This is the fourth of five stories looking at the status of University at Buffalo athletics and their long-term potential.
By Amy Moritz
News Sports Reporter
It was as dramatic as bowl games get.
In 2007 upstart Boise State met college football blue blood Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. The Broncos blew a 28-10 lead, then came back with a bag of trick plays to earn a 43-42 overtime win. It was the classic story of the underdog, and it launched Boise State into the national football conversation. That 13-0 season, that BCS win, changed everything for the Broncos.
“We lose that game against Oklahoma and who knows what happens,” said Max Corbett, the associate athletic director for communications at Boise State. “We win that game and all of sudden other kids are looking at you.”
On-field success and accompanying television exposure can help a mid-range athletic program (and the school it represents) enhance its image in a blink. Boise State’s big leap came with that stunning nationally televised victory over Oklahoma. Few knew of Florida Gulf Coast, an 18-year-old university in Fort Myers, before the Eagles made a stirring run to the Sweet Sixteen during the 2013 NCAA basketball tournament. And now? Admission applications at FGCU have soared and the quality of the applicants has risen.
Athletic director Danny White is hoping to generate comparable results as he strives to transform the University at Buffalo into the country’s next “big time athletic brand.” The road to prominence can be long and tedious, as it was for Boise State. Or it can be a matter of catching lightning in a bottle, as was the case with FGCU.
“We have to get to the NCAA tournament,” White said. “That has very real implications on how people perceive us. At some point we have to make a run in the NCAA tournament. That’s really important.
“But in a one-bid league in the MAC, that’s a harder proposition. We can’t necessarily control that as much as we can in football with scheduling, hiring the right coaches, supporting those coaches, improving our facilities. They’re two different things but we need to get both of those things done in short order.”
The Boise State story has deep roots. The university achieved success at the Division I-AA level. In 1994, the Broncos went 13-2 in winning the Big Sky Conference and advancing to the national championship game, losing, 28-14, to Youngstown State.
Two seasons later Boise State elevated to Division I-A, joined the Big West Conference and endured pronounced growing pains, just as UB football did when it joined the Mid-American Conference in 1999.
“We always had a strong football program but at that point we had a university president who said if you’re standing still you’re going backwards,” Corbett said. “We did the best to take the next step not only in athletics but for all the university.
“In 1996, when we entered Division I-A, there weren’t as many restrictions to make the move and that made moving up easier. We got our ass handed to us the first year. Back in the mid-to-late-90s no one dreamed we’d do what we did in the 2000s.”
The Broncos won just two games that first year, but things turned around within three years, thanks to consistency in the coaching staff and some luck in recruiting. During the transition from I-AA to I-A, Boise State went through three head coaches.
Stability became the goal. Fund-raising efforts enabled athletics to increase the salaries of assistant football coaches, making those positions all the more attractive and producing continuity in a profession with constant turnover. Boise State has had three head coaches over the last 14 seasons and is inclined to promote within the ranks.
The Broncos also ended up with the right players at the outset of a new television world with ESPN hungry for off-peak college football games.
“To be honest we got lucky and ended up with some great kids who turned out top to be top-notch players,” Corbett said. “They had a little chip on their shoulder. ‘UCLA passed me up, but here, I’ll show you guys.’ There’s a lot of luck involved.”
TV exposure didn’t hurt. When Boise State joined the Western Athletic Conference and started to win with a wide-open offensive style, ESPN took note. That led to games on Thursday nights and Saturday mornings. Potential recruits noticed. Boise State football became something high school players regarded with admiration and landmark victories soon followed.
“The success in the Fiesta Bowl and big wins over Georgia and Virginia Tech, those things are invaluable,” Corbett said. “And then you see Kyle Wilson picked in the first round,” by the New York Jets in 2010, “and people are seeing us on TV. Exposure like that is something we embraced and did the best we could with.”
Television exposure propelled Florida Gulf Coast University into the national conversation two years ago. “Dunk City” burst onto the men’s basketball scene, advancing to the Sweet Sixteen and winning the hearts of fans far and wide.
FGCU is an anomaly. The school is just entering its 18th year of existence and its men’s basketball program was just 11 years old when it went dancing deep into the NCAA tournament. The 15th-seeded Eagles knocked off No. 2 Georgetown and No. 7 San Diego State on its way.
The excitement created by that team shows that athletics can be a gateway to growing the university as a whole.
The numbers breakdown at FGCU goes like this:
Applications are up nearly 30 percent. The average grade point average, SAT and ACT scores are also higher.
Averages for the freshman class of 2013: 3.37 GPA, 1529 SAT, 21.9 ACT.
Average numbers for the freshman class of 2014: 3.71 GPA, 1544 SAT, 22.5 ACT.
Out of state applications increased by 90.9 percent, although Florida state universities can not have more than 10 percent of undergraduates coming from out of state.
Basketball attendance last year was 73,780, surpassing the combined total of the previous two seasons (61,493).
Ticket revenue, just $218,084 in 2012-13, increased to $962,882 last season. As interest in season tickets has increased, the school has installed donation requirements ranging from $250 to $5,000 on top of the season ticket. As of early this month, the men’s basketball reserved seating is 99 percent sold.
Athletics serves as the “front porch” to the school, and athletic director Ken Kavanagh has seen a jump in interest and exposure at both national and local levels. Alumni donations haven’t necessarily increased (“Our oldest alum is 38,” Kavanagh said) but ticket sales and vibrancy have certainly been impacted.
“We’re in a small town and a lot of people in our community didn’t really know where the campus was,” Kavanagh said. “When we were successful and going to the Sweet Sixteen, a number of people were coming to campus to buy stickers and t-shirts. It raised the profile for us locally.
“For our students, they don’t care if we’re playing Ava Maria of the NAIA or Notre Dame. They’re like ‘Dunk City is playing. We have to go to the game.’ ”
Success has caught the attention of the community on and off campus and created a demand for tickets.