In other words, good luck. (You'll need it.)
It's hard not to root for Reggie Witherspoon, the affable, perpetually hamstrung coach at Buffalo. Two years ago he took the job just after the season had started, only to make his debut three days later—against No. 7-ranked North Carolina. He has a two-year record of 7-44, has yet to win a conference road game and is trying to right a program that has been on NCAA probation twice since it jumped to Division I from Division II in 1991. "It's like running a race with a bag of rocks on your back; then you take some off and run a little faster," Witherspoon says. "We haven't gotten them all off yet."
Buffalo could have received the NCAA death penalty last spring for its latest violations—mainly involving improper evaluation of recruits—committed by Witherspoon's predecessor, Tim Cohane. (The Bulls were repeat offenders, because an assistant coach had been caught providing players with free airline tickets in 1989, before the move to Division I.) Instead the NCAA spared the Bulls, noting that the violations came under different staffs, and slapped them with a minor sanction. (Buffalo will have four fewer recruiting visits than the usual limit of 12 this season.)
On the other hand, Witherspoon had to deal with Buffalo's self-imposed sanctions last year, which reduced basketball scholarships from 13 to 12, permitted only one coach at a time on recruiting trips and delayed the start of practice two weeks until Nov. 1. "Last year we had eight new guys and two new assistant coaches," he says, "and while everyone else was doing Midnight Madness, we were doing our Midnight Darkness." Opening its season only 16 days after the start of practice, Buffalo lost 18 of its first 20 games and finished 4-24.
Still, the question isn't whether Buffalo is big enough to support Division I athletics. It is. With more than 23,000 students, Buffalo is the largest school in the State University of New York ( SUNY) system. Since 1998 it has belonged to the MidAmerican Conference, one of the nation's most respected mid-major leagues. The reason the Bulls spent 10 years in Division III, from 1978 to '88, was that SUNY prohibited athletic scholarships at the time. "We're not a small, private liberal arts college," says William Greiner, Buffalo's president since 1991. "We're the same size as the smaller Big Ten schools."
He also insists that Buffalo has not sold its soul to join the big time, noting that the first NCAA violation took place when the Bulls were in Division II. "We weren't happy about the latest situation," he says. "It happened on our watch, and we'll take our lumps for that. But it had nothing to do with the academic standing of the athletes. Nor were there any payoffs or financial chicanery."
Others, though, wax nostalgic for the days before Division I. Dan Bazzani coached the Bulls from 1983 to '93, from Division III to Division II to Division I, and his fondest memories are of Buffalo's electric series against crosstown rival Buffalo State. "Those games were wonderful," he says. "The students would go crazy, throwing toilet paper everywhere. But Buff State wanted nothing to do with us when we moved up to D-I."
Bazzani suffered the most from Buffalo's jump. A captain of the Bulls' 1964-65 team, he was a respected coach who'd had six winning seasons in eight years at the Division III and Division II levels. Then Buffalo fired him after he went 2-26 and 5-22 in two Division I seasons. Says Bazzani, "They were probably the worst two years of my life."
There was the typical assortment of "guarantee games"—so-called because they come with a guarantee of up to $50,000 for the visiting team—that the Bulls had to play to boost their rapidly depleting $2 million athletic budget. At one point before his second season in Division I, Bazzani's staff was on the road recruiting and got called back to Buffalo. "The athletic director [Nelson Townsend] called us all in," he recalls, "and said, 'Do not spend any more money and turn in any recruiting money you have. We're broke.' "
At least Bazzani is winning games these days, having led Niagara Falls High to a 26-1 record last year. ("I'm loving coaching again," he says.) Buffalo, meanwhile, has largely recovered from its financial woes of a decade ago, thanks to a healthy dose of state support and student fees. The Bulls' athletic budget has increased from $2 million in 1991-92 to $5 million in 1996-97 to $12 million for 2001-02. Of that $12 million, 40% comes from a state subsidy, 35% from student activity fees—each student is charged $310 a year for athletics—and 25% from athletics-generated revenue. "We are very competitive with the rest of the MAC schools," says athletic director Bob Arkeilpane.