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Defeat of Bull Run: The Failed Division I Experiment

Defeat of Bull Run: The Failed Division I Experiment

This will always rank among the greatest mysteries of the universe: Why was Stonehenge built? What was Fermat’s Last Theorem and how did he come up with it? How on Earth was Danny White, former athletic director at the University of Buffalo, not fired once his plans for The New York Bulls Initiative came rolling out of his mouth? With White having departed Buffalo in 2015, we will probably never know.

I don’t want to decry Danny White completely. He did do a lot for UB Athletics: He improved the facilities, raised money, got the alumni association excited about UB sports for the first time in forever, and many of his coaching changes were upgrades. He can be credited as the guy who made the Bulls competitive. On the bad end, he also just plump dumped both Jeff Quinn and Bobby Hurley, and god only knows what he was thinking. And being one of those hotshot wunderkind executives, he was basically in and out. But we can deal with that; this is Buffalo, after all, and no matter what the sport or what level of said sport, we don’t expect anyone to stay very long. White came in and did his time on the bottom rung. We knew he wasn’t going to stick around.

You remember The New York Bulls Initiative. That was one of the two worst things he did to the university. The quick refresher is that White created a brand change which would have emphasized the “New York” over the “Buffalo” in the “State University of New York at Buffalo.” It was a victory for the school, but only in the most perverse way possible: The only people who approved of the change were a handful of treasonous alumni active on prominent digital media; the same people who graduated from UB, packed their degrees under their arms, and bolted. The students at UB were indifferent, and the residents of Buffalo rejected it with a capital R-E-J-E-C-T-E-D. The people of Buffalo are already pissed about having to qualify their home state with the phrase, “No, not THAT New York,” which packs an innate hatred of New York City. To see SUNY’s flagship – one of the very few things Buffalo can lay claim to that New York City can’t – try and attract attention by latching itself to a place no self-respecting Buffalonian can stand was maddening. It counted on the idea that potential recruits didn’t know geography, and one wonders how long it took for touring students to make it to downtown Buffalo and realize Times Square was eight hours away.

After White’s departure, UB relocated its brain and rediscovered is proper identity. The university mopped up the damage from The New York Bulls Initiative and rebooted its inherited call sign. But a week ago, we got to see the real damage left by White’s grandiose plans. Now, I don’t want to call White a bad guy for this: If anything, he was a visionary who saw the big-time potential for UB Athletics and tried to act on it. No one can complain about that. The problem is that White misread the sports interests of longtime Buffalo residents. He was from the south, in college football country, and was naturally inclined to think a Division I football team is the keystone of all college athletics. He convinced the university of that idea to such a point that, to keep $2 million in athletic subsidies for football, UB cut baseball, men’s soccer, women’s rowing, and men’s swimming and diving. All in the name of a bad football team with no local media coverage.

Buffalo is a professional sports city. I’m not saying the Bills and Bulls can’t coexist in harmony here. Following the sports in Seattle has shown me that football fans can be fanatical no matter what level the sport is being played at. Generations of football fans in the Puget Sound megalopolis were grandfathered into football fandom following the University of Washington Huskies. When the NFL finally popped into Seattle and introduced the Seahawks in 1975, all those Husky devotees took one look at this weird newcomer and… Decided they had enough room in their hearts for both teams. Every sports memorabilia store in Seattle has a couple of racks given to the Huskies. Come autumn in Seattle, you’re hard-pressed to find people NOT dressed in Husky purple on Saturdays. Sundays, blue and green light up the streets – and the Space Needle – for the Seahawks. And hell, fans of the Huskies’ primary rival, the Washington State Cougars, have a presence in Seattle too, even though the Cougs play way the hell over in Eastern Washington. (And not the close part of Eastern Washington, either; the university’s city, Pullman, is less than ten miles from the Idaho border.)

