The Architect of The UB Football Dynasty - Kevin C. Cox
Prologue - January 8, 2000, The Music City Miracle in Disguise:
The straw that broke the camel's back came on January 8, 2000. The dominance of the early nineties faded fast; the Bills did not win a playoff game for the final four years of the nineties. The Bills entered Adelphia field with the chance to right the ship in the new millennium. The Bills 11-5, 10-5 under Doug Flutie, did the unthinkable; they started backup Quarterback Rob Johnson against the eventual AFC Champion Tennessee Titans.
The Bills earned a victory late in the game, only to have it ripped away via the "Music City Miracle." The Miracle for some was tragedy for others, it would be the last time the Bills would ever play in the postseason Buffalo fans didn't know that at the time, but they were sure they had witnessed the end of an era: the game proved to be the last time Bruce Smith, Andre Reed and Thurman Thomas played for the Bills.
Some would say the city was spoiled, Cleveland most vocally. Cleveland lost the original Browns only to watch the team that was built in Ohio, excel as a rival in Baltimore. Northeast Ohio for all of their misery did have a shinning beacon of State pride, the Ohio State Buckeyes. The team would never be moved, the games would always be fun and it established a bond between generations of Ohioans.
New York, is one of the largest States in the Nation, where was it's University of Texas? It's UCLA? It's Ohio State? Buffalo could be the great State institution of New York in football, but it needed support. Buffalo fans supported the Bills for 40 years but still had to deal with playoff win droughts, outdated management and facilities, and an owner who never committed to keeping the team in the city. What would happen if Buffalonians put 40 years of support into Buffalo Bulls instead?
Buffalo fans decided it was time to find out. A campaign was created and took hold, season ticket holders vowed to no longer buy tickets for the Bills, and instead invest that money into the Bulls. Leaders of the movement argued:
"Now is the perfect time, they can't leave, they'll be forced to improve"
They were right; the Bills signed a lease extension in 1998 to keep the Bills in Buffalo through 2012. If the Bills wanted any ticket revenue during those 12 years, they would have to earn it.
It was almost time for spring practices when the first check came to Bob Arkeilpane's desk. A check for $1,473.92 fell out first, then a hand written letter:
This is the money I put away for my family's season tickets to the Buffalo Bills. We are giving up our tickets for the first time in 20 years, and want the money to go where it will be put to good use. We would like 4 season tickets to the Buffalo Bulls, and we want you to use the remainder to build Buffalo a football team we can be proud of.
"That was weird" Bob thought, it was one of those things that make you happy but not too happy as an administrator. It was nice to see the newly D-1 Bulls could convert longtime Bills fans into Bulls fans, but it would take more than a handful of donors and a few thousand dollars to turn this glorified D-3 team into a great D-1A program. He processed the payment for season tickets, sent the remainder to the development department and drafted a quick and generic handwritten letter thanking the man for his donation.
The next day, more and more letters and checks piled in. By the end of the week, the Football team had 28 million dollars to play with. Bob a native Buffalonian himself made sure to write a handwritten thank you letter to each and every donor.
With a bigger budget all of a sudden, Arkeilpane decided to fire Cirbus and to hire someone more experienced at football's highest level. However, it was spring already, all the good head coaches were already working, Buffalo would have to lure in a coordinator. Arkeilpane worked his network, and a former colleague of his at the University of Cincinnati recommended Buffalo interview a former Cincinnati Defensive Back turned coach. The young coach was working at Notre Dame but came to Amherst for an interview. Arkeilpane, a Defensive Back himself back in his days at Syracuse instantly recognized that the young coach had one of the sharpest football minds he'd ever seen. When Bob offered the coach the job at the high pay (for the time) of $200,000 a year, the coach quickly accepted. The 2000 season would mark the beginning of Buffalo's Urban Meyer Era.
In the meantime, the Buffalo Bills went into panic mode. Their season ticket renewals were at a dangerously low level.
"Call Kelly," they said, Jim Kelly was always the ace in the hole. They filmed a commercial:
"We need the 12th man in the building next year as we make our return to football glory."
The phones didn't ring.
"Ok get Hasek," The goaltender famous after the previous year's Cup run. He knew little about football, and his lines were wooden.
"Support Buffalo Sports, buy season tickets!"
