The most enduring image from covering the University at Buffalo men's soccer team over the last four years is not Russell Cicerone's 2014 wonder-goal from midfield in overtime or his bending free kick that sent the Bulls to their first Mid-American Conference final in 2015.
For UB men's soccer players, coaches, fans and alumni, who now collectively battle a blend of shock, anger and bitterness as the program was torn from them Monday, any warm moment is worth dwelling on.
It's Oct. 16, 2015, and the Bulls are hosting West Virginia in a crucial MAC game. The two teams plod through an unmemorable first half before Cicerone zips past two defenders and buries a shot for a lead, then sets up teammate and close friend Marcus Hanson for the insurance goal.
With the Mountaineers' frustration growing, a West Virginia defender stymies a Cicerone dribbling foray by clattering the UB star to the turf, leaving him writhing in pain and clutching his shoulder. Players, coaches and fans hold their collective breath - the Bulls' season would be sunk if their talisman had to miss time.
UB kills off the match as the weather quickly deteriorates. Temperatures plunge into the 30s, a drizzle begins and, as is common for the wide-open confines of UB Stadium, the wind picks up. It's miserable.
After the final whistle, instead of rushing into the locker room to get attended to, Cicerone dutifully lingers on the field to sign autographs for the Global Premier Soccer club youth teams that had played at halftime, clutching his injured arm at his side and scribbling his name patiently.
UB's Cicerone dislocated his shoulder, training staff popped it back in. Then he signed autographs with a bum wing: pic.twitter.com/5TpOjKhJt2
— Buffalo News Soccer (@BN_Soccer) October 17, 2015
The example that Cicerone set on that day was followed by the vast majority of his men's soccer teammates. Hanson, a senior captain in 2015, was a gregarious leader who was quick to flash a smile and eager to urge his side on. Whatever he lacked in pure ability, he compensated fully in heart, toughness and personality.
Braden Scales, a fifth-year senior, overcame an ACL tear and battled through coaching transition, carrying himself with a poise beyond his years. Former head coach Stu Riddle famously - or maybe infamously now to Scales, depending on grief from teammates - called him "the type of guy you'd want your daughter to marry."
Many Bulls looked up to Ryan Pereira, who saw his final two years in Amherst cut short by injury, for his contributions off the field. Instead of brooding, Pereira called upon his experience and maturity to become a vital resource for the Bulls.
These players' examples - and I'm sure there were similar instances on the also-eliminated men's baseball, men's swimming and diving, and women's rowing teams - were characteristic of what it meant to be a Bull, furthering the standard set by alumni and upholding it for underclassmen and the "next Bulls in."
When the school decided investing in a men's soccer program that cost them less than $1 million in total expenses - and just under $150,000 each season on game-day - was no longer worthwhile, the players who once proudly represented the school and cared about its image quickly spoke out against it.
But the athletic cuts are far worse for the players and coaches whose futures are most affected. It's one thing to play four years and then disparage the alma mater for bouncing the program, it's another to be forced to leave your school to continue playing Division I soccer.
David Enstrom, Nick Forrester and Fox Slotemaker, three long-serving defenders under Riddle, were set to return with great expectations - especially Enstrom, who captured first-team All-MAC honors in 2016. Even though open scholarships are scarce this time of year, all three are most likely to find quick landing spots.
Tommy Fogarty-Cameron, who fulfilled his Division I dream when he transferred to Buffalo from tiny Texas school Lubbock Christian last winter, still has a year of eligibility left. The Londoner was renowned as the Bulls' jokester; but he wasn't afraid to connect with the local community through camps, too, where his personality shined.
Cameron Hogg, a native of New Zealand like Slotemaker and Forrester, finally had the starting goalkeeping job to himself with incumbent Joseph Kuta leaving the program to pursue his academic goals. Empire Development Academy product Mike Juszczak would have been the likely No. 2.
You also feel for Hunter Walsh, a walk-on from St. Joe's who bided his time as a reserve for two seasons in order to get a chance when UB's eight seniors graduate this spring. As the Democrat & Chronicle reported, it's the same situation for Ryan Aspenleiter. Both will have to look elsewhere.
