University at Buffalo's Dominic Johnson picked the perfect year to get back into basketball.
A two-sport athlete growing up in Windsor, Ont., the then-redshirt freshman reserve quarterback opted to walk on to the basketball team last year after the end of the football season. Little did he know that he signed up to experience the best campaign in program history firsthand.
Everyone in Buffalo knows the story by now. UB went 27-9, defeated Toledo for its third Mid-American Conference title in four years and earned the school's first NCAA Tournament victory with a stunning upset of Arizona.
"It was once in a lifetime, for sure," said Johnson, who plays forward while on the hardwood.
While he was used sparingly, he did get action toward the end of 11 games, including the Bulls' NCAA Tournament outings against Arizona and Kentucky. Now, as he transitions back into football, he brings lessons of success to another program looking to take the next step.
"Just from the very beginning, seeing how good the chemistry was, seeing how strong the chemistry was within the guys on the team and stuff like that, I can bring it over to football," Johnson said. "It was a great experience, a winning culture over there. Nate Oats has done an amazing job."
And luckily for the football program, Oats said Johnson wasn't just taking in the program's positive norms. He was an active participant in them.
"He was really good in terms of being a great teammate," Oats said. "I thought he really brought a lot even though he didn't play a lot of minutes. He added a lot to the culture that we had."
At UB media day, Bulls coach Lance Leipold discussed the difficulty of building his own winning culture, especially when there isn't a ton of history to go back on. It usually doesn't happen overnight, and it didn't for basketball, either. Oats said he didn't feel entirely comfortable with his team's overall culture until last season, his fifth year with the program.
"And we've only got 13 scholarships," Oats said. "Football's got 85. Changing culture with 85, plus walk-ons, I'm sure that's quite a chore."
UB football's last winning season came in 2013, two years before Leipold took over, but the team has taken steps in the right direction. The Bulls went 6-6 last year after a 2-10 season the year prior, earning bowl eligibility for the third time in program history.
"If we were able to get a few more of those last year, we'd have a slightly different conversation," Leipold said. "I think it's pretty well documented, some of the things that we've gone through in this program, some really tough things, that have probably slowed down the progress of building the culture that we want to. Just based on standing here three years ago with 42 new players, those things take time."
Part of last year's uptick, of course, is an increase in talent. But Johnson said it also has to do with the mental side of the team, the close bond developed between players. A strong summer program with strength and conditioning coach Lewis Caralla hammered out any doubt in Johnson that the Bulls will have a championship culture.
"My freshman year when we went 2-10, it wasn't the same feeling as it is right now," said Johnson, who is entering his third year on the Amherst-based campus. "After the guys all bonded, everybody wants to see everybody do good. Whether they're above or below you on the depth chart, it doesn't matter. And that's what we need in this season for sure. ...
"Getting to know every teammate, deeper than just football, deeper than just 'run this route, run this route.' Get to know their family, their history, their background. I feel like when you know somebody it's a lot easier to fight for them."
Johnson plans to rejoin the basketball team for a second go-around once the football season comes to an end. Oats said he may even get a chance to work into the rotation once he gets his legs under him. That's off in the distance now though, especially if the Bulls make their first bowl under Leipold's watch. With football's 2018 slate kicking off Saturday at UB Stadium, Johnson is singularly focused on the task at hand.
"It's not tough," Johnson said. "When it's football season, it's football season. My mind's on that and the playbook and the guys."