Friends warned Jerry Boyes he was taking his career down a dead end when he accepted the head football coaching job at Buffalo State College in 1986.
Boyes admits that the best thing about the job was the title -- "head coach." There was no football tradition and a shortage of staff, support and facilities, but he took the job anyway.
"I just had a gut feeling," he says.
Twelve years later, Boyes and the Bengals have established one of the most successful small-college football programs in the nation. After going 4-32 the first four campaigns, Buffalo State is 62-20 in the 1990s with seven straight postseason appearances. The 62 victories rank in a tie for 16th and the .756 winning percentage is 23rd in NCAA Division III this decade.
How did such a hopeless-looking situation turn around? How did the Bengals arrive on such a lofty plateau?
A large amount of credit belongs to Boyes, who became Buffalo State's first full-time football coach and promptly went 1-8 with a team that was 2-7 the season before under part-time head coach Les Dugan.
Boyes was virtually a one-man show in those early years. His staff consisted of four $1,000-a-year part-time assistants. He did virtually all the recruiting. It wasn't until 1992 that Terry Bitka became the only full-time assistant coach. He still is.
The breakthrough came in 1990 when Boyes' patient building finally took hold. The Bengals went 7-2 and averaged 32 points a game. They've been winners ever since.
"If I live to be 100, I should be 105 because those first four years took five years off my life," Boyes said. "It takes time. It was the fourth year when our first recruiting class were seniors."
Since then, the Bengals have reeled off 9-2, 8-3, 7-3, 6-4, 9-2, 8-2 and 8-2 seasons, enjoying success that has stood the test of time.
"Everything was brand new here," Boyes said. "Even though they had football for five years, a lot of things needed to be put in place and done right. I was fortunate because I had Jim Butterfield (Ithaca College coach) as my mentor and learned a great deal about how to run a program and a lot about how to get kids excited about playing this sport."
Fred Hartrick, the retired athletic director at Buffalo State, remembers his first impression of Boyes.
"The decision wasn't mine to make, but Jerry Boyes was the first on my list when we were selecting our first full-time head coach," Hartrick remembers. "We didn't want somebody who was going to be here today and gone tomorrow. He wasn't reaching for quick success. For instance, he didn't want to go out and load up with a bunch of transfers. He wasn't looking for any shortcuts."
Boyes' aim was to build something more enduring.
"The three aspects of building a program are recruiting, having a great coaching staff and having a sound philosophy," Boyes said. Boyes sets standards for his teams and seldom deviates from them. He remembers the reaction to his ground rules at the first team meeting in 1986.
"I had 20 kids not show up for the next meeting," he said. "A number of them wanted to play the game but they didn't want to do the things that it takes to be successful.
"There is no substitute for hard work in this sport. . . . I really think that if we're doing the things right, winning will take care of itself."
Boyes was 32 when he came to Buffalo State from Ithaca, where he had been offensive coordinator and a star quarterback under the legendary Butterfield from 1973 to '75.
It was widely believed that Boyes was hired only to acquire some head-coaching experience so he could return to Ithaca and succeed Butterfield. When the veteran coach retired in 1993, Ithaca chose Mike Welch to take over. By then, Boyes had found a home and success at Buffalo State.
Boyes admits he once viewed Buffalo State as a steppingstone to Division II or Division I, but doesn't expect to be sought after at higher levels.
"There is the perception at the scholarship level that if you haven't played or haven't coached in some way at that level, then you really can't know how to coach at that level," Boyes said. "My resume is all Division III.
"I've had people say you go out and be a coordinator someplace (in Division I) and get that experience, but I'm not willing to do that. I call my shots. I can control a lot of things that I want to be able to control.
"I'm not a guy who is going to move just to move. . . . I've had some opportunities at parallel moves, but my fingerprints are all over this program. I'm not going to go some place parallel and start all over again. There's no reason to do that."
According to Canisius coach Chuck Williams, one of Buffalo State's overlooked strengths is an experienced and talented staff of part-time assistant coaches Boyes has assembled and kept pretty much intact.
"Just with (defensive coordinator) Dick Adams and (offensive line) Gene Zinni alone you have almost 100 years of coaching experience," says Williams, who himself served an assistant at State for one year.
Boyes has effectively used the advantages Buffalo State offers. An enrollment (10,000) that is larger than many Division III schools presents a potentially large pool of talent to recruit from. It also helps that the cost of attending the state-supported institution is inexpensive compared to private colleges.
The program has grown strong enough that the Bengals can stockpile talent and not have to rush in developing players.
"Because it's a state school, Jerry's been able to establish a redshirt program which is something that is hard to do at a private college when the student-athletes are paying $20,000 a year," points out Canisius' Williams. "That's a nice advantage."
The biggest advantage of all, though, is a track record the Bengals now can point to with pride.
It's allowed Boyes to mine Western New York and Rochester areas for football talent and tap his contacts in the Finger Lakes and Central New York for football players.
Having grown up in Interlaken, a crossroads town between Cayuga and Seneca lakes, Boyes has a winning down-home personality.
"He's a good recruiter," says Canisius' Williams. "He's especially good when he sits down with mom and dad on a visit."
The football Boyes teaches is basic but effective. The offense is a tailback-oriented attack out of the I-formation that over the years has featured Garnell Gladden, Lou Mueller, Yusef Spates, Ocie Bennett, Perez Dinkins and now the trio of Shawn Starks, Dion Foendoe and Tinelle Walker; quarterbacks Jim Weigel and Tracy Bacon; and talented receivers such as Derrick Floyd, William Sparks, Steve Otremba, Shino Ellis and Lamont Rhim.
For deception, the Bengals use a lot of play-action passes and run draw plays. There is not a lot of trickery. Boyes is his own offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach and calls all the plays, sending them in by messenger. He's not afraid to call the sprint draw to the tailback off tackle until an opponent stops it or becomes so mesmerized it is vulnerable to a deep pass.
The 4-3 defense is in the hands of Adams, the former long-time head coach at Kenmore East, and Bitka, who handles the defensive line. The Bengals' most impressive defensive season was 1993 when opponents managed only 698 yards rushing and 929 passing in 10 games.
When you put it all together the result is a dominant position among small colleges in the region. Against New York State opposition in the '90s, the Bengals are 38-11. That includes a 14-1 mark against Alfred, Hobart, Rochester and St. John Fisher, all private Division III colleges, and a 5-5 record against Ithaca, which used to rule small-college football upstate. Buffalo State has won the last three against the Bombers. Against SUNY rivals Brockport and Cortland, the Bengals are 5-3 this decade.
Only Rowan College of New Jersey seems to have the Bengals' number. Buffalo State is 0-4 vs. the Profs, all in postseason play. In three of those years Rowan went to the finals of the NCAA tournament, an indication of how close Buffalo State is to challenging for a national title. In 1996, Rowan edged the Bengals, 17-16, in the first round of the playoffs and eventually advanced to the finals.
When it comes to scheduling, Boyes is frustrated because some upstate colleges have learned to shy away from playing Buffalo State. He is an advocate of some sort of formal Division III football conference for the region, but has been unsuccessful so far.
In view of the record, the reluctance of upstates to schedule Buffalo State is understandable. In a sense, Boyes and the Bengals have become almost too strong for their own good.