This is 10th in a series looking at Buffalo sports' greatest what-ifs. Today: What if the University at Buffalo had returned to football as a Division I program?
The University at Buffalo began playing football in 1894, and played continuously from 1946 until 1970, when the school dropped the program due to financial concerns.
In the spring of 1977, UB reinstated football as a varsity sport. It returned not as a Division I program ready to take on the titans of college football, but as a Division III program that had a shoestring budget and borrowed equipment.
But if the school had revived its football program at the Division I level in 1977, former players and coaches think it could have gone one of two ways.
Marty Barrett, who is now a national scout with the Los Angeles Rams, said UB’s current success might have happened faster.
“If UB had tried to re-establish the program at the point where they dropped it, it would have taken a bigger financial commitment, facilities, an infrastructure, and it would have demanded more,” said Barrett, a Sweet Home High School graduate who played at UB from 1981 to 1983 and was an assistant coach at UB from 1986 to 1989. “But at the same time, the program would have accelerated quicker. Maybe they would be in a conference like the ACC, but if not, the potential definitely would have been there.”
Yet had UB returned in Division I in 1977, it would have had to compete against the Notre Dames, Penn States and Michigans of the world to attract players. It would have had to budget for travel.
It would have had to build a high-capacity facility for its home games. UB’s previous fields, Rotary Field and Walter Kunz Stadium, held a maximum capacity of 4,000 people, and UB Stadium did not open until 1993. It also would have faced a financial hurdle. For many years, the State University of New York system did not offer athletic scholarships.
“Unless you are playing at that level, you don’t understand the administrative logistics it takes to be a Division I program, even back then,” said Karl Fischer, who played at UB from 1979 to 1982 and now lives in Delaware. “That jump and that commitment is enormous, from having a stadium to scholarship dollars, having an administrative staff and joining a conference.”
It also might not have ultimately paved the way for the Bulls to have their successes as an FBS program, including a MAC championship, five bowl-eligible seasons and the program’s first bowl win in December at the Bahamas Bowl.
It also might not have gotten the community support that allowed it to start as a program.
“Some of the people who played in that era became the backbone of helping the program its early days, as a Division III program, and then as a Division I program and at I-AA,” said Charlie Donnor, a former UB offensive line coach who was a teacher at Clarence High School. “Someone like Frank Berrafato, whose family is in the food industry and who are tremendous UB supporters. Their catering business helped feed people involved in UB’s sports. There are people who are still involved today. But it was the camaraderie and the love of the game that brought so many people together and helped it grow. There was no sense of entitlement.
“They rallied around each other and found ways to make it work. As a result, they’re very bonded to the university for giving them a chance. That stream of influence continues, too.”
Reviving the program at the Division III level helped UB make a manageable progression to becoming an FBS program.
UB dropped varsity football in January of 1971 because it had lost money in the previous five seasons.
“It had been rumored for two or three years that finances were an issue, and that there was $300,000 of debt and the state wasn’t doing anything, really, to help,” Donnor said.
But at the time, UB coach Bob Deming saw another issue that confronted his team.
“Our main problem was that the right people weren’t sold on football,” Deming told the UB Spectrum, the school’s student newspaper, in 1971. “Every day brought a crisis somewhere in the program, but I stayed on in spite of it.”
Deming also believed there was a lack of support for football in the SUNY system.
“The SUNY system is behind the times even in education,” Deming said. “The high echelon of the SUNY should have been eager to see intercollegiate football here. What they have done is to bring us down to the level of mediocrity of the rest of the system. It seems ironic that Albany was without football until starting it last year, and here we are, the biggest school in the system at the other end of the state, dropping the sport.”
Athletic scholarships at SUNY schools were banned for a number of years until 1986. That helped UB, Stony Brook, Albany and Binghamton upgrade their athletic programs for a transition to the Division I level. Those were large research schools that competed against small colleges such as Cortland, John Carroll, Waynesburg and Canisius in Division III.
"At Division III, we were playing institutions that simply were not of our type,” the late William R. Greiner, who was UB's president from 1991 until 2004, told the New York Times in 2009. “It was simply a peculiarity, our athletics program.”
But the Bulls had to start somewhere. When they returned to the field in 1977, they did it with $20,000 from the student association and with plenty of big dreams about playing football.
“The kids wanted to bring football back as a club team, and I said, ‘I won’t coach football if it’s a club team,’” said former head coach Bill Dando, who now lives in Georgia. “In that case, you had kids who were being your boss.
“But a few weeks later, UB decided to make football a Division III program.”
Dando was UB’s only full-time football staff member. The coaching staff worked on a volunteer basis, including Donnor. Recruiting, which is now one of the most technologically dependent mediums in college sports, was done with a rotary phone. The Buffalo Bills donated some equipment to the athletic department, and players bought their own cleats.
As its head coach, Dando took his responsibility seriously, right down to his game attire. Barrett recalled that Dando had a Tom Landry-esque style to him on the sideline.
“He always dressed nice and had a trench coat on, and he really looked like what a coach should look like,” Barrett said.
“But he always talked about what the program could be. He encouraged me that if I stayed home, I would make connections as a local person at a local school, and that it could take me beyond campus. That was important.”
The Bulls went 68-85-1 in 16 seasons in Division III, yet the program didn’t go unnoticed around town. A UB Spectrum story from the return season noted that former Buffalo Bills running back O.J. Simpson was among the 5,826 who attended UB’s 22-8 loss to Canisius on Oct. 15, 1977, at Rotary Field.
UB moved to Division I-AA in 1993 then made its debut in the FBS when it opened the 1999 season at UB Stadium against Akron. The Bulls won their only MAC championship in 2008, and played in the first bowl game in its FBS history. In their fifth season under head coach Lance Leipold, the Bulls are poised to make a run at the 2020 MAC championship after winning the Bahamas Bowl in December and returning the bulk of their starters.
Fischer believes the resurrection of football at the Division III level ultimately helped UB have success. The Bulls have appeared in bowl games and on televised mid-week games on ESPN platforms, and UB’s recruiting reach has helped draw players such as running back Jaret Patterson and his twin brother James, a linebacker, former quarterback Tyree Jackson and former linebacker Khalil Mack, who is now with the NFL’s Chicago Bears.
“We’re getting people who probably never would have thought of or had seen or had believed about UB,” Fischer said. “When you start to see that expanse and how it happened, it’s so nice to see that we’ve expanded those confines through the athletic program. And the fact that we let them know that football could work.
“Now, I look back at my experience and I say, 'What can I do to make it better for those guys in the world?' I feel a sense of ownership, because playing football at UB put me where I am now.”