I hopped over to football media day Tuesday at the University at Buffalo and, as usual, it was a good time. Nice to see new turf going in at UB Stadium. Great to see a $1.5 million renovation of the school’s sports medicine facility. Always entertaining to hear coach Jeff Quinn at the podium.
Looks like a stunning black helmet to greet Baylor when the Bears – and the ESPN cameras – arrive here Sept. 12. The Bulls are trying for a second straight bowl game and a second straight winning season for the first time in their Division I era.
Things look up in Amherst. You walk on campus and you feel good. And then you think about what programs like UB are up against. And you don’t feel as good because the NCAA makes it so difficult.
Last week, the so-called Big Five conferences – consisting of the SEC, ACC, Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12 – earned a huge degree of autonomy in how they operate.
NCAA board of directors essentially had little choice on the matter when they met in Indianapolis. Multiple member schools had already sent out pretty strong hints the conferences were simply going to go rogue if a proposal to allow added incentives for athletes wasn’t pushed through. Job one appears to be giving stipends to athletes in football and men’s basketball. Not good for schools like UB in the Mid-American Conference.
The Bulls’ roster consists of players from across the country. Isn’t it plausible that a player getting recruited to come play at UB – and maybe even to be a future star from a place like Florida in the Khalil Mack vein – might simply opt to stay down South and be a second- or third-teamer at a place like Texas or Florida State simply because those schools are offering the added inducements?
Quinn doesn’t look at it that way and good for him. He’s so relentlessly optimistic that I spent the final minutes of his 20-minute talk figuring out which wall in the luxurious players lounge I was going to run through for him.
“The best school in the country is right here academically,” Quinn said. “When I sit and talk to parents and as a father and husband myself when I’m trying to look at different schools and what opportunities will provide the best education for our sons and daughters, this is the right place.”
I had to laugh at a comment from Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany, who pointed out schools outside the Big Five are free to implement any rule they want. Of course, most might only be able to do one or two things for their athletes instead of the dozens of strings the big boys might pull.
“Mostly in the student-athlete welfare category, where high-profile universities want to do more and can do more, there may be differences,” Delany said.
Ya think? There’s more. Delany insisted the new legislation doesn’t impede the small schools.
“You can just resource up. They can fundraise,” he said, somehow managing to keep a straight face. “They can do more at the gate. They can do more institutional support if they want to do it.”
And I can go buy that beach house in Hawaii too.
What else bothers me about football? Plenty of talk that the Big Five will just play all of its games among its own, which would give schools like UB no financial or competitive juices from playing up in competition.
Sure, you can get hammered (see Baylor, 2013), but there are plenty of benefits for UB too. The season opener last year at Ohio State certainly paved the way for Mack to be a first-round pick. His interception return for a touchdown in front of more than 100,000 fans in Columbus is one of the signature plays in the history of the program.
It would be a shame if those kind of chances disappear. “They’re going to schedule it,” Quinn said. “And if they don’t, that’s fine. We’ll play somebody else. There’s somebody out there in those power five that are going to want to compete against us.”
There’s a lot of bravado at UB these days, from Athletics Director Danny White on down. Fair enough.
The dearth of NCAA Tournament berths in all sports – particularly men’s and women’s basketball – still says the program is spinning its wheels and I still object to the New York brandings. But the most important point is this: The one thing that’s impressive to me is that everyone at UB believes what they’re doing is right. They have conviction the program is headed in the right direction. They’re not simply hoping to be successful in Division I. Finally, they expect to succeed. And now the NCAA is making the gulf even wider. It’s no surprise. But it’s still a shame.