Hasek went on to go 1-4 in the playoffs during which the Sabres lost a game when a goal went through the side of the net. "The curse of the Bills touched Hasek" Was a popular joke in the city, after that, no public figure agreed to shoot a promo for the Bills, not even media-crazy councilman Byron Brown.
While the Bills worked to get their fans back, Meyer was tasked at keeping them with wins on the field. He compiled a young staff that brainstormed ideas to find a way to turn a ragtag group of players into a D-1A caliber team. As a result of the brainstorming, Meyer installed the spread read-option offense at Buffalo. Popular incumbent Quarterback Joe Freedy started the year as the #3 Quarterback, due to mobility and Athletic Junior Mike Taylor became the starter. The newly formed Bull Nation started to doubt their decision to subsidize UB football, Freedy was the lone bright spot in the bleak 1999 season. Meyer argued change could be good; he couldn't do worse than 0-11. He was right, change ended up very good. Bob Arkeilpane decided to dip into UB's coffers to purchase UB's allotment of tickets to Syracuse and Rutgers, the first two games of the 2000 season. He then chartered buses for fans to attend the game. It was in 2000 when opposing fans learned to fear the travelling Sea of Blue.
On the field, the "Urban Legend" began as the Bulls and their spread offense mystified the Orangemen and the Scarlet Knights. The Bulls were 2-0 with wins over Big East foes.
When the Bulls returned for their home opener no one knew quite what to expect. Saturday came and the party was on. It was Saturday not Sunday, Amherst, not Orchard Park and Blue in White instead of Red White and Blue, outside of those differences, you would have sworn it was a Bills tailgate. Game time arrived and 31,000 fans entered the stadium. The thousands of fans outside watched on a screen outside of the stadium in an area called "True Blue Avenue" by the students. The Bulls would win that day, and go on to finish 7-4 in 2000.
After the season, Buffalo learned it enjoyed college football, a lot. What was initially a one-year experiment to pressure the Bills into competitiveness became a true love of the Bulls. Another 30 million dollars came into the program and the Bills continued to struggle financially. There was one problem however, UB Stadium, with 31,000 seats could not meet demand. Fortunately plans for New UB Stadium were already in the works.
After the final game of 2000, ground was broken to rebuild the stadium. The stadium was modeled after Rice-Eccles Stadium in Utah that was built two years earlier; the stadium would seat 50,000 fans, and cost 50 million dollars. As a special treat to the fans, the outside of the stadium replicated the outside of War Memorial Stadium, once home to the UB Bulls Football program and home to the AFL Champion Buffalo Bills.
During the coaching carousel Bowling Green fired their head coach and hired a young Syracuse coordinator by the name of Jim Hofher. On August 30th, 2001 Buffalo opened the New UB Stadium with a win over Rutgers. Meyer's Bulls finished 9-2 in 2001, falling only to Marshall and Miami.
Drew Bledsoe, re-ignited Bills fever, fortunately, John Rigas, owner of the Sabres was arrested, the Sabres were gutted and the Bulls did not have to compete with 2 major franchises. The Bills excitement turned to the usual disappointment. Meanwhile Urban Meyer's Bulls continued to play well, finishing 8-3 still unable to defeat the dominant Marshall squad while also falling in close games to Western Michigan and Minnesota.
After turning Buffalo into a MAC power, 24-9 in 3 years, Buffalo fans were ready to take the next step, MAC Championships and Bowl Games. Meyer was also ready to take the next step, to establish himself as one of the best coaches in the nation. Utah gave him the opportunity, offering to make him one of the highest paid Mid-Major Coaches in the nation with a 4 year 1.6 million dollar contract and the promise of more exposure in the Mountain West Conference. Buffalo however had the ability to best Utah financially and quickly offered Meyer a 4 year 2.4 million dollar extension. Utah would hire little known Boise Assistant Coach Chris Petersen. When Dan ("Play Intramurals") Hawkins took the Colorado job, the Petersen-less Boise State program collapsed.
In 2003, The Bulls opened a brand new football facility next to the stadium. The facility was promised to Meyer as part of his contract extension, and he believed it would help him recruit talent to get Buffalo over the Marshall hump. He was correct as that Spring Meyer landed his first big get; a Glenville Quarterback named Troy Smith. Smith had not received an offer from his first choice Ohio State, and was ready to attend West Virginia before Meyer snatched him away. As a result, WVU Coach Rich Rodriguez demanded better facilities at WVU, he never got them, and it would lead to his departure from the University.
