Archive for April, 2016

Re-branding Just the Beginning for University at Buffalo

April 16, 2016

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.

 

 

 

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Villanova Win Could Be a Game Changer

April 7, 2016

For the first time since 1990, a school that doesn’t play major college football won the title.

by John Furgele

Villanova Has Done It.

Those words were coined by Brent Musburger after Villanova’s epic victory over Georgetown in the 1985 NCAA Championship Game.  Let’s give the university credit; it took them 31 years to get back to another title game, but when they did, they treated the nation to a scintillating, thrilling contest.  In 1985 they beat the defending champion Georgetown Hoyas 66-64 and Monday night the beat one of the blue bloods in North Carolina.

With their 77-74 triumph, Villanova now has two NCAA titles.  The students are happy, the players are happy, as are the coaches, alums and administrators.  But, nobody is happier than Big East commissioner Val Ackerman.  This was a statement game, a game that had tremendous meaning even though most didn’t realize it.

When Villanova last won in 1985, college sports was just starting to really become big business.  Even though UCLA won 10 championships in 12 years, that was before sports became a 24/7 obsession.  College basketball became mainstream in 1979 when Magic beat Bird in what still remains the highest rated NCAA title game.

The original Big East also formed in 1979, and soon, it became the most talked about basketball conference in the country.  I’m not saying it was the best conference, in the 1980s; the Big Ten won the most titles with three, while the Big East, ACC and the old Metro Conference won two each.  But the Big East changed basketball forever.  They received a major assist from ESPN.  Timing is everything and the Big East and ESPN were born at the right time.  The conference was looking for a platform to place their games and the fledging network was looking for alternatives to Australian Rules Football.  Truly, a match made in television heaven.

Money.  It is a word that has many layers.  It can be good, it certainly is needed and it can also cause great suffering, and money is what eventually did in the old Big East.  Well, money and college football.  March madness is loved by most and its postseason tournament has always been better than that of college football.  For years the two best teams in college football could never play each other because one had to go the Sugar Bowl, the other the Cotton.  But in college basketball, there was always a tournament, a tournament that grew from 16 to 32 to 48 to 52 to 64, 65 and now, 68.  Yes, the regular season gets lost by the bevy of games, but after the Super Bowl, sports fans start studying knowing that Selection Sunday is nearing.

And, as good as college basketball can be, they can’t put 105,000 people in a stadium six to eight times per year like the football heavyweights.  Eventually, the football money got stupid and conference realignment began.  The football schools wanted to be aligned with other football schools and the basketball schools wanted to be aligned with basketball-first schools.  The Big East was formed as a basketball-first conference.  The classic lineup featured nine teams and of the nine, only three played what was then called 1-A football (Syracuse, Boston College, Pittsburgh).  Three others—Villanova, Connecticut, Georgetown—played 1-AA football and the remaining three—Seton Hall, St. John’s; Providence played no football at all.

The Big East tried to placate the 1-A football members by adding more football schools and for a while it worked, but eventually, the friction began.  When Syracuse played in the 1999 Orange Bowl, Seton Hall got a cut of that bowl payout.  The league bloated to 16 teams and geographically, was no longer the Big East and as the major conferences raided the smaller to get to 12, 14 and even 15 members, the old Big East could no longer survive.

The new Big East is built on old Big East principles.  There are 10 schools; none play Division 1-A football and even though there is a Midwest presence, most of the schools are in good-sized metropolitan markets.  In fact, the league did a fine job of finding good metro areas in Cincinnati (Xavier), Indianapolis (Butler), Chicago (DePaul), Milwaukee (Marquette) and Omaha (Creighton) to complement the original areas of Providence, Washington (Georgetown), New York (St. John’s, Seton Hall) and Philadelphia (Villanova).  The good thing about the current Big East is that none of these universities are thinking about playing 1-A football.  Only three play 1-AA football and only Villanova awards scholarships in the sport, with Georgetown opting not to and Butler playing in a league (Pioneer) that doesn’t allow them.

Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Boston College and Connecticut are missed let’s not fool ourselves, but last night’s win by Villanova sets a strong foundation for the future.  This was a much-needed win for the schools that don’t play in the ACC, Big Ten, Pac 12, Big 12, and SEC, the so-called Power 5 conferences.  This win sends the message that a high-class recruit doesn’t have to go to North Carolina, Duke, Kentucky or Michigan State to win an NCAA basketball championship. Schools like Duquesne can now approach a recruit, a recruit who is thinking Pittsburgh or Syracuse and tell him you can win here.  And, when the kid questions him, the answer will be Villanova, 2016.  Before that, it wasn’t true, because since 1991, schools that play 1-A football won all 25-basketball titles.

