Anybody could look back to last season and mark the point when the University at Buffalo’s football program finally broke through under coach Jeff Quinn. It seemed a seminal moment, as if his players experienced a collective awakening after nearly losing to Stony Brook.
To review, UB barely squeaked past the Sea Wolves with a 26-23 victory that required five overtimes. The Bulls were a fragile team going into that game after losing respectably to No. 2 Ohio State in the opener and getting bullied in a 70-13 defeat at No. 17 Baylor.
Stony Brook is a FCS team. The game should have been a warm-up and confidence builder for UB leading into conference play. Instead, the narrow win exposed the Bulls. Quinn seemed headed for trouble. UB regrouped during a bye, rattled off another six straight wins and ensured Quinn’s first winning season.
So there you go.
Well, not exactly.
Quinn believed his players actually pushed through a barrier the previous season after losing six straight. UB responded with three straight wins. A few days before the season finale, athletic director Danny White handed Quinn a five-year contract extension. He walked into team meetings and was given a standing ovation.
All that for a man who finished the season with a 4-8 record and was 9-27 in three years after replacing Turner Gill? It may not have made sense from outside the program, but White knew what was happening inside. The 32-year-old AD in his first year on the job was convinced he had the right man.
It wasn’t always obvious. Quinn, always upbeat and optimistic, had the personality to sell the program. He had problems delivering his message to the outside. It was often lost in shallow cliches. While some ignored his “coach-speak” amid all the losing, his players listened to their coach speak.
“It’s hard for anyone to see," Quinn said. “Danny sat in those meetings. He saw the pregame. He saw the work these guys were doing. We had to get over the hump in 2012. We ran into a buzz saw. Our kids never lost faith in me, the staff and what we were doing.
“The more I had my complete attention to every single thing that was going on, the more they had confidence in me and that I did care about them. I wasn’t looking at them as a bunch of football players who could help me get somewhere else. I had a genuine concern for what they were experiencing.”
Quinn effectively changed the culture of the program, but it took a few years for the attitude adjustment to fully take hold. Gill’s departure created a divide between upperclassmen who felt abandoned and younger players who had enough time remaining in their careers to buy into Quinn’s philosophy.
The Bulls were still unsure about Quinn before they started turning around in 2012. Skepticism extended beyond the campus. People wanted evidence that they were on the right track. The program was desperate for stability, and Quinn needed to start providing results for the sake of credibility.
OK, let’s examine the results.
UB won eight games last season, tied for most since returning to Division I. It won seven straight and six conference games overall, both school records. Seven players were all-conference, including five on the first team. Seven players were invited to NFL training camps led by linebacker Khalil Mack, the No. 5 pick overall.
And the Bulls improved their collective grade-point average in five consecutive semesters, going from worst to first in the Mid-American Conference during Quinn’s tenure. In other words, they bought into what he was teaching on the field and what he was preaching about the classroom.
For a school like UB, still a toddler when stacked against other programs in its own conference, the results transcend the playing field. Interest and support are building. It recently opened a new training facility. The school spent $1 million on a new playing surface. This year, it will play Baylor in a prime-time game on ESPN.
The question now is whether Quinn’s systematic approach for building a consistent program will continue to work in the way that he envisioned when he was hired in 2010. Quinn is entering his fifth season, the first without any players recruited by Gill. Sure, people are going to have their doubts. The six conference teams they beat last year were a combined 10-38 in the MAC and 15-58 overall. Ohio U. (4-4, 7-6) was the only competitive team among them.
UB watched the soul of its team walk out the door when Mack, Branden Oliver, Alex Neutz and Najja Johnson played their final games. So much has been said about their departures that people tend to forget that they blossomed under Quinn and his staff.
It wasn’t just the players who climbed aboard, either. Quinn didn’t have a single assistant coach leave his staff from 2012-13. When it comes to linebackers, Lou Tepper didn’t just write the book. He wrote two. He’s the author of “Complete Linebacking,” released in 1994 and updated this year.
Tepper is revered as one of the top authorities in the country. He turns 69 next month and could retire a happy man tomorrow, but he’s happier coaching linebackers and serving as UB’s defensive coordinator. He wouldn’t be here if he didn’t believe in Quinn.
“It was a blessing to have Mack and Bo and all those guys here," center Trevor Sales said. “The young guys that are now filling those spots saw what it took to be them. The freshmen and sophomores know Mack was one of the best of all time, and his coach, Coach Tepp, is still on this staff. They’re saying, ‘OK, now it’s up to me.’ ”
Quinn’s recruiting isn’t predicated on getting the best players but getting the right players for his program and balancing his roster. UB had almost no depth when he arrived. He built competition at each position. His recruits know they’ll have an opportunity to play when they climb aboard.
Anthone Taylor warmed the bench as a freshman, was a medical redshirt in 2012 and gained experience behind Oliver last season. He’s a relative unknown who averaged 4.9 yards on his 82 carries last year. He’ll be behind an experienced offensive line this season. He’s not going to be unknown for much longer.
He’s one player on an entire roster that signed up to play for Quinn. Juniors and seniors endured the difficult seasons of the past. They experienced the transformation over the past two seasons. They see proof of the system working every time they look in the mirror.
“It will be exciting to see how these guys come together," Quinn said. “It’s a no-name team. I get that. We don’t have the Khalils and Bos. These kids are going to represent themselves and what those guys built. We’re not moving backward. We’re moving forward. I can see that every single day.”
Quinn could see it all along. It just took awhile for everybody else to catch up.