The first thing that came to mind when the University at Buffalo introduced Mark Alnutt as its new athletic director Wednesday was that he was a football guy. Why, of course. Alnutt was a freshman walk-on who earned a scholarship to Missouri before building a career in college sports.
Alnutt came across how you hoped a top administrator would conduct himself in his first news conference. He sounded professional and had his priorities in order while striking the proper balance between academics and athletics. He hit the right notes, cracked a few jokes and answered a few questions before he whisked away.
"That's it?" he asked.
Evidently, even Alnutt thought his first day was easier than expected. He'll learn soon enough that the job is far more difficult. UB for years has been trying to tap into the community's obsession with sports but so far has gained little traction outside of men's and women's basketball.
The more he talked Wednesday, the more it was obvious: UB hired someone willing to conform to its flawed football vision. Alnutt clearly told university President Satish Tripathi what he wanted to hear, not what he needed to hear. He arrived like others before him who had high hopes before they were greeted by harsh reality.
"We're going to compete at the highest level," Alnutt said during his 18-plus minute address. "First and foremost, we're going to do it the right way. We're not going to cut any corners. We're going to be as compliant as compliant can be. I'm going to support our student-athletes and our coaches."
Alnutt showed an abundance of intelligence and charm Wednesday that should serve him well. This is nothing against him, but UB didn’t need an outsider in this particular case. It needed someone who knew Western New York from the inside and understood the region's attitude toward college football in particular.
The new AD said he asked himself a question when the job became available after Allen Greene left for Auburn: Why Buffalo? His simple response Wednesday: "Why not?" He sounded like he was taking an impromptu vacation, confirming he knew little about UB athletics and almost nothing about the region.
Obviously, he has much to learn. Alnutt talked about bringing stability to a university in continuous upheaval with so many coaches and administrators staying long enough to pad their resumes before leaving. If the school really wanted stability, it would have hired someone already invested in the region.
Folks, that's part of the problem.
The first sign UB wasn't interested in people with ties to Buffalo came when it hired Parker Executive Search, a firm based in Atlanta. The company whittled down the list of candidates. Tripathi, a renowned computer scientist who has been in Buffalo for nearly 15 years but knows little about college athletics, supposedly made the final decision. To me, it reeked of an inside job with the firm determining Alnutt was next in line.
It was funny how the production Wednesday was staged in the Buffalo Room in Capen Hall considering how few in the room truly knew Buffalo. Most were outsiders such as Tripathi, academic types who had advanced degrees that confirmed their intelligence and disguised their ignorance when it comes to this community.
Buffalo is a quirky place that doesn't suffer fools or phonies lightly and remains stuck in neutral in many ways. It may not be the best place or the most beautiful place, but it's our place. The people here see its inner beauty and understand other intangible qualities that are better experienced than explained.
But it also can be stubborn in certain ways. No matter how many coaches and athletic directors insisted they would change the football culture, no matter how many times the program has been praised for playing a style far more exciting than what you see in the NFL, the needle hasn't budged in years.
For whatever reason, the community has refused to engage. Blame the region, not the university. Maybe it would be different if UB played in a power conference. I'm not sure about what might be. I just know what is, and it's not likely to change. Fans are missing a good show, but UB can't force them into the stadium.
"I want to compete for championships," Alnutt said. "I believe this is a league (the Mid-American Conference) where you're able to do that. It's not like the SEC. It's not like the Big 12 back in the day when Oklahoma and Nebraska were up there from a resource standpoint. … But I still believe this is an opportunity. It's even for us. We're committed to football."
Danny White arrived as athletic director with great expectations, too, and raised millions of dollars that made no tangible difference. Greene had a similar experience breaking ground on an $18 million fieldhouse that UB prays will be a game-changer for football. Despite all the money raised and spent, doubts persist.
You'll hear people say how much revenue football generates, but it has been a financial loser for years. You'll see attendance figures for tickets sold when only a fraction of the total includes people in the stands. There were numerous games this season in which UB's basketball team drew more fans than the football team.
It's disheartening, but UB has been unwavering in its commitment to football and its place in the MAC, even though better options could be available. During several recent conversations that I had with people associated with the Atlantic 10, many agreed UB would be a good fit for that conference for basketball and other sports.
The A-10 doesn't include football. The university has been so defiant about keeping the sport at the FBS level that it has refused to remotely consider downgrading football and upgrading basketball. Alnutt suggested Wednesday that he wanted UB to dominate before thinking about moving into another league.
"What conferences are looking for is the sustained growth of a department and the sustained growth of a university," he said. "If we can demonstrate that … you never know what's on the horizon. At the end of the day, our focus is to be the best we can be in the Mid-American Conference."
And that's the thing.
In case you didn't notice, Buffalo has been to the NCAA Tournament three times in the past four years in men's basketball. Fans were all aboard when the men's team beat fourth-seeded Arizona in the first round this year. The women's team reached the Sweet 16 and will play South Carolina on Saturday.
Nate Oats guided his team to a 27-9 record overall this year, and he believes the Bulls will be even better next year. Success is easier to sustain in basketball than football because fewer players are needed. Last year, the football team was one of the few bowl-eligible teams that failed to secure an invitation.
Look, I want to see UB football succeed as much as anyone. Imagine a full stadium and the excitement that comes with winning. It would be good for university. It would be good for Buffalo. It would be good for business, including my business.
But as we all know, it's more difficult than it appears.