The Bowling Green football coach can’t tell a recruit that their goal is to win the College Football Playoff.  Simply, it isn’t going to happen.  But, because of Villanova Monday night, the Bowling Green basketball coach can tell a kid that.  Sure, it’s a stretch for a Bowling Green to win the NCAA basketball title, but a Final Four is not impossible.  Just ask Butler (before the Big East), VCU, George Mason and Wichita State.  Butler was so good, they played in back-to-back title games and even though they didn’t win, they provided hope that the small schools–the basketball schools–could compete.  Villanova proved that winning it all is realistic.

Basketball is different than football, but until Villanova, basketball looked like football with the power schools from the power conferences bagging all the titles.

Villanova changed the landscape by coming from the second group, proving that you don’t have to play major football to win the basketball championship.

And while we’re speaking of Villanova and football, the Wildcat football team opens the 2016 season….. at Pittsburgh.

 

 

Major Implications for Tonight’s NCAA Championship Game

April 4, 2016

Villanova trying to win for those who don’t play FBS Power 5 football

by John Furgele

Not since 1990 when UNLV cut down the nets has a school from a non Power 5 conference won the NCAA basketball title.  Technically, you can count Connecticut’s 2014 triumph out of the American Conference as another, but I won’t do that.  Those Huskies were in their first year in the new conference and were really carrying on with old Big East talent; the old Big East that had football schools in it.

Many schools have reached the precipice such as Butler (twice), Utah when they were a Mountain West school and Memphis as a member of Conference USA, but none have been able to breakthrough.  And, truth be told, that UNLV squad was more of a glorified  conference affiliate under coach Jerry Tarkanian.  Those Rebel teams played solid nonconference opponents and then beat up on Big West opponents en route to their 103-73 dismantling of Duke in the title game.

The schools that win are the schools that play Power 5 football.  UNLV never did and still doesn’t play Power 5 football.  If you really want to get technical the last school that didn’t play Division I-A/FBS football and won the NCAA hoops title was Villanova in 1985—31 years ago.

People like to bring up parity, they like to trumpet the non-football conferences, and many of them have done well.  They will tout Wichita State’s Final Four appearance out of the Missouri Valley; Butler’s from the Horizon; Virginia Commonwealth from the CAA and Memphis from Conference USA, but those schools never won the BIG game.  The Atlantic 10 is a highly regarded conference, but other than Massachusetts’ 1996 Final Four run, the league hasn’t had a Final Four team since.

Most people say that in basketball all you need are five players and those five players can put a six game run together and cut down the nets, but unless you’re from the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, ACC or Pac 12, it hasn’t happened.  There are many that call the SEC a football conference, but since 1990, three of their members—Florida (2), Kentucky (3) and Arkansas—have won basketball titles.  That’s the same as the more highly regarded ACC, which has seen Duke, Maryland and North Carolina win titles.

When Villanova won it all in 1985, the landscape of college sports was different.  Much different.  The Big East was the hottest basketball league, a league that featured small Catholic and private universities with two public universities (Pittsburgh and Connecticut) in its nine team configuration.  And, of the nine, only three played major college football and those three—Pitt, Boston College and Syracuse were proud football independents.  Villanova and Connecticut were members of the then 1-AA Yankee Conference and Georgetown was gearing up to join the non-scholarship Patriot League for just football.

Once Penn State gave up football independence for the Big Ten, the landscape changed quickly.  Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Boston College became uneasy and soon that tension led to infighting in the Big East between those who played 1-A football and those who didn’t.  Little did we know that eventually, this skirmish would lead to 14, 15 and 16 team conferences, good for football perhaps, but women’s soccer?  Cross country?  Tennis?  Golf?

This is a statement game of epic proportions.  A Villanova win is a win for the Group of 27 conferences that don’t play major FBS football.  The MAAC, NEC, Atlantic 10, Atlantic Sun and Summit will all be pulling—hard—for a Villanova win.  A Villanova win will change the mind of some recruits, convincing them that you can attend a Viilanova, Providence, Gonzaga or Marquette and capture the ultimate prize that the sport offers.

For coach Jay Wright and his Wildcat team, they’re only thinking about how to defend the Tar Heels, the pick and roll and all the other essentials of playing a winning basketball game.  But, at the same time, the Villanova Wildcats are carrying the mantle for the colleges and universities who think basketball can be the number one sport and that you don’t have to have a 90,000 seat stadium on campus to succeed in the other revenue generating sport in college athletics.

The non Power 5 schools have gotten very close to the top of the mountain.  Now, it is time for them to reach the peak.