Jeff Quinn was in the elevator at the Arizona Biltmore Resort in Phoenix the other day when a man standing beside him noticed he was carrying a bag with a UB logo.
The man was from Long Island but owned a law firm in Arizona. It just so happened that he attended University at Buffalo Law School.
Why, of course he did.
They made the Buffalo connection and spoke for a few moments before the doors opened. Their ride up three floors provided ample time for Quinn’s new acquaintance to pop the multimillion-dollar question going into the NFL Draft today in Radio City Music Hall in New York:
“Where’s Khalil Mack going?”
Quinn laughed Wednesday morning while sharing the encounter, which was a continuation of the past few months. Mack is certain to be taken higher than any player in UB history. Quinn knows darned well that every time someone asks about his former star linebacker, they’re helping the program.
Since the NFL offseason began, you couldn’t turn on the television without seeing something about the draft. Mack was usually mentioned in the conversation, which helped put UB in the spotlight. Every click on NFL.com or ESPN.com or any of the bazillion draft websites also was a click for the Bulls.
Simply, he helped put UB on the Division I map.
“It’s been cool,” Quinn said. “The increase in national exposure is exactly what this program needed.”
Mack is projected as a top 5 pick on most draft boards. Some experts suggested in recent weeks he may even go No. 1, which is unlikely. If it happened, it would mark the second straight year that the MAC produced the first pick overall after Kansas City took Central Michigan’s Eric Fisher last year.
No matter, Mack going high will help UB and the conference. His draft prospects were not lost on other MAC coaches in Phoenix for meetings. He was a primary source of discussion before Quinn left Wednesday to support Mack in New York, where they planned a post-draft party.
“The buzz has been incredible,” Quinn said. “It’s been a positive for everybody involved. It gets our name out there and the MAC conference schools. That’s what you want. You want a seat at the big-boy table. It’s been awesome.”
Quinn’s assistant coaches have reported back a louder, more persistent hum about UB football during their recruiting trips, too. Quinn has been recognized more often in public. More high school players and coaches are contacting the office to see if UB might be the right fit for them.
For years, Quinn met with recruits during spring practice in the Bullls’ team room. But when some 400 players, parents and coaches showed up this year, they had to be ushered into the stands at UB Stadium for a presentation and question-and-answer session about the program.
The Bulls broke school attendance records last season and led the conference. Although the number of fannies actually in the seats was a fraction of what was reported, it was still more than they had in past years. Fans also stayed longer, particularly after UB took off on a seven-game winning streak.
Along with Mack there were other signs of growth. More games were on television last season, and there was an uptick in interest from alumni. The Murchie Center, an expanded training facility under construction, is a show of progress that recruits can see when visiting the campus. UB still has lofty plans for an indoor practice facility.
The boost is not all because Mack played for UB. In fact, UB helped Mack by giving him an opportunity that he couldn’t find elsewhere. But there’s no discounting that he helped shine light on the university and the program. There isn’t a marketing strategy in the land that’s better than success.
“It’s unprecedented,” Quinn said. “This is another program-building moment. We constantly talk about building the very best program. You need good people and a plan. Khalil listened. He paid attention. He loved to be coached. Now you think about the impact that he’s had in every phase of our program.”
Quinn’s next challenge is taking advantage of the attention Mack drew and continuing to build now that he’s gone. UB is expected to take a step back next season, but it can’t follow a winning season with a terrible one. Recruits need to know the program will remain relevant.
UB isn’t going to win many recruiting battles with Florida State or Alabama, but it can lure second-tier Division I players who are looking to get on the field early and often. Mack was a primary example of a kid who was barely recruited but blossomed after finding the right fit and getting an opportunity.
Quinn can offer playing time that big-time programs cannot because UB often lacks depth. The more players who arrive on campus, the greater chance the Bulls have of finding better players. Branden Oliver and Alex Neutz were two others who needed playing time to develop. They, too, will get a chance in the NFL.
Scouts who came to see Mack play in the past two years couldn’t ignore his teammates, either, after UB had back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since returning to D-I. Scouts will be back again this year to see the crop of players replacing them. They’re always searching for jewels.
And that leads us back to Mack. Quinn wasn’t sure where he was going in the draft. He was certain that the program Mack left behind was going in the same direction as its coach when he stepped into the elevator last week and found a UB supporter waiting for him: up.
“The feedback has been outstanding,” Quinn said. “Our assistant coaches are on the battlefield, going from school to school. Everybody knows about Buffalo. Everybody knows about Khalil. That’s what you want. When you get a guy like that who comes through your program, you have to capitalize. And we will.”