The texts messages have been coming by the dozen every week from friends, family and former players who supported him throughout his career. In the years before he was named UB’s football coach, Lance Leipold was associated with one word more than any other: winning.
But that wasn’t always the case, which is why Leipold has particularly appreciated messages during UB’s 1-4 start this season from Pat Behrns. In 1994, Behrns gave Leipold his first job as a paid assistant at Division II. In recent weeks, he reminded Leipold how miserable that time together at Nebraska-Omaha began.
First season: 1-10, last in the conference.
Second season: 3-8, second-last in the conference.
Third season: 10-2, conference champion.
“He has texted me as much as anyone in the last three weeks,” Leipold said of Behrns, who had a 124-68 record over 17 seasons at Nebraska-Omaha before the school dropped its program in 2011. “He reflects back. He talks about staying true and believing in what you believe in.”
Leipold found another companion in Dave Clawson, the former Lewiston-Porter star coaching his third season at Wake Forest. The two confided in one another after meeting through a mutual coaching friend. Clawson warned Leipold that his second season at UB would be more difficult than his first.
Clawson is an authority on such matters. He was 7-6 in his first season at Bowling Green, dropped to 2-10 his second year and 5-7 his third before turning around the program. He had a 10-3 record in 2013 when Wake Forest hired him. He was 3-9 in each of his first two seasons at Wake before starting 5-1 this season.
“There’s a honeymoon period,” Leipold said. “Dave told me a lot of stuff that he went through. Now look at them. He talked to me about the potential that Year Two can sometimes be more difficult than Year One. It goes back to our first game. The first game has left a bad taste, and there’s been a hangover.”
Leipold had so much success so soon as a head coach that he almost forgot that it usually takes time to build a winner. He was 109-6 and won six Division III national championships at Wisconsin-Whitewater. The primary complaint among Whitewater fans was that he didn’t win by enough.
Six losses in eight years.
Leipold lost seven games in his first season at UB and could be headed for a worse record this year. The first game he mentioned? That would be an inexcusable defeat to FCS Albany at home in the season opener. A loss to a team from an inferior conference was the last thing Buffalo needed, and it lingered.
“Here’s the thing,” Leipold said. “You’ve been given a great opportunity, and people trust you, and right now you’re not living up to expectations. You’re letting them down. I didn’t come here to disappoint anybody. It’s disappointing that we’re not quite where we want to be yet.”
The hard part for anyone associated with the program is staying upbeat. The Bulls were pounded, 38-14, at Nevada. They rallied from a 20-6 deficit in an overtime victory over Army, hardly a football superpower. Two weeks ago, they limped home from Boston College with a 35-3 loss. Last week, Kent State ran over them, 44-20. This week, they play Ball State at home.
Leipold admitted losing sleep searching for solutions. He’s spending longer hours at the office. He has been moody around campus and temperamental at home. It hasn’t been easy for him, which is expected coming from a coach who for years was unaccustomed to losing with this much frequency.
But it’s a familiar story at UB.
The Bulls have had two winning seasons since returning to Division I in 1999. In 2008, when they earned their first trip to a bowl game and stirred the masses under Turner Gill, they lost six games. Jeff Quinn finished 8-5 in 2013 with Khalil Mack and was fired by Danny White after a slow start the following season.
Leipold understood winning wouldn’t be easy when he was hired, but he also didn’t know it would be this difficult. He’s finding out what was clear long before he arrived. College football is a tough sell in Buffalo. Fans are more likely to know Colin Kaepernick’s shoe size (13) than UB’s starting quarterback (Tyree Jackson).
“The most important thing is that this isn’t about me, and it never has been,” Leipold said. “It’s about our program. I don’t want to say it’s more challenging than I anticipated. I wanted the challenge of building a program. Has it gone as smooth as we had hoped? No. Ultimately, that comes back to me.”
The easy, lazy and wrong response would be blaming the coach for UB’s record. Leipold was right when he was hired in 2014 while still coaching at Whitewater. Football is football. He knows the X’s and O’s. He is a good coach who deserves the time needed to build a program. He was given a contract extension after last season.
So let’s be real.
Last year, he had senior Joe Licata quarterback running the offense and serving as an extra coach on the field. Jackson has a stronger arm and far more athleticism than Licata, but he’s a freshman. He hasn’t played enough games, or made enough mistakes, to fully mature into a Division I player.
UB also could be suffering from linger effects from the death of Solomon Jackson, a good player and better person. The vast majority of the roster includes Quinn’s recruits, some of whom have one foot out the door. The unspoken truth that UB is rebuilding can be difficult on upperclassmen.
To his credit, Leipold refused to criticize his players or make excuses for the slow start. But you don’t need to be a head coach to see that UB has had major problems along the offensive line. It was evident when the Bulls were pushed around by Albany in the opener, and not much has changed.
Leipold can do little but endure misery that comes with losing while taking comfort in people like Clawson, who fell numerous times while climbing the ranks. He can listen to people like Berhns, who told him to stay true to what made him successful in the first place. He can keep plugging.
That’s the message.