Lance Leipold has six oversized rings on display in his office, reminding him when success was measured by national championships. Those days are long behind the University at Buffalo football coach, replaced by subtle hints that suggest the Bulls are building a better program.
Signs of progress emerge if you look hard enough, if you peel back UB's 4-6 record after a 38-28 victory over Bowling Green on Tuesday night and understand their reasons for failure, if you accept growing pains and believe the Bulls someday will reverse course, if you're not obsessed with the bling.
Leipold knows some people are snickering about his 11-23 record as a Division I head coach. They're the same people who examined his 109-6 mark at Wisconsin-Whitewater, where he won six national Division III titles in eight seasons, and doubted his success would translate to UB.
In a sports world that has become less patient, with college coaches getting fired midseason every year, there have been rumblings in recent months about Leipold's future with the Bulls. Before we go any further, all indications point toward him remaining at Buffalo for the foreseeable future.
"There are numbers that tell us that we're going in the right direction," UB athletic director Allen Greene said. "It would be totally unfair to look solely at wins and losses without looking at the whole picture. That's my responsibility. Are we moving in the right direction or not? Yeah, I believe we are."
Leipold hasn't even had one full recruiting class come through his program. UB just broke ground on an $18 million fieldhouse that could be a game-changer in recruiting. Leipold is earning $400,000 per season, making him the fifth-lowest coach among Football Bowl Subdivision schools.
It would be foolhardy to fire him any time soon when the university is years away from being able to make a fair assessment of his work. In college football years, he has been here for about 30 minutes. He's intent on building a program and staying at UB, but the guys needs to stay at UB long enough to build a program.
Amid the chicken-or-egg argument, there's no denying that UB has lost more than twice as many games as it has won in the two-plus years under Leipold. Jeff Quinn was 9-27 in his first three seasons before going 8-5 in 2013 with Khalil Mack and Branden Oliver. A year later, after a 3-4 start, Quinn was gone.
"Yeah, I'm concerned," Leipold said. "I want our program to be successful. We came here to build it. But I do know that Allen Greene and I are on the same page. We both want to build something for the long haul and not the short term. It's going to take time. The uniqueness of our situation here may make it challenging."
Buffalo sports fans who are accustomed to watching the Bills and Sabres want success sooner than yesterday. Teams can turn around in short order in professional sports through the draft, trades and free agency. The season isn't working out? Fire the coach, dump the GM and trade the quarterback.
It doesn't work that way in college football, which can be a glacial process at the mid-major level while players develop over four years. Struggling programs like UB celebrate tiny victories, such as improvements to facilities or increased training and fitness. Some of the best coaches in college history had slow starts.
"When you can call up Siri and get answers to everything, it makes people believe there are quick fixes. There are not," Greene said. "Statistically, there isn't a higher rate of wins when there's a coaching change. Most people are led to believe, when you make a coaching change, that all will be better. What you sell is optimism and hope. You're not selling wins."
Leipold was 5-7 his first season with Joe Licata playing quarterback and 2-10 last year while trying to restock his roster with the right players. The Bulls were headed for their third straight victory when quarterback Tyree Jackson suffered a sprain knee, sidelining him for 4½ games. Drew Anderson was fabulous in relief before he was forced to the sidelines after playing parts of four games.
UB was forced to turn to true freshman Kyle Vantrease, marking the first time in 13 years that the Bulls used three quarterbacks in the same season. They had four players suffer torn ACLs before the season began. They lost starting running back Jonathan Hawkins for the season. They had their depth depleted.
And they still remained competitive.
Take a closer look, and you see a UB team that had four conference losses by a total of 15 points – including three defeats by a total of five points – starting with a 71-68 seven-overtime heartbreaker to Western Michigan. They suffered one-point losses to Northern Illinois and Akron, two games they easily could have won.
"For the casual fan, it could be the same song, second verse, with this coaching staff," Leipold said. "It's kind of the same old, same old. If you're a connoisseur of football … are we making strides? Yeah. Working hard doesn't guarantee success on the scoreboard. That's what I have to take ownership in as a coach."
Sure, it's easy to get caught up in the What Ifs. UB was three plays from 7-3 after the game Tuesday. People would be talking about them running the table and finishing 9-3. The tone about Leipold's future would be strikingly different, along the lines of … What if he leaves?
Behind their record, you'll find progress.
UB scored 96 first-quarter points in its first 10 games. Last year, the Bulls scored 10 points in the opening quarter all season. They have 15 plays this year of 45 yards or longer after having just five last season, an indication they're a more explosive and athletic team in 2017 than they were a year ago.
For all of their problems at quarterback, their trio has averaged 284.6 yards per game, second-most in the MAC, after averaging 200.5 passing yards a game last season. Junior Anthony Johnson, whose 1,048 receiving is third-most in the nation with one more game played, already is on the radar of NFL teams. Khalil Hodge was second in the country with school-record 129 tackles.
Last spring, the football team had its best aggregate grade-point average since joining the MAC. UB's players are graduating, staying out of trouble, giving an honest effort on the field and competitive against other teams in the conference. Really, that's the reasonable standard for the program no matter the coach or his record.
For a college football team in a pro football town, that amounts to success. You don't need trophies to confirm its existence. If you build it, the wins will come.