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Greene’s goal in MAC may be too lofty

Allen Greene laughed the other day while acknowledging the disparity in opinions when it comes to certain situations. UB’s new athletic director was a switch-hitting outfielder who earned a baseball scholarship to Notre Dame and spent three seasons playing minor-league ball for the Yankees.

You can’t find another organization in sports that triggers extreme emotions the way the Yankees have over the past century. Notre Dame falls under the same general category. People usually admire the Fighting Irish for their success and history or despise them for their riches and perceived sense of entitlement.

“I seem to be aligned with places that people either that they either love or they hate – Notre Dame and the Yankees,” Greene, 38, said. “They’re two organizations that you either have a great dislike or a great like for them. The three years I spent in minor-league baseball, I got accustomed to being booed.”

Greene didn’t realize as much at the time, but he was preparing for greater challenges when his baseball career ended at 24. He’s not going to make everybody happy all the time. People are bound to question the decisions he makes while running the athletics department at the University at Buffalo.

In fact, it’s going to happen today.

Greene has no intention to make major changes to the path his friend and predecessor, Danny White, set over the previous three years. UB will remain in the Mid-American Conference for the foreseeable future. Greene believes consistently fielding a winning team will generate fan interest and solve all problems.

“It doesn’t make sense for us to even talk about moving conferences,” Greene said. “We’re happy where we are. We like the Mid-American Conference. We need to be successful. We need to slowly get to a point where we can say, ‘We’re dominating this conference.’ That’s when we start to look at other things.”

Greene hasn’t made a decision on whether to continue the New York Bulls Initiative, which raised money beyond the region but irritated many who believed UB’s marketing campaign came at the expense of Buffalo. He helped create and execute the strategy with hopes of raising awareness to the athletic program.

In theory, it made sense.

To many, it’s nonsense.

One problem with NYBI, other than being clumsy, is that it suggests people should designate Buffalo athletics as the pre-eminent program in New York. The reality is it’s a long way from joining Penn State, Michigan State, Ohio State or even a private school such as Syracuse. UB looked like it was trying to become something it’s not.

“I’ve also heard from people who said, ‘Thank God, finally someone is thinking bigger than just Buffalo,’ ” Greene said. “There’s a way we can strike a balance. When you think about the results, the money that has been raised in the past three years … people are more aware of what’s happening on this campus.”

Fair enough.

Greene grew up an only child in Seattle during the grunge-music era and remains a big fan of Pearl Jam. His parents divorced when he was 3 years old, and he split his time between parents in Seattle and Rock Island, Ill. His mother and father now live in the Seattle area, and he has a strong relationship with both. It would have been easy to criticize UB for not conducting a national search to replace White after he took the job at Central Florida. Sometimes, the best candidate is right under your nose. Greene understood inner workings of college athletics after 14 years in different jobs on various levels and was given the promotion.

During a 45-minute interview this week in his office, Greene came across as friendly and determined to succeed. He’s definitely his own man. Unlike his predecessor, there was no sense he was looking for his next job 15 minutes after accepting this one. By all accounts, he’s a charming person with an open mind and good intentions.

When it comes to football, we respectfully disagree.

For better or worse, this is a different region when it comes to college football. People here don’t have anywhere near the passion for the college game as they do for the Bills and the NFL. It has been that way for generations. Right or wrong, it’s not going to change so long as the Bills remain in town.

Remember, the Bills to needed regionalize the franchise to survive in the NFL. Their fan base extends to Syracuse and Erie, Pa., and beyond. They reached deep into Canada and captured fans between Buffalo and Toronto. UB’s fan base looks like a semicircle that surrounds Erie County and stops at Lake Erie on one side and the Canadian border on the other.

It’s a tough sell.

Let me be clear: I’m not saying UB should drop football. I am saying UB should be realistic, find a smaller conference for football and a better conference for basketball, and stop unnecessary spending.

White, after living in other regions in which college football rules, was certain he would change the culture in Buffalo. Halfway through his tenure, he admitted to people with ties to the university that he grossly underestimated the Bills’ stranglehold on the community.

It’s not an indictment of UB’s football program but a cold, harsh reality. The university has given the program resources it needed. If anything, White was accused of overspending on football. Count me among many who respect Lance Leipold. The MAC is an entertaining league. The Bulls are an entertaining team.

Allow me to say it again: Buffalo is not a dot on the map or a snowy place along Lake Erie. It’s a state of mind that comes natural to people who were raised here or lived here for a long time. It can be mystifying to people like White and Greene and other newcomers who believe what worked elsewhere will translate here. University at Buffalo football is not the problem. Buffalo, N.Y., is the problem. In other words, it’s not them. It’s us.

Take Khalil Mack, for example. He’s headed for the Pro Bowl this year and could be named NFL Defensive Player of the Year. He had a terrific career at UB but played in relative obscurity until he dominated against Ohio State his senior year. No matter how well he played for the Bulls, people here barely knew him.

UB has been in the MAC for 17 years. Their crowds for football aren’t much different than they were in 1999, when they jumped to Division I. Some years have been better than others, but all along, the community has generally not been interested. At times, their actual attendance for basketball was better than their attendance for football.

It’s not a good sign.

If you talk to people who are entrenched in college athletics and understand Western New York – and I have – they fear television money drying up. Many predict a market adjustment in which the gap between Power Five conferences and mid-level leagues like the MAC, substantial already, will widen in the coming years.

“I’m not a fortune teller,” Greene said. “I would say we’re in the right conference. We have to prove we can dominate this conference. That’s goal No. 1. After that, who knows? Who knows what conferences are going to look like in 10 years? There are conferences shifting all the time. Who knows what’s going to happen?”

The money saved by playing at the FCS level (previously known as Division I-AA), with other schools such as Albany and Stony Brook, should be redistributed within the athletic department. UB has the potential to corner the local college basketball market by playing in a better league.

Given our natural resources, it would be nice if UB had a D-I hockey program. UB could use a new on-campus baseball facility rather than playing behind Northtowns Center at Amherst. There’s also demand for lacrosse and men’s volleyball teams. None can be addressed when they’re dumping millions of dollars into football.

“We’re an old Big 10 university with a brand new Florida Gulf Coast athletics department,” Greene said. “It’s really what we are. We sell academics at our university, but the brand and the tradition is not there. And we’re in a town that is a pro sports town. I’m going to flip them.”

Sounds like a great plan.

Good luck.