Now, I’m not saying this CAN’T be Buffalo. I’m pointing out there’s a million reasons why it WON’T be. Keeping with the Huskies as my reference point since their harmonious coexistence with their local NFL team is what the Bulls are shooting for, we can start with longevity. The Bulls don’t have any. Yes, the football team was founded in 1894, but they’ve had a rough and inconsistent go of it. The team was never very good, and it was actually suspended in 1970 because the student body didn’t want to use its fees to fund that sort of shoddiness. When it was reinstated seven years later, the Bulls were a Division III team. They moved up to Division I-AA in 1993, then took their big leap to Division I in 1999, and after that… Well, they’ve won a conference title and competed in two bowl games. Eight of their players were drafted since 2000, including Khalil Mack, the decorated linebacker who was taken fifth overall in 2014 and is being credited with the Raiders’ turnaround. It’s better than the first years of their Division I status, in which they were ranked dead last in a field of over 100-some odd teams. It’s really not fair to compare them to the Huskies, but since they’re playing at the same level of college football, we need to clarify what the Bulls are up against. The Huskies created their football program in 1889 and have always been playing in Division I. They’re established as one of college football’s legendary powers, a team you would not be ashamed to show to an Alabama or Michigan fan. Playing in the nasty Pac-12 since 1917, the Huskies have claimed a couple of National Championships, many conference titles, and played in a hell of a lot of bowl games. They’ve never had a Heisman winner, but seven of their players have finished in the Heisman voter top 10, and they’ve had players win a lot of other individual awards. Their alumni includes established NFL luminaries including Corey Dillon, Lawyer Milloy, and Warren Moon. Just this last season, they were ranked in the top five, won their conference, and played against Alabama in the Peach Bowl. Yes, they got hammered by an unstoppable Crimson Tide team which many thought would win the National Championship, but you can bet that Nick Saban planned every which way for the Huskies. Had Alabama played against Buffalo at all, the Bulls would have been written off as one of the Tide’s schedule creampuffs. Saban would have rested any players who weren’t trying to impress an NFL scout.

The likelihood of Buffalo playing for the National Championship here isn’t improbable – it’s impossible. The dirty little secret of the FBS is that it holds some conferences in higher esteem than others. The Huskies play in the Pac-12, the harsh conference which includes USC, Oregon, and Colorado. Alabama plays in the downright brutal SEC, that conference smack in the middle of college football country where LSU, Auburn, Florida, Tennessee, Ole Miss, Texas A&M, and Georgia are in a constant state of almost-war. Buffalo plays in the MAC, which people serious about college football see as a cute little sideshow. The people in charge of the college football cabal threw the MAC into the Group of Five, better known as “oh, those OTHER conferences.” The college football teams people have heard of and, you know, follow, are in a group of conferences called The Power Five. Those are the teams that get automatic bids to big, cool bowl games like the Rose Bowl and the Orange Bowl. They’re the ones that are ranked in the national polls to visit the playoffs and ultimately compete for the National Championship. Members of the MAC don’t get to go to those or play for a national title. Buffalo is an MAC team, which means that International Bowl invitation from 2008 is as good as it gets. And the backhanded write-off is justifiable; the Bulls have played against nationally ranked teams 14 times since moving to the FBS, and their only victory came against Ball State. The other 13 teams they’ve faced obliterated them in short order. Their best showing was probably the nationally televised game against Ohio State in 2013 which unveiled Khalil Mack to the football world, and they lost 40-20.

You’re free to argue that Buffalo hasn’t turned up with an enormous fanbase because it hasn’t been playing top flight college football long enough. A fair point, but Buffalo is never going to find that non-alumni fanbase because there are other factors in play which help connect fans to their favorite teams. Let’s start with the location. UB has its north campus and its south campus. South campus is easily located right on the northern edge of the Buffalo city limits, between Main Street and Bailey Avenue. That’s a convenient location with seemingly half the bus lines in the city, plus the rail stopping and starting there. Although south campus is the more scenic of the two, it’s north campus where the crux of student activities happen. North campus is the home of The Spine, UB’s response to a common university quad. Most of the classrooms are there, more students live there than on south campus, and all the athletic facilities are there – including both UB Stadium and Alumni Arena. Now, at most universities, the campus offers an idyllic setting: Syracuse University is set on the peak of Syracuse’s University Hill neighborhood, where it’s conveniently between the Syracuse Business District and Westcott, the local bohemian enclave. The University of Washington is on the southern peak of a gorgeous bluff overlooking Lake Union, in close proximity to The Ave, a lively small business strip on University Way. It offers incredible views of downtown Seattle and Mount Rainier. UB North is… well, if there’s such a thing as an island on land, UB North is it. A major pain in the ass to get in and out of, UB North is locked up in the center of a set of thruway lanes and parking lots in Amherst. It offers nothing photogenic, and if you want to walk down to an off-campus chow joint, well… Good luck with that. You’ll need to take the shuttle to south campus first. Any take-out orders on north campus WILL be delivered. Lots of college football teams offer great tailgating. UB North makes tailgating more trouble than it’s worth. As for public transit to UB North? Forget it. The campus gets a couple of inconsistent lines, so if you plan to take public transit to Bulls games, it’s easier to enroll and jump the Stampede busses. As for the stadium itself, it’s a bleacher version of a tool shack which was knocked up in an hour by your suburban uncle who doesn’t know anything about construction. It’s a converted track field with around 30,000 seats, and even a sideline seat is far off enough to require a telescope. Husky Stadium, by comparison, has 70,000 seats in a football facility that keep selling out.

