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Change at top is time for UB to adjust its goals

Danny White is headed for Central Florida, off and running for a bigger job with a much bigger budget, just as you expected when he was named athletic director at the University at Buffalo. It was obvious from the day he was hired in 2012 that he wasn’t long for Western New York.

Nobody should begrudge White for leaving. He had no allegiance to the region. For the past year, with jobs opening and rumors flying about his candidacy, questions surrounded where he would land and when. He was considered an up-and-coming administrator, someone on the fast track in college athletics.

His departure was inevitable, sooner than later.

White did a good job when it came to rousing alumni, raising money and improving facilities. He implemented creative marketing strategies designed to generate interest in his programs. He made numerous coaching changes that many considered upgrades. Overall, UB was competitive in 3½ years under his watch.

He also had his flaws. He came off spoiled and immature, particularly when he didn’t get his way. He handed Jeff Quinn a contract extension and fired him. He bought out contracts on several coaches. He wasted your money on the ridiculous New York Bulls Initiative and completely mishandled Bobby Hurley.

Now he’s gone.

Let me be clear: His exit wasn’t some great loss. UB now has an opportunity to step back and reassess its future with a clean slate. University officials, beginning with President Satish Tripathi, should take a long, hard look at the athletics program before deciding precisely how to proceed.

It would be nice if top administrators stopped fantasizing about grandiose plans, stopped kidding themselves about football, stopped banging their collective head against the wall and started accepting reality. Their mission should not be growing football but intelligently retooling the entire department.

UB doesn’t need another athletic director who views the job as a jumping off point toward something better. That’s fine for good, young coaches who stick around for a few years, build good teams and are rewarded for their work. That’s the way mid-sized Division I programs should operate.

Buffalo should have dozens of candidates who understand college athletics. The greater challenge is landing someone who intimately understands Buffalo, N.Y. UB needs an injection of common sense, someone who knows the university’s strengths, is bold enough to make unpopular decisions and strong enough to endure scrutiny.

The moment Terry and Kim Pegula purchased the Bills and ensured their future in Buffalo was the moment UB officials needed to take a second look at their football program and, therefore, their place in the Mid-American Conference. It’s the only school in the conference that shares the same region with an NFL team.

Plain and simple, it doesn’t work.

This is nothing against UB football coach Lance Leipold, who made a smooth transition from Division III to Division I under trying circumstances. White hired the right guy to coach the Bulls. The greater problem is off the field. UB has been unable to generate necessary support from the community to justify the expense.

Sad but true, most people in Buffalo don’t care about UB football. For many other MAC schools, it’s the only game in town. Here, it’s only the MAC.

The lack of interest likely will worsen with Joe Licata graduating. If you’re not familiar with Licata, that’s part of the problem. For the last four years, the former Williamsville South star and charismatic quarterback was a marketing jewel for UB. Even with him, the program failed to move the needle.

Anyone who has attended a home game would attest to inflated attendance figures based on tickets sold, not bodies inside a charmless stadium. It’s a shame, too, because UB is a competitive team in an entertaining league. The conference is dotted with terrific players who will land in the NFL.

Not enough fans in Buffalo give a hoot. They’re concerned with the Buffalo Bills, not the Buffalo Bulls. They care about the Miami Dolphins, not the Miami RedHawks.

That’s not a criticism, folks. That’s a fact.

UB needs to face the facts, resist the urge to spend good money after bad and embrace FCS football. It means joining the likes of Albany and Stony Brook in what formerly was known as Division I-AA. They made a honest effort while trying to sell the Mid-American Conference, but it’s not the right fit.

It’s not a knock on UB’s coaches or athletes or their competitiveness in any sport, men or women. They’re not the problem. Their current conference, which requires all members to have a football team, is the problem. At UB, football rules at the expense of other sports that could be better.

In 2013, according to federal documents, UB spent about $6.7 million on its football program, near the average for MAC schools, while Albany spent $3.5 million and Stony Brook $4.3 million. The savings in football could, and should, be redirected toward upgrading programs that are better suited for the region.

UB has great potential in two major sports that are in line with the university’s location: basketball and hockey. White understood the possibilities in basketball. He didn’t have a clue about the passion for hockey. Western New York is a natural resource for hockey. UB could compete on a national level in short order.

Last season, when UB had a dominant team in the MAC and was headed toward its first berth in the NCAAs, previously muted basketball fans surfaced from the underground with reasons to cheer. Alumni Arena, ideal for good Division I basketball, came alive like never before during UB’s run under Hurley.

In fact, the Bulls had more bodies in the seats for basketball than they did for some football games last season. If high-ranking officials believe MAC football will lead UB to a power conference and create excitement required to survive in the Big 10, for example, they’re dreaming.

Really, what’s the point?

Canisius and Niagara haven’t generated nearly the interest both did 20 years ago for games at Memorial Auditorium. They have a difficult time selling out small gyms when they play one another. St. Bonaventure plays in a great venue in an outstanding conference, the Atlantic 10, but you don’t see convoys from Buffalo to Olean.

UB could play big-time basketball, or at least better basketball, if it joined a tougher conference that earned multiple NCAA bids. The A-10 would provide a geographic rival in St. Bonaventure. A-10 teams have beaten ranked teams 23 times in the last two-plus seasons. George Washington knocked off No. 6 Virginia earlier this week.

Fourteen colleges belong to the A-10, including six that have FCS football programs in the Colonial AA and UMass, which competes in the MAC in football. UB currently offers nine sports each to men and women. It can find conferences for wrestling, which could actually improve the program, and football. The A-10 offers all nine women’s sports UB offers. It looks like a fit.

The Big East would be great for basketball. With private schools making up the entire conference, UB might not be great for the Big East. Butler, Georgetown and Villanova are among teams that play Big East basketball and lower-level football. Last year, Providence won a national championship in hockey.

For UB, it’s a stretch along with the American Athletic Conference that includes White’s new destination, Central Florida.

What to do?

Administrators can either change their thinking or continue spending your money while swimming in circles. When they start scouring the country for candidates, they should keep in mind that White’s replacement could be under their nose.

The university should start by calling Williamsville native and Daemen College athletic director Bridget Niland to see if she’s interested. She was a track star at UB, earned her bachelor’s, master’s and law degrees at the university, worked for the NCAA and is currently working on her doctorate at UB.

Another possibility is Mike Mudd, the former Sweet Home hockey and baseball standout who played college hockey at St. Lawrence and spent 12 years as an executive for the San Jose Sharks’ minor-league operations. He’s currently athletic director at Division III Worcester State in Massachusetts.

If neither works, certainly there are qualified administrators out there who view 716 as a state of mind, not an area code or stepping stone. They need someone who cares about the region and will stick around. The last person on their list should be someone selling the notion that college football drives athletics.

It doesn’t work that way in Buffalo.

It never did.

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