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UB athletics pursuing big-time dreams

This is the first of a four-day series of stories looking at the status of University at Buffalo athletics and their long-term potential. The series concludes in Wednesday’s editions of The News.

News Sports Reporter

Instead of smoothly diving into the pool that is University at Buffalo athletics, Danny White stood on the ledge, yelled “cannonball” and leapt.

The first big splash came when he replaced longtime head basketball coach Reggie Witherspoon with former Duke playing great Bobby Hurley, a bold and controversial move that garnered national attention.

The next surge resulted from the “New York Bulls Initiative,” which accentuates UB’s standing as the flagship institution in the New York State system while downplaying its Buffalo locale. Again, people debated with a passion.

Smaller ripples of attention emanated from an agreement that provided UB athletics a speck of presence on New York City radio, from pregame football concerts featuring national acts, from basketball schedules that this season include men’s games at Kentucky and Wisconsin and an appearance at Duke by the women’s team. And then when linebacker Khalil Mack went fifth overall in the NFL Draft in a bit of unplanned good fortune, waves of publicity crashed upon distant shores.

Mid-American Conference athletic directors have taken notice, and two offered unsolicited appraisals of White’s efforts when contacted for this series.

“I have a lot of respect for Danny and the work he’s doing, and I have no doubt that he’s going to really push the right buttons to get things to happen and make things happen because he’s getting after it and he’s doing a really good job,” said David Sayler of Miami.

“Very progressive. Well-respected,” said Ohio’s Jim Schaus. “I’ve been extremely impressed with a number of new things and creativity that he brings to the position. And I think that you’re very fortunate to have him. And I think he’ll continue to come up with new ways of doing some things that you haven’t done before.”

White’s first 26 months on the job have been anything but business as usual. He followed up on the theme of unlimited potential spoken by his predecessor, Warde Manuel, and set off on an aggressive course. The departmental mantra – “Building America’s next big-time athletic brand” – establishes an ambitious objective, although one open to interpretation. Is UB fancying itself a future member of one of the five major conferences and trying to build accordingly, as Louisville did before transitioning to the ACC? Or is the goal more modest, a quest for the kind of widespread mid-major attention granted Boise State during its football run, or Butler during its wild successes in basketball?

The answers to those questions could change over time. For now, UB athletics is aiming to upgrade its athletic facilities, increase revenues, cultivate alumni affinity and expand its appeal within Western New York. Those goals, the subject of this series, will play a major part in shaping the department’s future.

“We can talk about academically how we look like Iowa all day, but we’re not charter members of the Big Ten,” White said in an interview over the summer. “So how do we change our profile as an athletic department in the modern era of college athletics? We look at what Louisville and Boise State were able to do the last 10 to 15 years. And so we kind of tell that story and then we compare ourselves to those institutions. The point is to show there’s real teeth behind this. We have a whole lot of reasons to believe this is possible at New York’s biggest public university.

“Our alumni base compared to Louisville and Boise State, much bigger obviously,” with “our total enrollment contributing to an even bigger gap in alumni base,” he said. “And we don’t say this negatively about Louisville and Boise State. They’ve done a pretty special thing. This should give us confidence that we can do it here.”

Former coaches have spoken of how UB lacked so much in regional name recognition when basketball went Division I in 1991 and football in 1999. Potential recruits often said they’d never heard of the place and asked at what level the school competed. There was little in the way of athletic tradition for coaches to embed in their pitches. Contrast that with the experience of Miami’s Sayler, who said, “Every donor I meet with tells me stories about when they played and what the MAC was like back then, who our rivals were, how great some of the games were.”

Bridging that disconnect has proven a tedious and sometimes exasperating task. UB athletics didn’t truly hint at legitimacy and relevance until the 2008 football team won the Mid-American Conference title by knocking off 12th-ranked Ball State in the championship game. But that proved little more than an affirmation of potential. Athletics generated scant and localized publicity moving forward until Hurley was hired in April 2013, last year’s football team secured the program’s second postseason bowl appearance and Mack went high in the draft. That’s the kind of bang for the buck White seeks as he oversees UB’s $28 million athletic budget.

“You don’t make the decision to go from Division III to Division I if it’s just about the student-athlete experience,” he said. “Obviously we want to have a world class student-athlete experience. That’s our No. 1 priority. But Division I athletics for a university should deliver national exposure and a certain amount of marketing value. Otherwise, why are we doing it?

“I think if you look at … the Bobby Hurley hiring, we had unbelievable national exposure, just about every national media source talking about this university in ways that never happened before. And then the Khalil Mack story. That exponentially was an even larger national story. So we feel like we’re making strides.”

Butler University, which fields a lower-level football program, made its mark nationally on the basketball court. Massachusetts entered the Mid-American Conference to raise the profile of its football team but is leaving in two seasons rather than joining the MAC in all sports and cutting basketball ties with the higher-profile Atlantic 10. Conversely, White regards football as vital to UB’s athletic mission.

“To access our potential we think it’s important to bring big-time college football to the Western New York market,” he said. “Football’s clearly driving the train in almost every major national television agreement in college athletics right now.

“Our peer institutions in the AAU, other big public research universities, have high-level college football and the pageantry that brings to campus. So, to access our potential as an overall department for all 20 sports we think it’s very important that we show that we can be consistently competitive in football.”

Football was the hammer and chisel that reshaped college athletics over the last few years. Four of the five major conferences expanded their footprint through acquisitions aimed at maximizing football-related television revenues. The results were astounding. Revenues skyrocketed, with greater riches projected in the near future. The disparity between the have’s and the have-nots has widened, raising doubts whether down the road there will be cause for further expansion that affords UB, if adequately positioned, a move to the big time.

“ ‘Big time,’ ” it’s a subjective term,” White said. “I look at it as some of the better athletic departments in the country: how captivated is your alumni base, what does your attendance look like … and how much exposure are we bringing to the campus?

“You got to start somewhere,” White said. “Everybody’s looking for that next rung up the ladder. Upward mobility I think you’ll see across higher education in every part of campus. Every department of engineering wants to move up the ranking. … Division I athletics is no different. Yeah, we want to be better, and it’s really competitive.”