It came like a blind-side sack. Without warning. Painful.
On the morning of Jan. 18, 1971, University of Buffalo football coach Bob Deming was in Houston attending the NCAA convention. His assistant coaches were on their way to Greater Buffalo International Airport for their flight to the coaches' convention in Houston.
None was aware that in a few hours Dr. Robert L. Ketter, then UB president, would be making a bombshell announcement: the university was dropping its intercollegiate football program.
There were some rumblings that the football program at UB was on shaky financial underpinnings. A reorganization or some other adjustment seemed conceivable, but total abandonment of the sport had seemed unthinkable.
"I had no inkling the bottom was going to drop out of it," Deming recalled. "We were working our butts off trying to get kids in when they announced it. They dropped it without consulting me," recalls Deming, who retired two years ago from his job as athletic director at Ithaca College. He lives in Hamilton, N.Y.
"It happened so fast nobody among the alumni or in the community had a chance to react," said Dick Baldwin, who was UB's director of sports information at the time. "Once the decision was made, it was final."
"Those guys never got an opportunity (to attempt to raise the money to save the program)," Deming said, referring to influential alumni such as Bernie Skerker and Robert E. Rich Sr., and other benefactors such as industrialist Bill Baird. "If they had, you would have felt OK about it, but it was done cold turkey, without any consultation."
What made the UB decision so painful to some was that despite a disappointing 1970 season -- the Bulls were only 2-9 after going 6-3 the year before -- there were reasons for optimism.
The freshman team that year, touted as the best in school history, went undefeated in five games, including victories over yearlings from Army, Syracuse and Pitt.
Deming headed a young, talented coaching staff that included two assistants, Jim McNally and Rick Lantz, who still are coaching at the NFL or major college level.
Also, the schedule was due for an upgrade. Already contracted was a 1972 game at North Carolina State that would bring a $40,000 guarantee to the UB athletic coffers. That was a good payday back then. Pitt would be coming on the schedule and there was talk that the dream of an upstate rivalry with Syracuse would soon become a reality. UB already had games with Virginia Tech, Toledo and Boston College on the docket.
Then it all came to an end.
Several factors were working against major college football at UB.
The most damaging blow was the State University of New York's mandate that there would be no grants-in-aid for athletes at schools in the system. It meant UB no longer would be allowed to waive tuition, room and board for talented athletes. What was good for New Paltz, Fredonia, Buffalo State, Stony Brook and the rest was good for UB, too.
On campus, the football program's appropriation from the student athletic fee was slashed from $35 per student to $5.50. It meant about $160,000 less going to varsity football. A program that already was running around $400,000 in the red could not afford to take that hit.
There was some alumni support, but never more than $20,000 a year, not enough to float a big-time football operation. A fund-raising campaign for athletics in 1967-68 achieved about half of its $150,000 goal.
Community support? There was a nucleus of dedicated followers but never enough to fill 13,420-seat Rotary Field on the Main Street campus. The largest crowd ever for a home game there was 11,466 for Boston University in 1963. The Bulls played a few games at War Memorial Stadium during the '60s, but the largest crowd there during that era was 18,585 for a 1960 game against VMI.
Then, of course, there was the overshadowing presence of the Buffalo Bills, whose arrival in 1960 roughly coincided with UB's attempt to upgrade from College to University Division status.
Then there was the political and social climate on campus. Anti-war and civil rights demonstrations at UB and on other college campuses brought on confrontations with authorities. Sit-ins and other acts of protest turned off some segments outside the university. College campuses suddenly did not seem like hospitable places to some outsiders. Despite the success of the 1969 Bulls, season-ticket sales at UB declined from 1,057 to 680, part of the drop no doubt due to unhappiness with the climate on campus.
The problem was more than money and political unrest, Deming said.
"Leadership was a major issue," he contends.
There really was nobody to carry the ball for football and athletics in general. Dr. Ketter was busy dealing with student unrest and other issues. Key figures in the administration were not sympathetic to athletics or afraid to take on the anti-sports element among the student politicians. The new athletic director, Harry Fritz, had come on board in the summer of 1970 and had little clout.
During the 1969 season, the largest crowd at Rotary was only 8,468 on an ideal September day when the Bulls defeated Xavier, 17-0. A big test for the program was an Oct. 25 date against Virginia Tech at War Memorial Stadium. Tech's Hokies (which included a sophomore quarterback named Don Strock, who went on to play for the Miami Dolphins) were probably the strongest college team to come to Buffalo in that era. The game was heavily publicized, but drew only 8,354 to the Rockpile. It didn't help that UB's game the week before against Holy Cross was canceled because of a hepatitis outbreak among the Crusaders team.
The '69 season produced UB's last bit of football glory in Division I. Deming was in charge of the defense, which allowed only 9.9 points per game and ranked sixth in the nation in pass defense and eighth in overall yardage defense. Four of the six UB victories were shutouts.
Offensively, the Bulls were led by senior quarterback Mick Murtha, running backs Joe Zelmanski and John Faller and tight end Paul Lang, who had 25 catches.
Offenhamer era dawns
The rise of UB football had begun in 1955, when Clifford C. Furnas, chancellor of what then was a private university, hired Dick Offenhamer as the school's first full-time head coach. Offy had grown up near the UB campus. He was a star at Bennett High and Colgate University and a successful coach at Kenmore High School before going back to Colgate as a freshman coach following World War II.
UB was 4-19-1 in three seasons before Offenhamer's arrival, losing to the likes of Alfred, Hobart and Brockport State. Furnas outlined a development program for athletics and budgeted money for athletic scholarships.
