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All along, Jim Hofher had predicted this would be the year his University at Buffalo football team began to find its way. Wait until his fourth season and then judge him. Bill Maher, the acting athletics director, felt the same way. After last season, Maher said Hofher's job as coach could be in jeopardy if the Bulls didn't show progress in 2004.

But if that was a sign of progress Saturday afternoon in UB Stadium, I'd hate to see the alternative. The Bulls' 33-7 loss to Kent State was a great leap backward, a thorough embarrassment, the sort of loss that gets a coach fired. The only saving grace was that so few people -- 6,454 -- were willing to endure 35-mph winds to witness it.

Two months earlier, in the opener against Syracuse, the Bulls had seemed on the verge of being competitive -- certainly against average foes in the Mid-American Conference. Saturday, coming off a bye week, they were unready to play and easily discouraged against a Kent State team that had beaten one Division I opponent all season.

Hofher called it "inexplicable." It was also inexcusable, and worse than the final score suggests. At halftime, Kent State led, 26-0, had a 321-29 advantage in yardage, and two Golden Flashes, star quarterback Joshua Cribbs and tailback David Alston, each had 100 yards already. Alston had been averaging 3.2 yards per carry. UB made him look like Priest Holmes.

This was Kent State, remember, not Ohio State. Still, it was an athletic mismatch from the outset, another vivid demonstration of what a top quarterback can do for a MAC team. Watching Cribbs dominate with his legs and arm, you were reminded of how deficient UB has been at the sport's most vital position.

The MAC is a quarterback league, the conference that produced Chad Pennington, Ben Roethlisberger and Byron Leftwich. In four years, Hofher hasn't been able to field an adequate Division I starter. He showed too much faith in Randall Secky and it cost him Mike Radon. Then he turned to P.J. Piskorik, whose own father once told me he couldn't believe his son was actually a starting QB in Division I.

Maybe no coach can succeed at UB. Still, Hofher's mishandling of the quarterback position has been curious. He coached quarterbacks at Tennessee and Syracuse and played the position at Cornell. How could he arrive in his critical fourth year and still not have a legitimate starter? UB won its only game this year when Piskorik was suspended and Hofher had to turn to his rookie quarterbacks. Then he went back to Piskorik, with predictable results.

So the Bulls are 1-8 and looking at a third consecutive one-win season. What do they do now? Do people in this town care? And who exactly is in charge of the UB sports program? Maher has worn an interim tag for a year and a half. Is he the guy, and if so, what is taking the university so long to make it official?

Maher did an admirable job shepherding the basketball program through probation. The school got lucky with Reggie Witherspoon, who has turned the hoop fortunes around. But Maher, a former compliance officer, might be over his head as the lone overseer of a D-I football program. The university should consider bringing in a fresh set of eyes, someone with football experience at the major-college level, to help judge the situation.

That assumes, of course, that UB has a sincere commitment to major college sports. Does anyone know where John Simpson, the new president, stands on athletics? Simpson claims to care about the athletic program, but where is the evidence? He's been as invisible as the UB passing game.

Simpson has a reputation for being inaccessible. I can vouch for that. Two weeks ago, I asked for a few minutes of his time to discuss athletics. I got a one-sentence statement from the university's PR office saying the president would announce something soon -- presumably, a national search for an AD. Last week, our UB writer did a story on the football team's progress. Same thing from Simpson. A prepared one-sentence comment.

UB wants to have it both ways. It wants to be a big-league football school, but it settles for a low standard. It allows the program to function for 18 months under an interim athletics director. It expects high school kids to come and play, but it doesn't make the financial commitment necessary to attract the athletes to Buffalo.

The word is, Maher will decide whether Hofher gets a contract extension. He recently extended Witherspoon's deal. That's a lot of authority for an acting AD. If the school's serious about doing a national AD search, it should have begun it by now. It seems silly to allow Maher to make major decisions that could fall in the lap of his successor.

Once they figure it all out, maybe they'll begin to show some actual progress. Me, I'd settle for the new president returning a phone call.

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