Every week, no matter its record, the University at Buffalo has been confronted by the two basic questions. Where is the program headed? Do the Bulls have the right coach in place who can take them there? And with nearly three seasons in the books under Jeff Quinn, there is no definitive answer to either.
Division I college football still hasn't taken hold in Buffalo, in part because the Bulls have provided few reasons for which people can latch their loyalty. Former coach Turner Gill and UB's lone bowl appearance are long gone along with the temporary euphoria that accompanied the 2008 Mid-American Conference championship.
UB football has mostly been met with indifference since making the commitment to Division I in 1999. D-I was cool. It was an upgrade. It was a reason to check the crawler on ESPN. Really, though, the community has been slow to wrap its arms around the Bulls save a few weeks of arousal four years ago.
Now, you can sense they're getting closer. How close? It's too early in Quinn's tenure to say, really. UB took another step Saturday with a 29-24 victory over Western Michigan after blowing a 17-0 lead. A year ago, UB likely would have fallen apart and lost, 31-17. On Saturday, they regrouped and showed maturity Quinn had needed for two-plus seasons.
“I've seen this team grow,” Quinn said. “We've been close. We've been knocking on the door. We busted down another one today. That just adds to what this process is all about. It takes time, you bet. Maybe here it takes a little longer. We're starting to see that unfold.”
The announced attendance (see: tickets sold) was 11,012 Saturday for UB's final home game of the season. There were roughly 2,000 fans in the stands, a generous estimate but about the average in recent weeks. Two weeks ago, three times as many watched a high school game between Canisius and St. Joe's.
Quinn knows the only way to change the collective attitude toward UB is by stacking victories and getting into contention in the conference. UB supporters bemoan the relentless middle of the schedule this year. It's true only because they had an inferior team. At some point, they need to become a brutal team to play against.
Is Quinn the right guy to lead them?
The results alone would suggest change is in order. Quinn has an 8-26 record overall since taking over for Gill, a 6-17 record in the MAC. New Athletic Director Danny White has no inherent allegiance to Quinn, who has two full seasons remaining on his contract. White didn't hire him. He could easily make an argument that replacing Quinn with his own guy is a step toward progress.
But changing coaches isn't the answer. UB needs to change the culture. Buffalo's reputation makes it a nightmare for recruiting, but speaks to a regional problem more than academics or athletics. UB is a terrific school with tremendous athletic potential. Nothing improves a program like winning.
“It's hard to see it externally,” Quinn said. “I've seen it internally. The beautiful part of this is that I've watched this team keep digging, keep fighting. They're a resilient group of young men. That's how you secure wins. Now we have to take that next step.”
Quinn had never been a college head coach before arriving in Buffalo, a fact that has shown up from time to time. He has made his share of blunders. His play-calling has been suspect at times, confounding at others. He's hardly shown offensive genius that many expected when he arrived, but perhaps he was limited by his personnel.
You would hope, at this stage of his coaching development, that he has learned from his mistakes. He started five seniors Saturday, but only defensive end Steven Means would be considered an impact player. A coaching change would eliminate familiarity he built with his underclassmen, a comfort that eventually turns into production.
“You're starting to see the strides we all knew would come at the beginning,” receiver Alex Neutz said. “It's everybody buying in and believing. Coach Quinn is a great coach. He bleeds this sport. It trickles down to his players. We're finally starting to click. We're finally starting to get it.”
Quinn found his quarterback with redshirt freshman Joe Licata, who all but secured the starting job with another good game Saturday. Licata has a strong arm and looked more comfortable with every series against Western Michigan. He completed 21-of-33 passes for 285 yards and the winning touchdown to Neutz in the fourth quarter.
Licata has the strong arm and quick release of a Division I passer. Branden Oliver, whose absence for five-plus games left UB without its top running back, is a junior and could wind up in the NFL. Quinn will have another season with Neutz, their top receiver, who has 10 touchdowns this season.
Linebacker Khalil Mack, a dominant player, also has another year left. Cornerback Courtney Lester, who had three interceptions Saturday, is a sophomore. UB intercepted Alex Carder four times. None was bigger than the last one, when sophomore linebacker Willie Moseley picked off a pass in the fourth quarter.
“You look at the players doing a volume of work, it's a lot of juniors, sophomores, freshmen,” Quinn said. “That's a great sign. These kids are starting to get that success, get that taste. Once you start to go down that road, and you know what it takes, and you're rewarded with a win, it builds a tremendous amount of confidence.”
Back-to-back victories over mediocrities Miami and Western Michigan aren't enough to define a turnaround, but it's a start. UB should win its third straight game next week against lowly Massachusetts. Another in the season finale against Bowling Green would bring them to 5-7.
Where is it going? It's still not clear.
But it's not going backward.