The Bulls behind the freshman QB phenom, would go 11-1, their only loss at Iowa. Buffalo won their first MAC Championship and won their first Bowl game, defeating Northwestern in the Motor City Bowl. In the process they took down Miami and their QB star "Big" Ben Rothelsiberger. Buffalo finished the season at #10 in the AP poll. Buffalo looked to take the mantle of dominant MAC team away from Marshall, but they would never win another MAC Championship. That winter, Miami and Virginia Tech left the Big East for the ACC. The Big East selected Buffalo and Connecticut as replacement members.
Meyer continued to create waves in the coaching world. After a 0-13 season, Army gave Bobby Ross a matching 4 year, 2.4 million dollar contract to turn around Army football. Buffalo responded by bumping up Meyer's contract, paying him $800,000 a year for the final three years of his deal.
To prepare for Big East play, the university closed the open end zone, increasing the capacity to 70,000 fans. Every ticket was sold out as Buffalo went 6-1 in conference play and won the Big East in their inaugural season. With football rolling, UB was able to build a brand new Alumni Arena. The arena would allow Buffalo to compete with Big East facilities and it was built to accommodate hockey. December brought the excitement of Big East Basketball to Western New York, the first time major basketball was played in the area since the Braves left in the 70's.
January, usually a time for cold weather and hockey, but Buffalonians were in Phoenix, Arizona enjoying the warm desert and football. The NHL lockout took away more competition, but at this point the Bulls were the main attraction in the city.
Meyer led the Bulls against the team he jilted, the Utah Utes lead by Chris Petersen. In a wildly entertaining game, Buffalo won in overtime after stopping a trick play two-point conversion in overtime. In 5 years, Buffalo went from Division 1-AA to Fiesta Bowl Champions.
Interestingly the loss lowered Alex Smith's draft stock, and Aaron Rodgers was selected first overall by the San Francisco 49ers. Rodgers was forced to play immediately and never quite developed properly.
Urban Meyer became the hottest coach in the nation after the Fiesta Bowl win. Notre Dame was his dream job; he negotiated a clause in his contract that he could break his deal if Notre Dame offered him the head job. The Irish fired Tyrone Willingham and signed Coach Meyer. Charlie Weis who was in the running for the Notre Dame job, was hired at Florida. Weis recruits Mark Sanchez to Florida, Leak is benched, Tebow converted to fullback, and Florida never becomes national champion. Meyer takes Notre Dame to a BCS game in his first year, and defeats the Ohio state University.
The Sabres were in the midst of their best season in years, but the lead sports story in the region was who would be the next coach of the Bulls. Reporters took posts at the airport, tracking private planes to find some hint on who was being considered for the job.
The Bulls didn't want to mess with the success of their spread offense and wanted a coach familiar and comfortable with Troy Smith. They hired Rich Rodriquez. Rich Rod, who was upset when WVU did not upgrade their football facilities, was happy to jump to the brand new facilities in Buffalo, and he was happy to have a chance to coach Smith after losing him 2 years earlier. Key recruits Pat White and Steve Slaton decommit from WVU and enroll at Buffalo.
In his first year, Rich Rod went undefeated, won the Big East, but missed out on the championship game as Texas and USC are selected by the BCS. Buffalo defeats Georgia in the Sugar Bowl for their second consecutive BCS Bowl victory.
2006 brought Troy Smith's Senior season. The QB owned all of Buffalo's passing records but he wanted one last thing, a national championship. The Bulls went undefeated again and stood at #3 in the nation go undefeated again and are #3 in the nation. Without Smith, Ohio State starts Justin Zwick and loses to Michigan in the final game of their season. Florida under Sanchez underachieved. #2 USC lost to UCLA in their final game of the year. The title game would pit undefeated Michigan against undefeated Buffalo.
In New York City, thousands of Bull Alumni descended on the Heisman Trophy Presentation to see their hero, Troy Smith, become the first Heisman winner in UB history.
The Championship Game was played in Glendale, a few miles west of where Buffalo won the Fiesta Bowl a few years earlier. Troy Smith joked that he looked forward to eating some more "In-and-Out" Burgers. He was cool and confident. The nation however assumed the traditional power, Michigan would overwhelm the upstart Bulls. They were wrong! The Bulls 3-3-5 defense called by coordinator Jeff Casteel stumped Henne and the Wolverines. Michigan's defense proved more capable of stopping the powerful run game of the Big 10 and incapable of slowing the speed of the spread offense. Buffalo dominated the game and won the BCS National Championship.
