An architect has been retained. The preliminary plans are drawn. The University at Buffalo is advancing an initiative that will add premium heated and covered seating to UB Stadium and generate revenues to build the long-coveted field house practice facility adjacent to the complex.
“What we’re going to do is build out the east side of the stadium and ask the Western New York community to embrace UB football, but not without anything in return,” Athletic Director Danny White said. “They’re going to get premium amenities. We’re going to have heated and covered seats. We’re going to have a hospitality area that’s a fun place to be in a really nice high-end atmosphere.
“We need to get 1,600 seats committed and then we want to move forward pretty quickly building out the clubhouse and using those funds again to build a field house in a pretty short time period. We feel like we can borrow the funds to build a field house if we can create a revenue stream to satisfy the debt service.”
The goal is to complete the project no later than the 2015 season, and perhaps a year earlier.
White was hired by UB in May to replace Warde Manuel, who became the athletic director at Connecticut. At his introductory news conference, White spoke of UB’s unrealized potential, potential that could be tapped so long as the Western New York community and the university’s vast alumni base became willing participants. This is his administration’s first major move toward cultivating those bonds.
White views the strengthening of the football program as key to UB’s athletic future, and that belief is manifest in the drastically changed landscape of the college game. The five premier conferences – the SEC, ACC, Big 10, Big 12 and Pac-12 – have expanded to maximize revenues available through lucrative football television contracts. Whether UB might someday be positioned to join a major conference depends on how much progress is made.
“It’s premature to talk in those terms,” White said. “We’re so early in the process here. What we need to do is work our tails off to be as competitive as possible in the Mid-American Conference.”
Doubtless improved results on the field would enhance UB’s allure to the Western New York community. The Bulls have had one winning season since they joined the MAC in 1999 – the championship campaign of 2008. Coach Jeff Quinn has won nine games in his three years, and the fundamental community perception is that the program remains a doormat.
White sees it differently. He awarded Quinn a three-year contract extension when the Bulls compiled a three-game winning streak late in the season, a move that bucked the conventional wisdom that goes: When times are tough, new AD equals new coach.
“There are plenty of examples of Hall of Fame coaches, whether it be men’s basketball or football, you look at their first three years, it wasn’t too pretty,” White said. “So it doesn’t always happen right away. I tend to try to look further into the program and see if things are trending in the right way. I think the way we finished the season, the type of kids that we’re developing, a lot of underclassmen that really competed at a high level, we’ve got a strong team coming back next year.
“And what I noticed is a lot of rhetoric about job security. I don’t think that’s healthy for a program. I think it’s a negative thing for recruiting. I think it’s a negative thing for managing our current roster, and for us trying to build a vision with this community. So I felt like it needed to be addressed and I felt we needed to put some certainty on where we’re going as a program.”
White also assessed the mitigating factors. UB was dealt perhaps the most difficult crossover schedule within the MAC. It played one non-conference game against Georgia of the powerful SEC and two others against Pitt and UConn, members of the Big East Conference that has typically been ranked higher than the MAC.
A change in scheduling philosophy is forthcoming. UB already is committed to difficult non-conference road games at Ohio State and Baylor in 2013 but beginning in 2014 the emphasis will be on striking a competitive balance.
“Anytime you play against a team that has a competitive advantage … I think that over time it’s not going to bode well,” White said. “Football programs that have emerged as national players in the modern history of college football, most of them are playing a little bit of a lighter non-conference schedule. So we’ll be working to get to that arrangement, probably starting in about 2014.”
The emphasis on strengthening the football program means the status quo will prevail throughout the rest of the department. There are no plans to add any new sports although White is well aware of the community call for hockey in particular.
“I’ve learned very quickly how big hockey is here,” he said. “If we didn’t have the potential we have as an athletic department, I would be thinking about how quickly could we add hockey to make ourselves more relevant in the local community. I think at some point it makes a lot of sense for us.
“But at the end of the day, the only way we’re going to access the potential of our entire athletic department is through that football field. That’s how college athletics works right now, that’s just the reality. We didn’t make those rules but we’re seeing it daily in conference realignment discussion and all those things that football is driving the train right now.
“It also tends to engage the largest breadth of alumni and gives the biggest spotlight in terms of national exposure for the whole university. So we have to figure out a way to get football competitive consistently and we need to figure that out pretty quickly.”
During his tenure Manuel discovered that bonds with community and alumni were far more loosely tethered than at his previous campuses – Georgia Tech and Michigan. White brings a different perspective. His resume includes positions at Fresno State and another MAC school, Northern Illinois. He’s familiar with the challenges of mid-major programs that lack a resonating athletic tradition. At the other end, he was part of the team that raised $150 million for new facilities at Mississippi. The goal of raising $40-50 million to further UB athletics through football and bring UB facilities up to par in the MAC leaves him undaunted.
“I’ve done this at several other campuses, the track of college athletics that I came through,” he said. “I think people respond to an aggressive plan and a bold vision but there has to be a reasonable track on how we get there. So what we tend to do in fundraising in previous experiences is break things up into attainable chunks. By engaging a lot of people we can control where we want to go and ultimately hit a goal.
“We’re not going to have a fundraising plan that’s predicated on somebody giving us a $25 million gift or a huge infusion of state dollars. If those things happen, that’ll be great.
“If we break it up into a little more reasonable numbers by including some premium seats things and having a gift pyramid that allows a lot of people to be part of it at smaller numbers, we still need leadership level gifts but I’ve seen at other places that people respond to that. And I feel very confident we’re going to get that done. … There’s a heck of a lot more wealth in Western New York and in New York State at large than in Mississippi, the poorest state in America.”
Athletics can play a major role in helping a university enhance its brand recognition. That’s one reason White sees unlimited potential. UB is the only AAU (research) institution in the country not playing in conferences with automatic qualifying status into BCS football bowl games.
“There’s statistics behind our potential. It’s not just a pipe dream,” he said. “We are well-positioned in the state of New York, flagship university, the largest and most comprehensive university, an AAU institution with an enormous alumni base and a huge local population.
“Those stats, when you take college athletics aside and compare our university to others, you’re comparing us to the strongest academic brands in public higher education. And also the strongest athletic brands in college athletics. So I think given that information, everything I’ve learned since I’ve got here gives me more confidence we have unprecedented potential.”