only took two years.
We can also speculate how everything went down, too. Did AD Danny White leak information about Hurley signing an extension? Did the Buffalo athletic department only offer him $1,000 more than the highest paid MAC coach was making? We might never know the true particulars, but ultimately, Hurley had to take the Arizona State job. Let’s be honest; the Buffalo job is an okay job. Bad league, bad winter weather and only one chance to make the NCAA Tournament. At ASU, he walks into a program that spends money, wants to be good but for some reason, can’t seem to get over the hump in college basketball. Believe it or not, the Sun Devils are adding Division I hockey next season, so their commitment to athletics is strong.
Buffalo had some advantages, too. For one, even though WNY fans are a passionate bunch, the passion wanes for college athletics. The fans here would never demand NCAA Tournament or bust each season. They would be happy with a few appearances here and there. We know where the passions lie; with the Bills and as evidenced by the two year tank fest, the Sabres.
When Buffalo made the International Bowl under Turner Gill, the WNY faithful got excited, but soon, Turner Gill was gone and by the time the Bulls played in the Potato Bowl in 2013, few outside the UB loyalists cared.
I don’t know Bobby Hurley, but my bet is he wants the Duke job when Coach K finally retires. In theory, you don’t want to be the guy who follows the guy (where are you Gene Bartow), but in college basketball, there are only four or five programs who ultimately can win the NCAA title. Duke is one of them. Coach K is 68, he can’t coach forever and Hurley knew that jumping from Buffalo to Duke would have been very difficult, but jumping from Arizona State to Duke—not so much.
The writing was on the wall even before the wall was built. Deep down, Buffalo did get shortchanged by Hurley but in a one bid league, paying him close to $1 million would have made no sense. If the MAC were a four bid league, the high salary could be justified, but UB could go 27-7 next year and if they don’t win the MAC Tournament, they go to the NIT, CIT or some other alphabetical post season alternative.
I worry a bit about Buffalo athletics because they are clearly stuck in college sports purgatory. Niagara, Canisius and St. Bonaventure know who they are; small schools content in the MAAC and Atlantic 10 respectively. They view basketball as their high end sport and try to compete each year. The Bonnies play the best basketball, a multi bid NCAA Tourney league. If the Bonnies go 24-8, they’re dancing no matter what they do at the A 10 Tournament. Niagara and Canisius are the small, private schools, content to play games on campus and see what happens.
But, Buffalo is a different animal. They are the big, public “city” university. Branding aside, they carry the name Buffalo on the jerseys and when West Virginia and Buffalo came up in the brackets, America knew who they were and where they were from. Ask somebody from West Virginia if they know where Canisius is, or even Siena for that matter.
They are the big guy, but they are stuck in a dreadful conference. The MAC doesn’t produce national champions in any team sport. Not volleyball, not cross country, not even bowling. While the directional Michigans, Ball State and Northern Illinois are content where they are, Buffalo is the restful soul. Competition wise, Buffalo isn’t ready to be a juggernaut–in any sport–but branding wise, they have bigger aspirations than the MAC. Geographically, they’re a nice fit, and athletically, they are too, but there’s more to it. If Buffalo wants to be THE public university in New York, they have to be more like Ohio State than Kent State or Murray State. But, does anybody want them?
There are some that say Buffalo should pursue a bigger and better basketball conference and drop down to FCS in football and that might have been the route to take before MAC membership. Buffalo could have tried to get into the Atlantic 10 or even the revised Big East had they stayed at the FCS level for football. Villanova is the example. They remained FCS for football, but stayed in the top flight Big East for basketball. Once Buffalo went into the MAC, there was no turning back as Massachusetts found out. The Minutemen didn’t want to give up A 10 membership, so the MAC, refusing to keep them as football only, gave them the boot after the 2015 campaign.
Buffalo may have found a great coach in Nate Oats. And, unlike Hurley, he is a no-name who won’t parlay two good seasons for a Power 5 job. Because life isn’t fair, Oats will have to bide his time and succeed mightily at Buffalo before moving on. For the university, that’s a good thing. But, the big issue is clear and that’s how does Buffalo escape college athletics purgatory?