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State of Buffalo Bulls Athletics: The Danny White Firing Era in Historical Context

When Thanksgiving comes to UB Athletics, I am thankful for the across-the-board improvement on the field over the last two years or so.

UB Athletics

I won't bury the lede here, nor will I pretend it's not ridiculously cheesy: When it comes to UB and Thanksgiving, I am grateful for the improvements made in nearly every Buffalo sport over the last two years.

There are two 'main' lines of criticism aimed at UB Athletic Director Danny White. The first surrounds the New York Bulls Initiative, which
most people don't even fully understand and is most heavily criticized by people *who never supported UB* suddenly being upset that UB somehow represents their Buffalonian sensibilities less completely. If it mattered this much to them, the department would have been able to get its Division 1 feet off the ground a lot easier at some point over the last 20 years of being just 'Buffalo'.

That's not to say there aren't valid and present criticisms, but that's the largest and most vocal faction. The anti-#NYBI-ers have been quieted a bit by the very real parts of the Initiative: more money, more tickets distributed, vastly broader media exposure, and more partnerships with local businesses.

But it's the second line of White criticism I'm addressing today: the idea that he has shown himself "brash," "inexperienced," and "arrogant" in replacing more than half the department's coaches in his time at UB. In the past eight months you've seen The Spectrum and The Buffalo News use those words exactly in publishing caustic, cranky pieces about turnover in the men's basketball and wrestling programs, respectively.

I should and will note at this point that I didn't run this by anyone else at Bull Run, so this is all me, and that despite the data I'm about to present I consider it more of an opinion piece than a series of inarguable facts about the Department.

We are now at nine* UB coaches of 14 total who have been hired by White. Despite what you've been told, only five of those nine came to Buffalo as a result of White firings: Linda Hill-MacDonald was canned by Warde Manuel interim AD John Lambert before being replaced by Felisha Legette-Jack, Kathy Twist was promoted and replaced by Kristen Ortman-Maines, Stu Riddle took over for a two-year interim coach who was never getting the full job, and Sandy Calfo came to Buffalo after her predecessor's retirement.

*Will be 10 once a permanent football hire is made.

So that's one part of it. Another is a question: Is it not White's job to improve the teams in his department? I don't think anyone reading will disagree, but if you would hold it against White that he made a coaching change while the team got better, then your interests are simply not in line with the best interests of UB Athletics. And that's fine if you feel that way, but we should acknowledge that. Talking to you, among others, Bob.

Below is a table I made. Along the left are 17 of 18 UB teams. I intentionally left Football out because you likely know that deal already and I think the primacy of football in people's minds clouds perspective of the Department's overall health. The sports highlighted in blue are those led by a White hire. There are four more columns, though really the rightmost three are the most important.

Each column contains the UB team's average MAC position over the timeframe of its heading. The data is a bit messy because of the changing numbers of MAC teams for each sport, but I wanted to fairly represent that sixth place is bad relative to the MAC in men's soccer, but average relative to the conference in men's basketball. I hope that it is readable if you take a second to orient yourself.

The first column is UB's average conference position over the entire MAC era: It dates back to 1998 for some teams, 1999 for most, and a later date for a handful. In Rowing's case, it's the CAA era, which began in 2009. Nothing else in the table rests on this column; it's just there to remind you how bad UB is historically thanks to the rushed and underresourced move to D-1. UB's average place in the MAC in any sport since 1999 is two spots from the bottom. Eliminate the pre-Warde years and it's still only three, four at best, spots from the bottom.

The second and third columns are the average conference positions of the teams during the Warde Manuel and Danny White regimes. This is not a referendum on one over the other, nor does it assume that White did not benefit in any way from Manuel's work. The last column is the same data over the timeframe of the team's current coach.

None of this data is really arguable: It's what happened. For the most part I got the year-by-year standings from the MAC, though there are parts of that website that are ignored and not functional, in which case I used UB. I do trust all the data. You'll note that I couldn't find how many teams were in the MAC for any Men's Tennis season.

