Two weeks ago, when he was in town for the NCAA tournament, Warde Manuel spent much of his time shaking hands and reuniting with old friends. It was almost as if the former UB athletic director never left. Some still wish he were still here.
Manuel was a good fit for the University at Buffalo. He’s an oversized man without an oversized ego. He’s personable but firm, friendly but not phony. And he was an effective leader for a growing sports program at UB. He more than doubled the athletic budget in his first three years alone. He helped make the Bulls relevant.
Overall, UB was in much better shape when he left for Connecticut in 2012 than when he arrived in 2005. He made Buffalo a destination for administrators and coaches on the rise, a stopping point toward something better. That’s how it should work, and must work, for schools like UB to attract good people.
“I’ll always remember it with a lot of fondness,” Manuel said Wednesday by telephone. “I hope to be remembered as somebody who brought a lot to Buffalo. I will say to you or anybody else for the rest of my life that Buffalo provided a lot for me.
“They took a chance on an associate AD from Michigan who had never been an athletic director. They believed in my belief that you can have athletic and academic success and my style of being committed to both.”
The one thing Manuel wanted more than anything was a national championship in any sport. Manuel played football at Michigan. He knew big-time sports, and he knew a national title wasn’t coming any time soon to UB. It certainly wasn’t coming in football or basketball.
UConn had more money, better facilities and a stronger commitment. It gave him a greater opportunity in basketball, one of the glamour sports at the Division I level. Actually, as we found out this season, the Huskies doubled his chances for a championship.
Both UConn men’s and women’s basketball teams reached the Final Four this season, leading their athletic director on a terrifying yet exhilarating journey across the country while supporting the two programs. He would have stacked up more frequent-flyer miles if the women didn’t start at home.
Last week, he watched the men knock off Iowa State in Madison Square Garden, traveled to Lincoln, Neb., to see the women pound BYU, back to New York for the men’s win over Michigan State and returned to Lincoln to see the women beat Texas A&M. It’s about 5,200 miles in four days.
“It’s a problem of riches that I have to get on a plane and go back and forth,” he said. “It’s a great problem to have. In reality, it’s not a problem. It’s something I do with a lot of joy. Knowing that I have to go back and forth to support our student-athletes is not something I complain about at all.”
Manuel isn’t going to get much sympathy, not with the wins piling up and UConn, and by extension him, gaining more respect by the day. UConn is looking for simultaneous basketball titles for the second time in school history (2004).
Since 1999, UConn has reached the Final Four 17 times between its men and women. It’s more than double the total of any other school. Duke is a distant second with eight appearances, four each by its men and women. For Manuel, it’s the first for the men since he was hired.
UConn was one of the founding members of the Big East, and many thought its program would suffer when the conference disbanded. UConn’s men were banned from postseason play last year after failing to meet NCAA academic standards under former coach Jim Calhoun.
This season has not been an easy ride. The Huskies finished third in the American Athletic Conference, behind Louisville and Cincinnati, and were a turnover against Saint Joe’s from an early exit from Buffalo.
Manuel suffered through a few anxious moments during that game and a few more against Villanova. UConn knocked off three top-three seeds in Villanova, Iowa State and Michigan State to reach the Final Four. The next step is knocking off top-ranked Florida, which has won 30 straight games, in Arlington, Texas.
Manuel didn’t wait for the end of the season to address the future of Huskies’ coach Kevin Ollie, whose stock is soaring. Manuel already made it clear that Ollie deserves a raise. He wants to get Ollie locked into a long-term extension – eliminating the possibility he would slip away – and maintain stability.
Even with success, the job never ends.
UConn’s women have allowed him to breathe much easier. They handed Manuel his first title as AD last year when they blew out Louisville by 33 points in the national championship game. They’re looking for their fourth title in six years, their eighth since 1999 and their ninth in school history.
The women take a 38-0 record into Nashville, where they are favored to win it all again. They play Stanford in the national semifinals, which means Manuel will be shuttling another 2,700 miles between Nashville and Arlington if all goes well. Two years removed from working in Buffalo, two weeks removed from visiting Buffalo, he suddenly seems a long way from home.
His message, however, hasn’t changed, and his hand is still worth shaking.
“Being an athletic director is like having 700 kids and great colleagues who are coaching them. Like a parent, you take pride in knowing them as people, as young men and women, and seeing their success and overcome great personal and team barriers. To know they had the tenacity and determination to prove others wrong, it makes it even more special.”