Byron Mulkey, Ohio and a daunting juxtaposition

On March 7, 2013

  • Former UB basketball player Byron Mulkey works out for NFL scouts at Tuesday's pro day inside the Buffalo Bills' practice facility. Mulkey is training to become a defensive back. Alexa Strudler /// The Spectrum

It is not normal to play four years of college basketball, no football, and then try out for the NFL two years after your basketball career has ended. Normal has never been the Mulkey Way.

I attended UB's annual NFL pro day at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Tuesday. The competitors who showed up were unsurprising: three UB seniors and a few other college athletes from the area. And then there was Byron Mulkey.

If you are a freshman or sophomore, you probably never had the opportunity to see Mulkey play on the men's basketball team. If you didn't get to see him play, I am truly sorry - you missed out on a show. The Bulls have not had a floor general or leader quite like Mulkey the past two seasons. Of course, they have had amazing athletes, including a conference player of the year, but that's what made Mulkey so endearing to fans: He was never the most athletic.

He had copious talent, as expected of any Division I point guard, but there were always guys on the bench with more raw athleticism. He just knew what he was doing (he was a "coach on the court," as they say), boasted a wet jumper and, most importantly, had an innate ability to rally his troops.

I witnessed a strange juxtaposition on Tuesday. Shortly after my conversation with Mulkey, I attended the men's basketball game against Ohio. When the Bulls led 69-63 with 3:51 to go, I felt a knot in my stomach.

I turned to the two gentlemen next to me and asked: "Do you have the strange feeling they're going to blow this?" They agreed. And the Bulls eventually fell, 72-69.

Here's the reason we were doubtful: This year's team doesn't have the all-around leadership.

There are a few players who play bit roles: Senior Tony Watson is an exceptional leader, but his primary role is streak shooter and it's tough to play both roles, especially when you're cold, which inevitably happens to every three-point specialist; freshman Jarryn Skeete has really stepped up at the point, and he showed brazen confidence late in the game when he took the ball right to the rack (though Ohio's Reggie Keely sent that attempt into the stands), but he's still a freshman and has "rookie moments," which often come full-circle at the end of games; junior forward Javon McCrea is dominant but he isn't vocal on the court; and junior Jarod Oldham is the established point guard, but he has missed most of the season with a wrist injury.

Mulkey had a good team surrounding him during his senior year, but it wasn't great. Jawaan Alston, the sixth man, would occupy the same role this year. Zach Filzen was a great shooter, but so is Watson. There was no post player back then nearly as good as McCrea today, who will go off for 30 and 10 whenever he wants to. Nonetheless, that 2010-11 team finished 20-14.

This year's Bulls are 12-18, though their roster is inherently similar to that of 2010-11.

Why? A team will never be great if it doesn't have defined leadership. I recently had a conversation with junior wide receiver Fred Lee of the football team, and he shared an interesting thought: "Leadership is what wins games," he said. "That's why Alabama wins games - because you have guys on the team who don't tolerate anything."

Mulkey has his Master's degree in higher education administration from UB, and he has a good job as an adviser at Georgia State. Someday, he will be high up in an athletic department, maybe even an athletic director. Anyone who knows him knows he's going to make UB proud. 

Frankly, he will have a hard time catching on with an NFL team, but the Arena Football League and Canadian Football League are very realistic options. Regardless of what happens, Byron Mulkey is going to be successful because he is a natural leader.

The men's basketball team will continue to look for unceasing leadership that is not intimidated late in tight games but instead demands the ball, saying: "This is my team, and I will lead us to victory."

You know who did that Tuesday? Ohio's senior guard D.J. Cooper.

Mulkey had Cooper's mindset, and it didn't always work. The Bulls lost some games, but overall, they were much more successful than this year's squad.

Mulkey knew each team needs that leader: It's the only Way.

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