An unseasonably warm autumn had turned a bit chilly for Homecoming on Saturday afternoon. That didn’t stop the exuberant Buffalo players, who gave head coach Lance Leipold an ice shower after a 24-6 win over Akron that made UB bowl-eligible at the earliest point in program history.
“Well, it’s been a long time,” Leipold said after the Bulls improved to 6-1 for the first time since 1959 and remained unbeaten in the MAC at 3-0.
When was the last time, I asked Leipold? “My last job,” he said. “It’s kind of neat. The guys get a kick out of it, and it’s about the players.”
His “last job” was at Wisconsin-Whitewater, where Leipold enjoyed the most successful eight-year run of any coach in NCAA history. Under Leipold, the Warhawks went 109-6 and won six Division III national championships in nine years.
At Whitewater, Leipold reached his 100th career win faster than any other football coach in NCAA history. Winning was expected, losing an astonishment. It wasn’t about winning half your games to become eligible for greater things. It was about winning them all.
So at age 50, it was time for Leipold to reach for other challenges. When you win that often, you can lose your appreciation for the common struggle. And when you do it at the lower levels, it’s natural to want to prove yourself at a higher level.
“That was part of the reason for taking the challenge,” he said. “It was to build something and not where undefeated seasons were the expectations and anything less was a failure. Building something like this was what we wanted to do, to build something our community and university would be proud of.”
It hasn’t been easy, of course. UB went 5-7 in 2015, his first year, losing more games in one season than he had in eight at Whitewater. The second season, they went 2-10, staggering through a transition year and the sudden death of defensive stalwart Solomon Jackson in February of 2016.
A year ago, they improved to 6-6, a promising leap that ended with the disappointment — which wasn’t altogether surprising — of being snubbed for a bowl game.
Things have all come together this season. Winning is an expectation again. Leipold has UB to the point where fans can be uneasy with a 10-6 lead at halftime, knowing that a sloppy first 30 minutes have allowed an injury-plagued and inferior Zips team to hang in the game.
“It’s about that group,” Leipold said. “Whether it be personal confidence or in one another, this group has confidence now that they can overcome obstacles. There were times in the early years we couldn’t do that. You’d go in at halftime and you’re trying to get the body language and facial expressions to change. This group doesn’t waver. Tyree wants to go for it on fourth-and-30.”
Tyree Jackson, the Bulls’ dynamic junior quarterback, didn’t have one of his better days. Anthony Johnson, his star wideout, had two catches for 44 yards but is still compromised by a hamstring injury. Jackson was 16-for-30 for 212 yards and threw a bad interception at the Akron 2 in the first half.
But Jackson made some big plays on UB’s successive TD drives in the second half and had 57 yards rushing. He had 1 rushing yard all season coming into the game.
“He saw so much green I think he decided to take it,” Leipold said. “He was smart about it.” He said Jackson, who threw his 18th TD pass of the season, is making better decisions with the ball overall, things he wouldn’t have done a year ago.
A lot of things are different in a breakthrough year. His core offensive players are older and wiser. The Bulls have more depth, which has strengthened their running game and allowed them to persevere through Johnson’s injury. The defense, which was ranked second in the MAC before Saturday, held a team without a TD for the first time in five years.
With experience, talent and confidence, winning becomes an expectation, not a fond hope. It’s not Wisconsin-Whitewater, but it beats 2-10, and it’s a sign that UB has arrived. Leipold said coaches are like quarterbacks. They get too much credit for wins and too much blame for losses. But hiring him sure looks good right now.
“I really didn’t have a timetable,” Leipold said. “The 2-10 season, the loss of Solomon Jackson, that was a difficult year in a lot of ways. So I didn’t really know what last year would bring. But to see some of the kids who went through those times (he rattled off eight by name), they’ve been through the most. You’re happy for them. This a pretty special group of young men and they have a chance to leave a legacy here, not just for the present, but the future.”
The program had gone 59 years without a 6-1 start, since 1959. That was the year after the 1958 team won the Lambert Cup and refused a bid to the Tangerine Bowl because Orlando wouldn’t allow their two black players to participate. It’s nice to be able to summon up that proud UB history. This team is looking to create some special history of its own.
“I want it for the players and our community,” Leipold said. “This is a great community, and they’ve been waiting for things like this. We want to have the consistency that people can enjoy. We’re going to enjoy the ride, and see where this can take us.”: