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Q&A: UB's new athletic director on football, future and capturing the region's attention

Two months have passed since the University at Buffalo hired Mark Alnutt to replace Allen Greene as athletic director. He became the fourth AD since 2015, when Danny White left for Central Florida. The list includes interim Kathy Twist, who took over on an interim basis when Allen Green left for Auburn.

Alnutt was juggling his new job with family responsibilities in Memphis, where he served as deputy athletic director for three years after spending three years as athletic director at Southeast Missouri State.

His family will remain in Memphis until his son, Jaren, graduates from high school next spring. His wife, Kate, and three other three children plan to join him in Western New York after he has been on the job for more than a year.

UB is coming off its best season in men's and women's basketball in history, with the men knocking off Arizona in the NCAA and the women reaching the Sweet 16. The football team is expected to be one of the top teams in the Mid-American Conference this season. The department remains in good shape overall, but challenges remain.

During a 40-minute conversation last week from his Alumni Arena office, Alnutt addressed a variety of topics ranging from the future of UB football to whether he plans to remain in Buffalo for an extended period and provide stability at the top of the athletics department.

The following interview has been condensed for space purposes.

Question: What has it been like getting adjusted? You haven't been here long enough to really get your feet under you, but you can get the lay of the land.

Answer: I’ve been having one-on-one meetings with our entire staff. It's getting to know them from a personal standpoint, getting to know the person fully. But getting to know who my staff is, what they do, their roles and responsibilities and also having them have their own analysis of their area of the department. For me, it’s to get an idea of their roles, what they see, what's good, the bad and the ugly. It’s going to help me refocus what my goals might be, how I assess the program and how to move forward. It’s been good to have these meetings to determine what I feel might be needed. I’m also working with campus administration, meeting with them and getting out there in the community, meeting with our donors and community folk. You know, ‘Tell me about UB. How do you view the athletic department? How can we do better?' It's been good feedback.

UB's new Athletic Director Mark Alnutt, in an interview on Tuesday, May 15, 2018, says he's still trying to "understand the lay of the land." (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Q: So much of that is predicated on getting the truth. Whether it's good or bad, you need to know.

A: Exactly. The one thing I'm appreciative of is that I'm hearing it. You'll hear (about) the resources or the lack of people. Can you solve everything? No. I'm not Santa Claus, and I'm not coming in with a big pot of gold or what have you. How are we able to make it easier or make that adjustment? What things do we need to do short-term to makes it better for the folks in the department?

Q: So much in your position is determined by relationships. If you're good at it, you can do well. If you're not, you probably won't do well. Is that accurate?

A: The main thing is listening. For some of these people, they may not have had the opportunity to voice (their concerns) one-on-one with the athletic director. Nothing against the past athletic directors because (the staff) had those opportunities before, but they feel special when they can voice unsolicited feedback, which is good.

Q: And you’ll add everything up?

A: Yes. It’s a process. You’re still trying to understand the lay of the land. The only athletic competitions that I’ve been a part of are men’s and women’s tennis from a competition standpoint and the very end of softball. What does a game day look like during football? What do game days look like at the arena? Those are the things that I’m going through as part of the process. I could be only told so much. I have to see it, feel it, smell it. It’s getting under the hood of a car and seeing what it looks like.

Q: You brought up football, so let’s tackle it, no pun intended. Here’s the truth from my perspective: I want nothing more than to see the university do well on the football field. But knowing this community, it has been a tough sell. For me, it's a weird place of wanting to see the program do well and succeed at their level and knowing the community that hasn't supported it as much as it should. Although there are people who believe I’ve criticized the program, it’s actually an indictment of the community. Do you know what I’m saying?

A: What you said is what I’ve heard about your stance. I appreciate it. Thank you for that. It’s consistent.

Q: I’ve practically begged people to come to the stadium and watch them play. How are you going to do what hasn’t been done? It’s a tough question.

A: It is a tough question. You have to look at the anticipation of the season. How are we going to market? How are we going to promote? How are we rolling out the fact that we have three Top 100 prospects (Anthony Johnson, Tyree Jackson, Khalil Hodge)? There's only eight from the Group of Five. We have three of them. We finished 6-6. There were some close games. We understand that. But we’re on the brink. From a marketing standpoint and communications, push as much out as we can and anticipate a great season.

Talk about what we provide, again, what happens on Game Day. I have an idea. It's family-friendly. Let's try to get as many kids and folks to support the Bulls. I get it. The more we're out there, the more we promote, the more we talk about the excitement of this upcoming season, hopefully this turns into a winning one for us, that maybe we've latched on. Maybe more people are going to become season ticket-holders and be bought into what we do. Who knows? Two years before I got to Memphis, Memphis was like, 'What are we doing with football? We're a basketball school.' We had never been to a bowl game. We had never won anything. In 2012, we had the 60,000-seat Liberty Bowl Stadium and 1,200 people. You fast-forward to hiring the right person and understanding where it fits in the university athletic department. And we were Memphis. It wasn't like we were Ole Miss and had all these resources in the SEC or even comparable to Cincinnati. Doing it the right way, doing it efficiently and doing the best we could to provide for (former coach) Justin Fuente and now Mike Norvell to elevate that program to where it is now (10-3 record, ranked 25th last season). What Norvell did better than Fuente was that he was embedded in the community. He was talking about football, not only with the folks in the community but the media, engaging and having that opportunity to be another voice. Is it tough? It can be a challenge. But can it be done? I’m an optimistic person that feels if we do it right, if we get some wins and some excitement and capture some people, we can build this thing.

Q: I hope you’re right. As you can imagine, that’s similar to what previous people in your position have said. But they underestimate the other football team (the Bills) in town and the attachment that people have to that team. It’s almost like you guys aren’t worth the fans’ time. Many just aren’t on board with college football. If that’s the reality, what’s the best way to approach it? Maybe the best way, as I’ve mentioned, is going down to (FCS). Or maybe it's actually going up (to a bigger FBS conference).

A: You look at what you said. Is that the answer, to go down? Does that free up more resources for men’s and women’s basketball and other sports to be successful at the Division I level? OK, you could look at it that way. By the same token, you can look at it as an expense, having 85 scholarships and the travel and the salaries and everything else. But you can also look at the loss of revenue. Now, what you’re getting a tiny percentage of from a (College Football Playoff) standpoint. You lose money from the NCAA because you’re not providing as much grant-in-aid. We all know the commitment we have with the Mid-American Conference. There’s money. You're guaranteed games. If Richmond is playing Penn State, (Richmond is) getting a third of what a Group of Five would get. You have to balance that out. You also have to understand from a financial standpoint that it’s not that much better, when you truly look at it.

The intriguing thing you mentioned is ‘Do you go up?’ How do you go up? Do you create this product across the board in all of our sports? That’s been shown in basketball in this past season and has the ability in football. Do you continue to grow these and have a successful product and continue to be viewed as an athletic department to be growing in different shapes and ways – not just from athletic competition but also from an academic standpoint and how we give back to the community? We’re also one of 62 (Association of American Universities). From an academic standpoint, that speaks volumes. If there is a seismic shift in the landscape in 2023 or whatever the case is with the Big 12 TV contract (with Fox and ESPN, which expires in 2025) and they pick off some teams from the American (Athletic Conference), is there an opportunity for us to look at? That’s down the road, but we have to prepare ourselves and position ourselves to put our best foot forward. If there's an opportunity to go up a level, that might change things quite a bit from a sports standpoint around here.

Bucky Gleason: Allen Greene's exit opens door to another opportunity for UB

Q: I've often wondered if it's a simple case of an identity crisis, that people don't identify with Western Michigan and Toledo. But they identify with Nebraska. It's almost like Buffalo needs a connection to the big time or not have one at all.

A: It's tough from a geography standpoint. You can talk about all Group of Five schools whether we're talking about successful schools in the MAC or other schools in the Group of Five. You can go back to Memphis. Trust me, I'm not saying everything is Memphis here, but there are similarities between the cities. Both are blue-collar, prideful cities. If you're producing a consistent winner, people are going to come and support you. If you're doing all the right things with how you market, how you promote the program, people that are involved in the program will take some pride knowing you do it the right way. That's the challenge for the Group of Five schools. You can't compare yourself. When we were at Memphis, we had Ole Miss 45 miles away. Some of our big donors at Memphis – the No. 2 person at FedEx, a guy by the name of Alan McGrath – he's an Indiana grad, but he understood how much the university meant to the city in terms of producing quality people that were working for FedEx and were taxpaying citizens. When you look at a city like Toledo, it's very similar in that old-rust belt (place) with a lot of pride. The mentality is similar. And let's talk about the history of football at Buffalo, dropping it for a period of time in the '70s. That's a key demographic when we look at giving, from alumni. We bring it back D-III and then, 'Hey, let's make the jump to D-I' without fully doing the research. It was 20 years ago next year. We're still in the infancy. There's been progress made. We're going to continue that progress. We're trying to get that hook to bring people in."

Q: This is another dynamic of Buffalo. There is no pro basketball team. You have a chance to corner the market here. St. Bonaventure is far enough away, and it's a slightly different market. It's almost like a sub-market of Western New York. There are people from Buffalo who are St. Bonaventure fans because they went there or like the program. They have their own mini-market and have done well. Canisius and Niagara, if you're unaware, have a long history. But when the Big East and other big conferences were formed with bigger arenas, they didn't have the money or the vision or the desire to join them. Buffalo has a chance to take over the market in basketball, which you can see if you look at the attendance figures. The games are fun. Nate Oats has done a great job and Bobby Hurley before him. How do you build that, with the MAC only having one automatic bid?

A: Yes, that's a good question. We've made a commitment and will continue to make a commitment to our basketball program. When you look at the contract that was signed with Nate Oats and the progress we've made to keep Felisha (Legette-Jack) here. We're in the process of getting that done. I look at it like this: You don't need to put all of your eggs in one basket. We talk about football over here, and now we're talking about basketball. Call me crazy, but I feel we can do both. What I mean by that is continuing to build on the success we've had in basketball. We're looking at opportunities for how we can schedule better and how we can improve our RPI. What I heard from (MAC Commissioner) John Steinbrecher, who already had a scheduled trip to meet with our coaches and our staff,  I actually had him kick off our staff meeting. He told me the night before that our approach to scheduling should be a model for the MAC and what we do from a nonconference standpoint. It's tough with the quadrant format. Unfortunately, for conferences like the MAC and other one-bid leagues, it's very difficult.

Q: You guys are scary now, and teams don't want to play you.

A: That's exactly right. But the thing I like is that Nate sees that and understands that, and he's going to schedule hard. If we slip up (in the conference tournament), do we get in (the NCAA Tournament)? Who knows? But at least we're building this the right way. We're hopeful, too, from a conference standpoint, that the league follows suit. Does that guarantee an automatic two-team league? Who knows? You have to build it. Look at Nate's team. If they lose in the conference tournament, is there a chance that they get an at-large bid? Who knows? What we have from a basketball standpoint, men and women, by no means are we trying to take away from one to help another.

Q: Are you in the right conference for all sports?

A: Yes, we definitely are.

Q: Nate Oats was in a slightly different place where his contract needed to be addressed or he likely would have received other offers. Felisha Legette-Jack had the same success or more, so …

A: It comes down to relationships. For me, going through the interview process and being able to watch that team play, I became a fan of how hard they play and how tough they play. Down at Florida State, I turned to my wife and said, 'Hey, if I get this job, on my own dime, it could be expensive going from Memphis to Albany the day before, but I'm going to make that trip.' I did that. For me, just to be there to support a team that wasn't mine …

Q: You were hired but had not started?

A: I hadn't started yet.

Q: Hell, they'll let anyone on board. You can hop on the train any time you want.

A: (Laughs) For me, I wanted to make that first impression. It went a long way. This isn't a 'me' thing. But it was something that I thought that had to be done, to be there and support the team and support her. I met some alums and some donors. My intent was, after seeing it in person, and talking to the people around here about the impact that she's made, even though she had a contract two years ago, to do something as historic as she did, it's time for us to do something, too. We've been involved in discussions. I'm very hopeful that this thing will wrap up very soon, and we'll work together for a long time.

Bucky Gleason: UB looks toward Buffalo outsider for inside job

Q: Something I had written before you came was that UB needed somebody from the inside, and by that I meant somebody with local ties that understood the quirks of the community. I also think there's something to be said for coming from the outside. When you have an outside view, you see things not everyone sees from the inside. What have you seen that can help you improve the attendance and support for the football team and the athletics department overall?

A: I'm going to lean on people who have been here for a while. There are people inside here and also outside in the community that can meet and advise me and help and assist as far as the quirks of the community. I don't know if 'quirks' is the word, but it was the same in Memphis and Cape Girardeau (at Southeast Missouri State). But I'm a Missouri guy. If someone came to Columbia, I would help advise them. I have those people on the inside. The great thing about it is that I'm able to meet from the outside. If I have this idea, 'Hey, I'm thinking about this … what do you think about how we approach our season tickets or premium seating for football and how it might work,' it could be 'We haven't really tried that before' or 'Mark, here's why it won't work.' But when you empower your folks, they can help guide me and there's a buy-in. This is not broken. It's not broken. I'm not coming in here with a strong fist and saying, 'All right, everything is changing. We're going to do this, this and this. Or we're going to do this the Memphis way and this the Missouri way.' The good thing is that I'm at a point, and the program is at a point, where I'm going through these one-on-ones and getting a lot of information. People have been very honest with me. I appreciate that. From the inside-outside, there are people who are going to help me. The good thing is being able to reach out to our donors through phone calls, dinners, lunches and asking them, 'How is this going to work?' I don't want to hear, 'We were 6-6. Yay! We beat Arizona. Yay! We reached the Sweet 16. Yay! Everything is good!' There are challenges both ways. How can we make it better? When I figure out some of those quirks and some of those hurdles, maybe I can jump over rather than trip over that hurdle or maybe I can sidestep one and make it work.

Q: It reminds me of the concert series (before football games). It seemed like a good concept. There were all kinds of people who showed up to the concerts outside the stadium. Then the game would start, and they would leave the concert and go back to doing what they were doing. A fraction would walk into the stadium. Maybe you need to have the concert inside the stadium (kidding).

A: (laughs) Yeah, we'll have them play during the quarter breaks. We'll do the Super Bowl! But (seriously) we're looking for ways to bring fans to the stadium. If a quarter went in, how do we get half of those people in?

Q: So often, a new AD comes in or there's a new GM in pro sports, and they want to bring in their own people. What's your thought process on evaluating coaches? Every AD has their lists.

A: I just goes back to the one-on-ones. I'm having those with everyone, including the coaches. It's to get more information. At the end of the academic calendar I'll be in a one-on-one with all of our coaches. I wasn't here for our winter sports. I caught the tail end of tennis and softball. We want to assess their season this past year – not just from a performance standpoint but what they did in the classroom and a social standpoint. But we'll also talk about next year. What's the outlook for next year? What can we anticipate for next year? I'm not going to hold Lance (Leipold) firm or Nate or Felisha firm on a number of wins. But what can we anticipate? Do we have some players coming back? Is our recruiting class strong? Or maybe we lost some seniors and it's a rebuilding year. My thing is that I want an honest and open communication. I don't want a coach coming in and saying, 'Hey, next year, we're going to a bowl game' or 'next year, we're going to qualify for the tournament.' If you're telling me that, that's where the bar is going to be. If we fall way short, there are going to be some other discussions. We'll go through that assessment at the end of the year. The one thing about me is that I'm highly visible. They'll see me. I'm not watching their practices in terms of X's and O's and game planning. I'm visible for our student-athletes so they know that I support them. We'll go through the season. My door is always open. It's not meeting in the spring, then we're going to meet at the end of the year. My door is always open. There's always going to be communication. If there are questions about certain aspects of the program, we'll have those discussions. At the end of the year, there should be no surprise about what we're going to talk about. You fell short of your goals? We've already talked during the year, but let's talk more about why we fell short and how we're going to rebound and respond for the following year.