Offenhamer obtained fairly rapid results. His 1958 team went 8-1-1 and was voted the Lambert Cup as the Eastern small college champion. The season began with an upset at Harvard. Other victories were over Columbia (the actor Brian Dennehy was a starting tackle for the Lions), Lehigh and Bucknell. The lone loss was to Baldwin-Wallace of Berea, Ohio.
Tackle Sam Sanders and center Lou Reale supplied a lot of the muscle on that team. Fleet halfback Willie Evans averaged 7.6 yards per carry, still the best in UB history, and quarterback Gordon Bukaty threw nine TD passes, setting a school record. Bukaty also led the team in pass interceptions in an era when most players had to perform on offense and defense because of restrictive rules on substitution.
After the Bulls went 8-1 again in 1959, losing only to Bucknell, it was clear that UB was headed toward major college football. The 1960 Bulls finished only 4-6, but played a tougher schedule that included Army, VMI, Colgate and Boston University.
In 1963 the NCAA elevated UB to University Division status. The ECAC had granted the upgrade the year before. Football at UB was now Division I, but in truth it was on the fringes. The schedule included teams such as Boston U., Holy Cross, Villanova, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Mid-American Conference teams such as Kent State, Ohio U., Toledo and Marshall. Legitimate major college teams such as Virginia, Iowa State, N.C. State and Virginia Tech began to appear on the schedule late in the decade along with mid-majors Xavier and Dayton and teams comparable to the present Division I-AA level.
Whereas Offenhamer had started off recruiting Western and Upstate New York players with some success, the Bulls soon began mining talent from Pennsylvania, Michigan and Rhode Island.
Philbin had NFL future
One of UB's first Division I stars was Gerry Philbin from Pawtucket, R.I, who was perhaps the best two-way tackle in school history. He became a standout defensive end with the New York Jets' Super Bowl III champions.
Another Bull from that era who made it to the NFL was quarterback John Stofa of Johnstown, Pa. Stofa played for the Miami Dolphins and Cincinnati Bengals.
Fullback Lee Jones rushed for 16 touchdowns in 1965, which is still a school record. The son of a UB star of the early 1940s, Jones tacked on 12 more rushing TDs in 1966.
Dick Ashley snagged a UB record 30 passes in 1966 and came back to snare 36 in 1968 after missing a season with injury.
Versatile Don Gilbert was a one-man offense in 1964 when he led the Bulls with 1,337 yards total offense, 869 passing and 468 rushing -- more than half the team total.
Murtha, who led the Bulls in passing for three seasons (1966-67 and 1969), was the first 1,000-yard passer in university history.
Ken Rutkowski established a UB rushing record of 729 in 1968.
The Offenhamer era ended after the 1965 season, when the Bulls finished 5-5. The new coach was Richard "Doc" Urich, who was an assistant to Ara Parseghian at Notre Dame. Urich stayed around for just three seasons. Perhaps sensing that the UB program had serious inherent problems, he left after going 7-3 in 1968 to become head coach at Northern Illinois. Urich eventually ended up as an assistant coach in the NFL.
The coaching staffs had some famous names, too.
Future NFL head coach Buddy Ryan was an assistant on Offenhamer's staff, as was Mike Stock, who later was head coach at Eastern Michigan and an assistant at Navy and Notre Dame. Urich's staff included Jerry Ippoliti, future commissioner of the Mid-Continent and Mid-American Conference.
Not ready for prime time
The Bulls' 1970 campaign ended in an ugly fashion with a 65-12 humiliation at Boston College, a 21-8 loss at Temple and 43-21 rout at Northern Illinois. The final home game of the Division I era was an ABC-TV regional telecast (the play-by-play man for the game was Bob Murphy, long-time voice of the New York Mets) of a game against Holy Cross. The Bulls won, 16-0, but put on a dull show. It was a nice payday for a football program that needed the TV cash to apply to its football debt, but it was less than a red letter day for UB football on regional television.
The UB band planned its halftime show to make a political statement in opposition to the Vietnam War. Forewarned, ABC refused to air the halftime show.
The '70 UB team was not fun to watch. The defense was not nearly as effective as the 1969 bunch and the offense had no explosiveness. Kirk Barton, who replaced Murtha at quarterback, threw for only one touchdown and had 17 passes intercepted.
The Bulls hit a season high of 21 points twice, both losses. Perhaps the biggest weakness was a lack of speed and athleticism. The freshmen of 1970 were supposed to remedy that. The frosh included halfback Bob Barlette, a sprinter from Dunkirk High. However, the Fabulous Frosh of 1970 never set foot on a varsity playing field for UB.
Going their separate ways
Many of the personalities in the UB football program dispersed when the announcement came that the sport was being dropped.
Deming stayed for a year, but eventually went back to his alma mater, Colgate, before moving to Ithaca.
Offensive line coach Jim McNally moved on to Marshall University, then Boston College and finally to the NFL Cincinnati Bengals, Carolina Panthers and Indianapolis Colts.
Defensive secondary coach Rick Lantz coached at Navy, Miami, Louisville and the New England Patriots before settling at Virginia.
Defensive line coach Werner Kleemann moved on to the head coaching job at Rush-Henrietta High near Rochester. Running backs coach Terry Ransbury returned to the high school coaching ranks and enjoyed success at Clarence Central before retiring.
Freshman coach Joe Griffith went into school administration in Ohio and recently retired.
One coach who stayed was linebackers coach Bill Dando, who became head coach when the UB football program was resurrected on the Division III level in 1977. Football was back at UB, but only at the level before the arrival of Offenhamer in 1955.