In short, UB is under the delusion that a football team that regularly gets hammered by the Army Black Knights (which they do, since they play each other most years) that plays in glorified bleacher seating in a spot longtime Buffalo residents barely know how to get to is going to turn into Notre Dame. And this is a win/lose gambit to boot – with Buffalo’s football loyalty sole property of the Bills, anything less than national contender status will leave the Bulls somewhere around The Yukon. THIS is what the UB suits are trying to make into a national power, the thing four other sports teams were cut for. It was a resort so they could get a subsidy for the football team. Subsidies are last resorts. They’re grants to prolong the suffering of already-dead programs. You don’t see universities from the Big 10 using subsidies, because they have revenue. FBS Bulls football is a failed experiment which could rescue its dignity by swallowing its pride and dropping back a couple of divisions.

How many scholarships got dumped so UB could keep itself convinced of this charade? The football Bulls already play like a Division III team, so why keep pretending? Why NOT get bumped back down to the lower divisions? Anyone who felt pressure would be removed of it, and everyone could go back to enjoying football for fun again. Four sports teams wouldn’t have been unceremoniously ditched. No, UB wouldn’t have any power to attract big-name high school prospects to their football team, but guess what? They’re not doing that anyway! Buffalo has never been the place where players with serious NFL ambitions wind up. People who want to play football while they learn things are the only players who play for the Bulls, and that’s always going to be the case no matter what division the Bulls are in.

This is frustrating because of what the university is ignoring in its attempts to boost its helpless football team: The basketball team turned legitimately good right under everyone’s noses. Basketball is a huge college sport with millions of fans too, and the basketball Bulls have emerged as a somewhat known and respected commodity. 351 schools play Division I basketball between 32 conferences. Since being admitted to the MAC in the late 90’s, the Bulls have won the conference tournament twice, been to the NIT once, and received ultimate validation in 2015 and 2016 when they played in the March Madness tournament. They’ve been the regular season champions twice and the division season champions three times. Now, Alumni Arena is on north campus, so it shares a few of the same problems as UB Stadium. But the basketball team has a few distinct advantages over the football team besides being good. The Bulls don’t have an NBA team to compete with, and they’re in ideal position to kick off rivalries. Canisius is is slightly more storied team which has also made a handful of March Madness appearances. The Canisius campus is also located right in Hamlin Park. Niagara and St. Bonaventure would also be big local rivals, but the big advantage is that Syracuse University and the mighty Orange are two hours down the road. The Orange is one of the greatest college basketball teams in the sport’s history, and they play in the ACC. The blood rivalry would write itself if the Bulls moved to the ACC – it would pit New York’s largest private university against New York’s largest public university.

Furthermore, the cartel that decided the Bulls are ineligible to compete for football’s national title isn’t nearly as omnipotent in basketball. The college basketball structure isn’t as convoluted. 351 teams compete in Division I. All 351 have a shot at the National Championship. Yes, the NCAA still plays favorites with conferences, but there are still Cinderella teams in March Madness every year which can make deep runs and spoil the giants’ hopes. That gives the Bulls opportunities in basketball to make waves in ways the football Bulls can only dream of.

The emphasis on football also has the effect of ignoring Western New York’s greatest athletic talent resource. Yes, when Buffalo sports fans talk about their teams, they tend to lead with the Bills, but that’s because football is the country’s everywhere reference. Buffalo’s true sports roots are in hockey. The culture of the city revolves around hockey. Hockey – and ice skating in general – are leading off Downtown Buffalo’s redevelopment. The city has hosted several important hockey tournaments, and an amateur ice hockey tournament is held every winter. The city is home to many NHL professionals. The extent of football’s culture in Buffalo is… Well, what? The Bills? The Bulls? The fact that chicken wings are now tailgate staples? Well, what? You think about that. I’ll wait… Okay, get the idea? Buffalo is a hockey city at its core, and for whatever bullshit reason, its most prized university doesn’t have a team. This is one of the biggest no-brainers we’ve ever seen in the city; more so than even the Chicken Wing Festival. With the insane reserve of hockey talent running around upstate New York, the Bulls would go from nonexistent to contender within a few years – and that’s the worst case scenario.

The University of Buffalo is writing this off as a result of economy. It doesn’t have to be. All it would require for UB to keep the four teams it’s cutting and football is a little thought. And the ability to swallow pride and admit that Division I football at UB is a failed experiment. Yes, the university will have to swallow its pride, but so does anyone with the misfortunate to have to root for them.

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About Nicholas Croston

I like to think. A lot. I like to question, challenge, and totally shock and unnerve people. I am a contrarian - whatever you stand for, I'm against.

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