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Riddle departure highlights Buffalo’s incomplete culture change

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The bright opportunities of two years ago are passing UB by

UB Stadium

Take a moment to think back to UB Athletics, circa July 2015. The department was flying high on multiple fronts:

Championships: Women’s Soccer, Men’s Basketball, and Men’s Tennis all won their first MAC titles, the first two with first- and second-year head coaches, respectively, and the latter two in their first seasons following the graduation of program all-time greats.

Revenue Sports Buzz: Men’s Basketball’s NCAA Tournament berth, the subsequent scramble for Bobby Hurley, and UB’s hiring of Division III great Lance Leipold to head football all brought national attention to the department. Not to mention the continued goodwill from Khalil Mack’s NFL Draft spot and success in the League.

Nonrevenue Sports Buzz: Jon Jones, Mike Morgan, Ryan Billian, and Jackie Hall were All-Americans, Russell Cicerone’s summer play was drawing attention, and Reed Sunahara’s lone season in Amherst was good enough to see him poached by a Power 5 school.

Coaching Continuity: Danny White’s first wave of coaching hires were across-the-board successful and the decision to elevate Nate Oats to the top job in Men’s Basketball was the type of continuity move this blog had wanted but not seen in Football and Men’s Basketball before.

Increased Recruiting Energy: This is tougher to nail down, beyond Leipold holding onto to Tyree Jackson, so you’ll sort of have to take my word for it, but every coaching staff in the department seemed to be on a recruiting high. It shouldn’t be hard for you to think of a dozen impact freshmen over the last three years, even if you don’t follow every sport.

When Danny White left, it felt like UB as a department had elevated itself. White’s stated goal was to have each team competing for MAC titles every year, and while we didn’t get that far, just about every program improved enough to no longer sit bottom three, and those that did, like Wrestling, were building clear foundations. There was a feeling that while football may not go bowling or come close every year, three- or four-win seasons would be the floor rather than one- or two-win campaigns. A few years of strong basketball recruiting meant for a similar new standard on the hardwood. And a rising tide lifts all boats when it came to the rest of the department.

Instead, we’ve seen that the department didn’t quite establish a new floor, but rather that all those successes seem more like naturally cyclical processes peaking at the same time. Danny White’s departure was well-timed for the success with little failure he had found at Buffalo, but it’s not implausible to think White looked at the opposition he was facing and felt he had done all he could at UB.

White thus avoided the complete fallout of anti-NYBI sentiment that hit Allen Greene early into his tenure, as well as the relative lack of success from his second round of coaching hires compared to the highs of Riddle, Burke, Stutzman, Legette-Jack, and Hurley/Oats.

Today’s announcement that Stu Riddle is leaving Buffalo to start a new program-building effort at Northern Kentucky rather than another recruiting cycle in Amherst — with a stronger program than he inherited — is the clearest news yet.

Simply put, the strength of 2013-2015 wasn’t enough to push UB into a better place. It hasn’t been enough to spur the fieldhouse — or much of the now-three-year-old master plan at all, for that matter — into existence, it hasn’t been enough to maintain much enthusiasm through a slate-grey football season, and it hasn’t been able to help much with some of the desperately underfunded Olympic programs.

It would, for example, be very difficult for Conrad to talk the Bull Run staff into another round of “Buffalo to the AAC,” as we did a few winters back.

If you think I’m soapboxing, you only need read Riddle’s quotes to Ben Tsujimoto of The Buffalo News;

"It's a sad scenario to have to leave Buffalo," Riddle said, by phone. "Professionally, I thought I could do big things here, but with the resources at hand, this was as much as I could do."

“There's great support for the [NKU] program, they're fully funded in terms of scholarships and the facility, a $6.5 million soccer-specific stadium, is five miles from Cincinnati, which will have an MLS team soon."

I do not mean to sound doom-and-gloom. A number of programs are on the rise or maintaining success. Allen Greene hasn’t made a misstep yet, if you ask me, though the Men’s Soccer opening is his first chance for real success or failure. But something has changed over the last two years at Alumni, it feels the opportunities that were so promising two years ago are slipping away, and it will take more than an inspired hire at Men’s Soccer or improved fundraising to turn the momentum once again.