Grand Island's Nemanja Simic, Clarence's Cameron Law and Southwestern's Sebastian Diaz were all recruits who'd signed in early February to join the Bulls for 2017. While their soccer futures seemed set in stone for the last two months, they're now unexpectedly in flux.
Empire Development Academy graduate Frank Cotroneo, after spending his freshman season at Villanova, decided to transfer and was set to visit UB, a school and program he was strongly considering, next week. He must now look elsewhere.
Bulls head coach Davie Carmichael, hired at the end of January to replace Riddle, never got to manage a game at his first head-coaching job.
He'd spent the last two months recruiting feverishly before the spring season kicked off last weekend, traveling as far as Germany and signing at least a handful of student-athletes - only to learn that the words he'd spoken to recruits would ring hollow - and that his Division I head-coaching debut would have to wait indefinitely.
Carmichael, who's twice denied comment since the news, is focused on finding destinations for his players, who face a more dire situation. But, from our research, there are no NCAA Division I head coaching jobs open. It is uncertain to what extent UB will honor his contract.
Determining who's to blame for these athletic cuts - and the aforementioned athletes' sudden dilemmas - is not simple. Was the cost-cutting justified? How could it have been prevented?
To be clear, the University at Buffalo athletics department did not choose to cut the four sports; the decision came after UB administration reviewed Athletics' budget and chose which four programs could be eliminated, while still allowing UB to participate in the Mid-American Conference (requires participation in certain sports) and Football Bowl Subdivision (requiring at least 16 D-I teams), as well as meet Title IX requirements.
The end result is an eventual savings of $2 million annually, which would be absorbed into the university, not the athletic budget. In relation to the $32 million total athletic budget, saving 1/16th in this fashion seems unconscionable knowing the uproar such a move would spark.
A major reason for the cut-down was rising student athletic subsidies, which amount to $511 per student annually and total $8.7 million, roughly a quarter of the athletics budget, according to The News' Jay Tokasz, and are a common complaint from academic proponents and a controversial subject for several mid-major football programs.
But is "reducing student athletic subsidies" merely an excuse for admitting the failure of a plan?
By reading The News' Mark Gaughan and Jerry Sullivan early this week, there's no question that UB, from an athletics standpoint, identifies as a football and basketball school; the allocation of the school's resources do not leave that open to debate, as they overwhelmingly support these two revenue-generating sports.
It's not a well-kept secret in college athletics that major revenue-generating sports sustain those niche sports that spend less and make less - like the four cut at UB.
Three perceived misuses of funds seem to have angered the soccer community most: the money spent on the "New York Bulls Initiative" (#NYBI) re-branding under former athletic director Danny White (and the subsequent re-branding as the Buffalo Bulls), the decision to house football players in hotels before home games ($70,000!) and the booking of mid-level country musicians to perform in Stampede Square before kickoff.
Although eyebrows have been raised at the unhindered progress of the $18 million field house, the university confirmed the money was raised through outside donations and did not stem from the athletics budget.
UB Football - specifically - has become the villain, hogging $7.53 million of the $32 million budget while previously representing only 1/20th of the Division I sports teams on campus. At least the men's college basketball team, which has advanced to the NCAA Tournament twice in the last three years, has put forth a winning product - at only $2 million in total expenses.
Public relations spin tried to deflect blame from the football program - it looks like WGRZ took the bait - by saying the $2 million saved would not further benefit the football program. But UB Football's expenses are actually the root of the problem, as a series of ambitious but ultimately foolhardy decisions - within the athletic department, not the university at large - whisked away money that could have potentially saved the eliminated programs.
The financial commitment to football backs Sullivan's argument that UB is desperate to become a major program, which remains more pipe-dream than reality. UB Football is 7-17 over the last two years and has never won a bowl game - qualifying for just two - in program history. Attendance dropped 5 percent from 2016 to 2017; UB's average draw of 17,493 ranked 110th out of 128 Division I teams.
