When UB football alumni gather, the stories of yesteryear lack an even flow.
The University at Buffalo had a rich tradition of football in the 1950s, but finances and a tense political climate contributed to the school dropping the program in January, 1971.
The Bulls returned to the gridiron in 1977 as a Division III program and began their “Run to Division I” in 1985. They joined what was then called Division I-AA in 1993 and made the jump to Division I-A when they joined the Mid-American Conference for the 1999 season.
Why the history lesson? It’s an important factor when examining Buffalo’s desire to establish “big time football” and the support it can muster among alumni and the community.
“We see the gap,” athletic director Danny White said. “We have football alumni reunion events every year with the guys who played in the ’60s before it was dropped and they have these memories of that. Then we have this long gap. We have different segments of alumni, because then we have guys who played football or any sport in the ’80s as Division III. They have their memories as well in a different way.
“Because I think that connection is there, whether it’s Division I or II or III, I think where the challenge comes is with the student-body at large. We have 6,000 students at a football game right now and having fun and creating memories. We lost that for quite a bit. We’re playing a lot of catch-up.”
Creating buzz and excitement is one thing. Having an alumni pool, and a community, buy in to the pageantry both literally and figuratively, is a different story.
It’s an issue that Bill Maher remembers addressing when he worked at the University at Buffalo. The current athletic director at Canisius College spent seven years working for UB athletics, including two as its interim athletic director.
“It certainly impacts building a program,” Maher said of the tradition. “A successful program at Buffalo will take generations. It takes a long time of being aware of the success of the program.”
And it takes time for people in Western New York to warm to the idea of UB’s current conference.
Say the word “MAC” in Buffalo and the first thought of sports fans could be the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, home of Canisius and Niagara. That mid-major conference has built itself around basketball and has a foothold in the consciousness of Western New York, thanks to televised games and a history that goes back to 1980. The Golden Griffins and Purple Eagles have been full members since 1989.
That’s four years before UB went Division I and a decade before it upped the ante and joined the “other” MAC.
That history provides fans familiarity with schools in the Metro Atlantic – Siena, Rider, Marist, Iona. When you start talking about the Mid-American and schools like Bowling Green, Kent State and Western Michigan, the conference seems to resonate less.
“Generally speaking, most people living in WNY focus east,” Maher said. “Where they’re thinking of geography, they’re not looking west so much as they are the NYC metro area, Albany, even Connecticut and New Jersey. Those are all areas people look at and recognize more than somewhere in Ohio. It might be the same distance or even closer, but they don’t mentally see it that way.”
White sees UB’s muddled athletic tradition as a bigger obstacle to marketing the program than its affiliation with a midwest-based conference.
“The bigger challenge is we didn’t have D-I athletics here in so long. That’s the biggest challenge,” he said. “I think the MAC has really risen in terms of national profile. I think the league is rising. I don’t see (the league) as that big of a challenge. It’s their connection with the university which isn’t as strong as other places I’ve worked at and other places in our conference that have had Division I college athletics for decades.”
So what to do?
Buffalo blitzed its season ticket campaign and worked to make football games an event. It started with enhancing the tailgating atmosphere and adding the concert series two hours before kickoff. The event helps to create a community based around football while the team on the field works toward more consistent success.
Last season UB led the conference with an average paid attendance of 22,736.
And then there’s the new brand.
Check out uniforms and “New York” has become more prominent than “Buffalo.” Read through Twitter feeds of coaches, administrators and some student-athletes and the hashtag #NYBI jumps out.
It’s all part of the “New York Bulls Initiative” and a strategy that emphasizes the University at Buffalo’s standing as the flagship school in the New York State system.
White talks a lot about institutional profile. He likes to discuss “the story” that the University at Buffalo can tell about itself. The school is one of the premier public research institutions in the country, but that fact gets lost. Athletics is one way to change perception. And the New York Bulls Initiative has gained support among alumni.
“Buffalo needs to start thinking bigger,” said Pete Augustine, a 1987 graduate of UB, president of New Era Cap Company and the chairman of the NYBI board of advisers. “We don’t need to worry about being the biggest school in Buffalo. We have been forever.
“As an alum, it’s frustrating to me to talk to people and say ‘UB’ and they assume it’s a small school and a small town. Tell them enrollment is 30,000 and their eyes light up. I think the thing that athletics can bring to the conversation is raising the profile of the school. It helps to drive interest. It allows UB to have a higher profile.”
There are detractors who dislike the de-emphasis on “Buffalo,” feeling it’s a slap in the face to the community that has supported the school and its athletic programs. But White feels they have started to win over community members and that the larger message trumps whatever the brand name becomes.
“We suspected that some people locally would be against it. It’s human nature,” White said. “I think it’s our job to try and do our best to educate them. I think about what the impact of Buffalo will be if people around the country start to recognize that the big public university in New York, arguably the most powerful state in the country, is right here in Buffalo. And that message is not being told. I think that’s one of our roles as an athletic department to tell that story, regardless of what we call ourselves. People need to know that.”