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Lockport native turns football program into winner

There was a time at St. John Fisher College in Pittsford when coach Paul Vosburgh and his football program may have felt like the neglected child in a big family.

But the days of being the Jan Brady of the suburban Rochester campus are long gone. Four straight postseason appearances, including two NCAAs in the past three years, tends to boost a program's profile.

Winning on the football field is a big reason why Vosburgh and the program have assumed Marcia Brady-type status since the turn of the century, but Vosburgh - the Lockport native in his 16th year as coach - is quick to point out the turnaround couldn't have happened without the proper parental support: that is, help from the school's board of trustees.

For years, Vosburgh fought to get the program the resources it needed to turn from perennial losers to winners. But it wasn't until a new administration assumed control of the school in the late 1990s, when the college embarked on a quest to make Fisher - a small Catholic institution - a more desirable destination for graduating high schoolers, that the football team's fortunes shifted. It started to get the stuff it needed to lure top Division III talents with the character and ambition to turn a Cardinals team that had experienced more than its share of losing into national-title contenders.

>Beating the powers

Gone are the days of the Cardinals losing often on their home field. In are the days when Fisher can beat national powers like Rowan (N.J.) and Springfield College en route to a history-making 12-2 campaign and end-of-season ranking in the top four nationally once the final poll comes out later this week.

The Cardinals lost Dec. 9 in the NCAA Division III semifinals to Mount Union, 26-14.

While Fisher's first Final Four appearance didn't produce a national championship, the fruits of Vosburgh's and his team's efforts were greatly appreciated. He and team captains Gene Lang, Nick Suchyna and Greg Pyszczynski were invited to the school's December board meeting last Monday and received congratulations for a job well done, kind of like a private standing ovation.

"Getting invited to the December board meeting so they could meet our captains and congratulate the team on a nice season, that was a nice gesture on their part . . .," said Vosburgh, a DeSales High School graduate who guided the school to two Monsignor Martin Association football championships during his time as coach from 1979 to 1981. "Our success is directly related to what they've done for our school and for us."

Vosburgh calls the turnaround a team effort, from the brass that controls the college's purse strings to the players who make a difference on the field. Still, the 53-year-old father of four had something to do with the Cardinals' turnaround. Recruiting Division III athletes is different from scholarship players, in that you not only have to find talented kids with character, you have to be able to satisfy their academic goals. Academics is ultimately why they're going to a Division III school, because, more often than not, those student-athletes are preparing for careers in the real world, not the NFL - although there have been some Division III players to make it to football's grand stage. Among them: Bills' linebacker London Fletcher.

Fisher has facilities that are the envy of most Division III programs, and Vosburgh is honest with recruits. He's a straight shooter. He wouldn't be courting a recruit if he didn't think he had a chance to play. If a recruit has a chance to start, or work his way into the starting role, he gives him a legitimate shot to earn that right.

>A fighter

He's not lying to recruits in an effort to simply stockpile talent on the sideline in the event of a rainy day or to keep from competitors. He's also fostered a family atmosphere within the program. Fisher is basically a team of brothers fighting for respect and defending familial honor.

"The program would not be what it is without him," said junior starting defensive back and North Tonawanda graduate Scott Miranto. "He had to fight day in and day out for 16 years to get the program to where it is today. Him preaching family and togetherness is a part of that. [Last Monday] he kind of mentioned [past board of trustees] didn't know who he was and didn't give him [or the program] respect. Today . . . people know who he is. They respect him. They can't wait to see what he does with the program now in the future and how much farther he can build it up."

Vosburgh tackled the Fisher job just as he did ball carriers as an undersized 5-foot-7, 185-pound linebacker at Division II William Penn from 1971 to 1975 - with heart and determination. Any coach who accepts a job a week before the season with a losing program has to be a fighter.

When Vosburgh accepted the Fisher job in 1991, he knew he also accepted a major challenge. There were no locker room facilities. There was a small, dingy weight room. In essence, there was a grass patch, not a true field ideally suited for games. He and his assistants had to pump the field before one game because it had been flooded by rain.

On the field, the team was shut out in his first four games in 1991. Twelve years later, Fisher scored 50 points in winning the ECAC Northwest Bowl to cap the program's first postseason berth.

The Cardinals blanked perennial national contender Rowan, 31-0, three weeks ago to win the NCAA East Regional championship.

Basically, they scored more points in two of the program's biggest wins than they did in Vosburgh's first season.

"He coaches with a lot of fire," sophomore receiver and Niagara-Wheatfield graduate Josiah Smith said. "He gets us focused. We never panic. It comes down through [him to] us. That's how we play. That's how he prepares us."

"We knew it would be nearly impossible to win right away," Vosburgh said, "but we realized it takes time to build a winning tradition. It wasn't always easy to see the positives, and sometimes there weren't a whole lot of them, but our coaching staff always kept our eyes fixed on the light at the end of the tunnel."

>The big break

Still, even the most eternal optimist sometimes needs a break in order to turn a dream into reality. Vosburgh received just that in 1997, when the school embarked on a mission to upgrade all of its facilities in an effort to increase student enrollment and attract the Buffalo Bills, who were looking for a Rochester-area venue to move their training camp in an effort to regionalize the franchise. Fisher used its own money, as well as alumni donations, to build two practice fields, Growney Stadium - which is equipped with the all-weather Field Turf and 2,100 seats, and state-of-the art locker room and weight room facilities.

The school got the Bills and all of the free attention that comes from being the official home of Buffalo Bills Training Camp. The school also got another successful athletic program to go along with perennial-contending men's and women's basketball teams.

Along with greater visibility of its sports teams, student enrollment has climbed from 1,300 to nearly 2,600 since the late 1990s.

Vosburgh got the break he needed to attract the talent needed to turn the program into a success, which made it easier to begin the process of making them think like winners.

"That didn't happen overnight," he said. "You had to get the mental frame going with the kids believing in themselves, and that took a while.

"Over the last few years, they've felt every time they've stepped on the field they can win. The confidence comes from the kids because they have worked real hard to get [where they are]. You do those things and you work hard, you're going to have confidence you're going to have success."

e-mail: niagaranews@buffnews.com

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