The championship parade started at UB South Campus, and traveled up Millersport to UB Stadium. The whole city came out to celebrate its first championship in 40 years. The Sabres are having a great season, but sports talk radio is dominated by recruit talk and how the Bulls will fare without Smith. The Bills lease at Ralph Wilson Stadium is up in 2 years, the post-season drought is in the double digits. Two games a year are played in Toronto due to the lack of sales in Buffalo. Los Angeles is sure in two years the Bills will be their team, but the City doesn't really mind.
Former UB Coach Urban Meyer is interviewed on ESPN Cold Pizza. Skip Bayless asks if he regrets the move, Meyer says he does not, and that he is happy for his guys in Buffalo. He finished 2006 6-6 at Notre Dame, but he has faith that his next big Quarterback recruit will be as good as or better than Troy Smith: a talented son of a former Cowboy from Atlanta, Cameron Newton.
Redshirt sophomores Pat White and Steve Slaton led Rich Rod to a third consecutive undefeated season, capped with a victory over Pittsburgh in the final game. Pitt showed up emotion less in the game and took a healthy beating. The following week they would shock the West Virginia Mountaineers in the Backyard Brawl, dashing WVU's hopes at a BCS Bowl bid. OSU has another disappointing season and Jim Tressel is fired, replaced by Ohioan John Gruden, while Michigan never suffers the collapse, they lose to Oregon early and have no shot at the title game. Buffalo, the nation's #1 team all year long returned to the Sugar Bowl to take on a SEC foe, this time LSU in the BCS title game.
LSU's strength on the line is offset by UB's speed and misdirection and Buffalo would go on to win a second consecutive Crystal Ball.
UB gear is seen everywhere in the City, and it's very popular in New York City. Buffalo becomes the team in New York State. Kids in the park pretend they are catching the winning touchdown pass for Buffalo, while the kids on the basketball courts pretend they are making the game-winning shot at the buzzer to beat Syracuse at the New Alumni Arena.
With the extra revenue, Buffalo plans to start Hockey and Lacrosse programs. This helps the area retain more local athletes. The added exposure of National Championships increased the selectivity of the Admissions department, and the test scores and GPA's of incoming students climb to their highest level ever. Buffalo's population steadies after decades of decline as students come to the University, but don't leave after graduation; they want to be close to their football team, they don't want to miss a single Football Saturday.
Unfortunately, this story did not and has not come to fruition. But it is something I believe could happen. Oregon and Oklahoma State have shown that an influx of money can do wonders for a football program. Meanwhile the Buffalo Bills have shown that no matter how much support we give, it may not be enough to win, or even retain our team.
Over the past 8 years, instead of putting 240 million into the Buffalo Bulls, we put 240 million into the Bills via ticket sales. In addition we put 63 million into publicly funded renovations, not to mention the millions paid in parking, concessions and merchandise. In 2001 Forbes estimated the Bills worth at 338 million dollars. In 2012, the Bills worth jumped to 676 million dollars. The net worth of the team doubled, but the value of the product on the field never changed: the team failed to make the playoffs for 12 consecutive years and the city has not celebrated a playoff victory in 16 years. We have been repaid for our unwavering loyalty with the loss of a game to generally uninterested fans in Toronto.
Eventually, the business of the NFL means we will receive an ultimatum: spend hundreds of millions of dollars of public money for a private non-tax paying entity, (and the resulting increase in ticket prices that allow the owner to pay his debts) or lose the Bills forever. It is money we as a city cannot afford for a team that gives us nothing in return. They will talk about economic impact, but NFL stadiums are a proven shell game. The money invested into it is Buffalo money, if we don't spend it on a stadium and Bills games, we can spend it elsewhere: local stores and shops, the arts, and in support of our local college teams.
Let me state for the record, I am not anti-Bills, I was fortunate enough to grow up in a time when I thought it was normal to go to the Super Bowl EVERY year. I love the Bills. However I wanted to express that, at least in the past decade, the Bulls would have been a better football investment for Buffalonians and the Greater Metropolitan area of Buffalo, and that maybe through this fantasied example, it can help sway a few in the city to give more support to the other team in town. Let's Go Buffalo!