Each player takes a risk when coming to the University at Buffalo, still a relatively new Division I-A program where the losses accumulate more quickly than the victories. No one knows this more than the 13 seniors making their final appearances in UB Stadium on Saturday.
Most were part of the final recruiting class during the Craig Cirbus era, the one that ushered in I-A football in 1999, and one -- flanker Matt Knueven -- is one of Jim Hofher's first recruits. They figured to change the perception of the football program, but perhaps they were too young to realize what they were truly getting into because the last four years have been haunting and painful.
They have stumbled again and again to a 1-8 record overall and 1-6 in the Mid-American Conference heading into Saturday's game against Central Michigan (3-6, 2-4). For their careers, with two games remaining, they are 6-38.
"I didn't think it would be this tough," said free safety J.J. Gibson, the Sweet Home product. "I came in with a positive attitude. The coaches who recruited me told me there would be changes and everything, so I came here to try to win games. I never thought it was going to be like this. I thought we were going to win some games. I thought we were going to some bowl games, a couple of championship games. That was my whole mentality coming in."
In addition to Knueven and Gibson, the departing seniors are defensive back Michelin Ambroise, defensive tackle Sagan Atuatasi, right tackle Terrance Miles (McKinley), tight end Brian Miller, left guard Dan Minocchi, linebacker Rodney Morris, defensive tackle Casey Russell, quarterback Randall Secky (Maple Grove), center Eric Weber, fullback Tyrone Wilson and right guard Erik Zeppuhar.
Tonight and again Saturday, the seniors will be honored and recognized in front of their peers by Hofher.
"I'll give my reflection on what these guys have meant to UB," Hofher said. "They've all had some level of contribution."
They'll be remembered for perseverance more than anything. When they signed on, there was no spacious memorabilia room inside UB Stadium with trophies, uniforms and keepsakes in glass cases to detail the Bulls' history because there was no history. Most were recruited and redshirted as freshmen by Cirbus, who was dismissed in 2000 and replaced by Hofher.
"If this were a business and your competitors have been around for a hundred years, you can't expect to come and take over a business like Coke or Pepsi," Zeppuhar said. "But I thought it would be a little quicker."
To a man, they've enjoyed their overall college experience. How many players can say they were part of the building process of a I-A program? Gibson and Knueven have made dents in the record book. But asking about the number of wins is like asking the miles per gallon from an SUV. It's an ugly number you really don't want to talk about.
"It was something that we couldn't overcome," Knueven said. "It wasn't disheartening, it wasn't disappointing, it just didn't happen for us. For whatever reason, we couldn't play football for four whole quarters. Too many breakdowns. I wish it were better, but that's the way it works sometimes."
UB was 3-8 in 2001 with wins over Connecticut, Ohio University and Army, and it seemed the program was headed for bigger things. Then came the 2002 season, with losses to I-AA Lehigh and blowouts at the hands of Marshall (66-21) and Miami of Ohio (49-0), among others. The following season, UB lost to I-AA Colgate and was outscored by UConn, Miami and Northern Illinois by a combined total of 137-19.
"You always want to win games and win championships," Gibson said. "It's kind of disappointing, but I'm grateful for being able to play with these guys."
Despite the last two losses against Marshall and Kent State, there have been signs of life. Games against Eastern Michigan, Nevada and Miami were not decided until the fourth quarter.
"There were times when we stepped on the field against teams like Miami and Marshall, and the game was over in the first quarter," Zeppuhar said. "Obviously, we're not happy with the result, but it shows where the program is going."
They believe in Hofher and that the program is headed in the right direction. Weber, who could return for a sixth year, Zeppuhar, Wilson and Knueven are the only senior starters on offense, while Gibson is the lone starter on defense. Today is gloomy but tomorrow looks better, which is why these seniors are jovial.
"Our efforts will contribute to winning in the future," Zeppuhar said. "In a few years when I come back and UB is winning, that's going to put a smile on my face."