Q: We bring up Lance, Nate and Felisha because they're visible. In sticking with them, UB was working on an extension for Felisha before you came. Nate had one. Lance is someone you'll evaluate on your own? He's signed through the 2022 season.

A: After the season. Say it's a division championship and you play in the MAC championship game and go to a bowl game? We have to process where we are. We've been talking about high-profile coaches, but all the coaches fit in that boat.

Q: The fieldhouse is under construction now. It has been discussed for 20 years. How much of an impact can that make?

A: Huge. This building (Alumni Arena) contains athletics and recreational services. We're busting at the seams in terms of space in terms of varsity teams to be able to practice and for us to provide opportunities for students to use this as a rec center. It has been on the books and talked about for years. People are going to automatically assume that this is a football facility. 'It’s great for Lance, and you're sacrificing everything else to make this great football facility.' To be honest, it's a multipurpose facility. It's for all of our programs. You talk about these Aprils (with poor weather). They're going to be able to go inside somewhere that's turf and not a wooden floor. When you look at soccer, being able to do what they need to do. Track and field. Where are they going to go? There's an opportunity for them to have a long-jump pit, spring track, what have you. Why not have the intramural ultimate-frisbee championship in there? This is a multipurpose building that's going to alleviate some stress. But what it also does is gives student-athletes, staff and coaches a great advantage and also prospective student-athletes. The football recruit can come in, or the soccer recruit can come in and say, 'Wow.' From a recruiting standpoint, it's going to be big. We're in an area where people would think, 'Why doesn't Buffalo have one?' We have a great partnership with the Bills with being able to go there. But from a travel standpoint, it's an hour round-trip. This is going to help us. It's going to be huge.

UB to name new fieldhouse in honor of Murchie family

Q: You're young, smart, well-educated and planning to come in here and do a good job. Sometimes, the disconnect has been the assumption that you're not going to be here for very long.

A: Hey, that was Day One when I went to SEMO (Southeast Missouri State), it was like, 'You're not going to be here long.' So the question being … ?

Q: What's the plan for you?

A: I'm committed to a five-year contract. I'm committed to being here for as long as there's a commitment to me. You'll find out that I'm a big family person. For my daughter coming in here as a freshman, it will be very difficult – very difficult – for me to interrupt her in high school. I'm appreciative, honored, to have a five-year contract. There's a lot of work to be done. We'll let the rest sort itself out. The main thing here, hearing from people on the inside but also from the outside, is stability. I believe that's one of the reasons why we're not at a higher level in terms of what we're trying to get done.

Q: You mean the lack of stability?

A: Yes.

Q: So you're committed to the long haul?

A: I am. I really am. I'm 45. I'm a young guy. It's important. I'm a huge believer that what I do is about my family. It's no longer about me. If you were talking to me 10 years ago or when I took the SEMO job or seven years, it was, 'Hey, what's the next step?' My long-term goal was to become an FBS athletic director. I'm at that point. I'm in a really good place. The quirks, as you mention, are out there, but I feel this is a great community for me.

Q: Let's talk about resources. Are you getting what you need? Do you need more? Doesn't everybody want more?

A: Everyone needs more. I was talking with Gene Smith at Ohio State. He'll tell you that he needs more (laughs). Of course you need more. It's one thing we need to build. It started with Warde (Manuel), then Danny and Allen. They did a good job on the external side of things in terms of fundraising dollars. We're going to break a record for how many dollars we brought in, cash in hand, this year. We can continue to grow that and provide those resources, not just for our sports programs but our support areas as well. We always need more. I'm very grateful and appreciative of the subsidy from the university and state. What the state and university provide us is perfect. Now it's on me to build that privately, from fundraising and ticket sales. We fit within our peers, which is good.

PHOTO GALLERY: Smiles at the UB Basketball Celebration

 

 

 

 

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