Jim Hofher was as frank and talkative as he has ever been with the most difficult and awkward issue before him: Is the University at Buffalo football program making progress?
There's hardly a tactful way to put it, but Hofher didn't flinch at a question he knew was coming. You know it when your team is 1-7 with three games remaining during a season in which your athletics director needed to see some evidence of progress.
"By no means is anybody happy, satisfied with the fact that we're 1-7," said Hofher, whose team has a bye this weekend. "I honestly and truly think there's progress in many ways. Some of it verifiable, some of it anecdotal, but someone else might say, 'Well, your record doesn't look all that much different.' "
After last season, when the Bulls were coming off back-to-back 1-11 seasons, interim Athletics Director Bill Maher indicated UB needed to show growth in this, Hofher's fourth season. Despite a 1-7 record and 1-5 mark in the Mid-American Conference, Maher said progress is apparent.
He looks at where the Bulls rank in rushing nationally as improvement (they're 45th), as well as an improved defense that ranks in the top half of the league. In four games, the Bulls held a lead or were one possession away from tying or taking the lead heading into the fourth quarter. They finally look like a MAC team at the line of scrimmage and have young playmakers on defense.
Last season, the Bulls ranked near the bottom nationally on offense and defense, and trailed heading into the fourth quarter in every game except one.
"Those are progress pieces," Maher said. "The team has made strides forward."
Still, the Bulls haven't made a dent in the stat that matters most: wins.
"It's not where anybody wants it to be," Maher said. "Certainly, (Hofher) is working hard every week, and his coaching staff and the athletes want to improve that. But that remains a goal that we still need to improve upon."
But whether that progress is enough to retain Hofher, whose contract runs through the 2005 season, remains to be seen. Maher refused to comment on whether an extension will be offered to Hofher, but a source said the decision will be made by UB President John B. Simpson.
Simpson declined to comment. The new president has not spoken on the subject of Hofher, and still hasn't done anything to deal with the athletic director's situation. Maher remains "interim" AD, a post he has held since the sping of 2003.
Working in Hofher's favor is the Bulls have two games remaining in UB Stadium, against Kent State and Central Michigan. UB should match up well against both teams before the season finale at Connecticut.
"We still have the opportunity to finish with more Mid-American Conference wins than we've ever had and finish higher in the standings than we've ever had," Maher said. "There's still a ton of opportunity left in this season, and that's for the kids and coaching staff to demonstrate for everybody the progress that we've seen."
The defense ranks seventh in the MAC after shifting to a more attacking style. After recording 16 sacks last season, the Bulls already have 18, led by defensive end Aaron Sanders' four. As good as senior safety J.J. Gibson has been, it can be argued that true freshman cornerback James Evans has been the unit's Most Valuable Player. Evans, a late signee who isn't even listed in the team's media guide, has a team-high four interceptions, which ranks second in the conference.
UB's problems are centered around the fruitless play at quarterback. Hofher has played four quarterbacks -- Randall Secky, Chris Moore, P.J. Piskorik and Datwan Hemingway -- and Secky, Moore and Piskorik have started. Combined, they are completing 49.2 percent of their passes for 1,025 yards, four touchdowns and 12 interceptions. The Bulls rank 14th in the 14-team league in passing offense, which contributes to their ranking of 14th on third-down conversions (40 of 122).
Secky started the opener and showed some promise against Eastern Michigan, but he was 2 of 5 on the Bulls' final drive and was sacked twice. Secky's last start was against Ohio University, and after his first pass was intercepted and returned 33 yards for a touchdown, Secky was benched in favor of Piskorik, who battled an early season shoulder injury. Hofher used both on a rotating basis prior to the Ohio game with little success.
While Piskorik has the ability to run the option, he is limited in the passing game. UB was on the verge of taking a 14-13 lead on defending league champion Miami (Ohio) at the start of the fourth quarter when Piskorik was sacked on third-and-goal from the 3 after not executing a tight end throwback to a wide-open Chad Upshaw in the end zone. The Bulls went on to lose, 25-7.
The only quarterbacks who have proved efficient are Moore and Hemingway, the two freshmen. Both were in the lineup when the Bulls won their only game, 48-20 over Central Florida. Statistically, Moore has been the best quarterback (13 of 19, 263 yards, one touchdown and one interception), but the staff is concerned about his overall strength and accuracy. The future seems to belong to Hemingway.
He has the size (6-foot-2, 190 pounds), mobility and arm strength to blossom into an elite MAC quarterback, the kind UB faces almost weekly. What he doesn't have is experience, and a shoulder injury has kept him out of the last two games. With two weeks to prepare for Kent State, it will be interesting to see who trots out behind center for the Bulls.
"We know we've not been productive enough, even remotely so, in the passing game," Hofher said. "That, in some ways, has limited what we've been able to truly produce overall on offense."
The quarterback situation is what stops UB from being a middle-of-the-road MAC team that can compete with the likes of Kent State, Central Michigan, Ball State, Ohio and Eastern Michigan. True to his nature, Hofher takes a serene, positive approach. He's disappointed, but upbeat.
"We have three more games," he said. "Three more opportunities to keep improving and competing to win."