Beyond the text the green and orange highlights reflect those sports that during the Danny White or current coach's tenure are significantly over- or underperforming their time in the Warde Manuel era. No green in Warde's column means nothing more than the fact that I'm not looking at Warde's tenure. Good things happened then, too.

In general I was looking for a difference of two places in the MAC standings, though sports that had less competition I damped that standard down a bit.

BEST coaching/addw trends

By my standards of a two-spot (or so) improvement over 2006-2012, eleven UB teams are notably stronger relative to the MAC since White's arrival. I would further argue that the four in white had stronger 2014s than they did 2013s, especially given the early 2014-15 performance of Women's Swimming and Diving and both Tennis teams. If you want, in a separate post I could point out all-time and/or MAC-era program highs set by nearly every team in the last two years.

Only two teams - in orange - are notably weaker, and to the extent that I can insert an apology into this, both are explainable:

Stu Riddle's predecessor in Men's Soccer, David Hesch, spent two years as interim coach - bridging the Manuel-White transition - and never seemed a serious candidate to replace John Astudillo, the all-time winningest coach in program history who had been at the helm since 1989 before retiring in 2011.

Prior to coming to Buffalo, Riddle had twice advanced to the MAC Final in four years at Western Michigan after taking over for a coach that in 11 seasons never finished higher than third in the conference. Only two seasons in WMU history saw higher win totals than Riddle's two best. He was at the time for UB a sensible replacement who knows how to win in the MAC and is starting to build an extremely young team that showed notable improvement just over the course of this year.

Wrestling likewise has an extremely young and talented team, and one already enjoying its best season since 2009-10. Jim Beichner left a program that in UB history rivals Tim Cohane's or Jim Hofher's when it comes to disarray. UB is banned from the 2014-15 postseason due to APR penalties, thanks to an 853 score in 2012-13 that was the lowest of any team in any sport from any school in the entire NCAA that year.

Given that in the face of the ban Stutzman reeled in a top-20 recruiting class and has started the 2014-15 hot with a strong showing at the Oklahoma Gold Invite and NYS Intercollegiate Championships, I think he deserves a pass for now.

Shifting from the teams under White to the teams under their current coaches, I've flagged seven coaches as markedly outperforming their team's historical standard, though we can't ignore that four have been here just one year. Of those that are not highlighted, we've already hit Riddle and Stutzman.

The remaining eight teams are covered by just four coaches; coincidentally, three are the longest-tenured coaches at UB, which would make it much harder for them to outperform the historical numbers, obviously.

Vicki Mitchell has been in charge of all four Cross Country and Track and Field teams since 2002, and you'll notice has all four of her teams highlighted in the White era. Ron Torgalski has led Baseball since 2007 and has without a doubt put together his three strongest seasons in the last three years. Andy Bashor has both Swimming and Diving teams rewriting the school top-ten sheets almost weekly.

So that's the data. If you want to be upset about NYBI, fine. If you want to be upset about coaches being fired, fine. But *something* happened right around the time that Danny White started at UB, and *something* is happening with UB's new coaches that every team across the board, save Rowing, is clearly improving, and I think you'd be pretty hard-pressed to find a glaring negative.

Which brings me to my main point: most conversation around UB Athletics equates perception of the Football team with perception of the Department as a whole, and only acknowledges other teams to highlight the firings. Football and Men's Basketball are the moneymakers - as much as anything in Athletics makes money - and I won't argue that anyone who does is wrong for caring only about them.

But one can't put all his eggs in one or two baskets, and then use the coaching turnover in other sports to justify his point when the across-the-board success in those sports kind of torpedoes the whole idea.

I've attached a poll here, not because it's important to the piece, but because it's the question I think UB fans need to be honest about when criticizing the turnover and addressing what they have in the current Athletic Department: On which sports does your perception of UB Athletics most rely? You already know my answer, but there's certainly nothing wrong with any.

Happy Thanksgiving.