The struggle for how UB should be represented to the rest of the state has led to an intense focus on branding over the past five years - and while branding is key for a business - it's become a complicated part of the problem at UB.
White's three-year NYBI initiative to regionalize UB Athletics was reshaped by last year's university-wide branding initiative, which is still being executed in phases. Under new athletic director Allen Greene, the word "Buffalo" was returned to a prominent place on the school's uniforms and logos, while the slogan "New York's Public Powerhouse" echoed White's attempts to regionalize, albeit a bit less controversially.
“There’s a way we can strike a balance [with branding]," Greene told The News' Bucky Gleason in December 2015. "When you think about the results, the money that has been raised in the past three years (under the New York Bulls Initiative) … people are more aware of what’s happening on this campus.”
The original logic was this: Take expensive steps - like branding, a better game-day experience and professional treatment of players - to create a winning football program that's relevant at regional and national levels, and the resulting ticket sales, bowl appearances and alumni donations would ably provide for the remainder of UB's cheaper sports.
Despite producing an NFL All-Pro in Khalil Mack and touting a local favorite in Joe Licata, UB Football has consistently fallen short in victories, bowl appearances and in attendance - resulting in relative anonymity regionally and nationally - while still receiving a large portion of the budget. Unlike schools from power conferences, the Bulls aren't bailed out by TV revenue.
Foreboding signs pointed to bleak future for men's soccer, smack in the face of the program's most successful two-year run in program history - which featured to trips to the MAC title game, a total of 20 wins and the Bulls' first-ever Major League Soccer draft pick, Cicerone.
Riddle's departure - and his reasons for jumping ship - pointed to a rotting situation behind the scenes. Division I men's soccer programs are allotted a maximum of 9.9 scholarships and somehow UB, under the guise of wanting to be the "flagship institution for men's soccer in New York," permitted Riddle only 7.2, tied for the fewest in the Big 4.
The message from administration was clear: "It does not matter how well you play. We're not helping by increasing your resources." It's possible Riddle foresaw the program's demise.
Empty promises - often used as recruiting tools - rubbed salt in the wound. Plans for a soccer-specific stadium on North Campus, which coaches and players deemed crucial to keep pace with the five other conference schools, were teased for five years, with the billionaire father of a UB recruit even offering to help the project come to fruition.
Soccer-specific stadiums, which fueled the growth of MLS, have become a necessity for any good college soccer program. Akron's Cub Cadet Field is absolutely beautiful - the seating is almost on top of the pitch, and the reasonable capacity (5,800) makes the surroundings seem less of a barren wasteland than UB Stadium's 29,013 seats.
The track that separated the field from the stands made players look like ants, and the banter between players, the crunch of hard tackles and the howls of coaches was lost to fans. Of the Big 4 stadiums, UB Stadium is far and away the worst venue to take in a match.
Once the hopes for a soccer-specific stadium petered out in 2015 - for undisclosed reasons, although it's easy to make assumptions from the current budget - the Bulls' coaches and players fought to finally have their own locker room built in UB Stadium. Previously, the players shared an area inside the Alumni Arena public locker room with the tennis and swimming teams.
When donations were made - including significant portions by the parents of players - the end result was a UB Stadium locker room, with no showers, that had to be shared with the women's team. In other words, men's soccer could not even leave their gear in the stadium.
Ultimately, it probably wouldn't have mattered if UB men's soccer had beaten Akron the last two years in the Mid-American Conference finals. The team - which just happened to earn the highest collective GPA among UB's sports teams last year - was the sacrificial lamb of misguided athletic spending, meeting the same fate as men's baseball, men's swimming and diving, and women's rowing.
While football players slept peacefully in nearby hotels before home games, men's soccer players were recruited with false promises from a university and athletics department that considered them an afterthought.
Your own locker room? Forget about it. A soccer-specific stadium, partially covered by donations, simply to match the commitment of your conference foes? Nope, not that either.
It's a shame UB chose not to support men's soccer as well as the team represented the university.
— Buffalo Men's Soccer (@BullsMensSoccer) April 6, 2017