The Warde - Manual

By MATTHEW PARRINO
On April 25, 2011

  • The evolution of the athletic program at UB is due in large part to the vision of Warde Manuel. Alex McCrossen /// The Spectrum

When Warde Manuel took over the reins of UB Athletics in 2005, drastic change was imminent; just how much, surprised even Manuel himself.

Manuel is the athletic director at the University at Buffalo and was hired at a time when UB Athletics was in shambles. In his time at UB, he has orchestrated the success six Mid-American Conference championship teams and has brought UB Athletics to a level of respectability.

There are many words that can describe Manuel, but in the case of former swimmer Zach Ruske, nothing works better than approachable.

In his third year, Manuel decided it was time for a new direction for the swimming program at UB, so he combined the men's and women's team under the direction of Andy Bashor. Ruske, the 400-Individual Medley record holder at UB, wasn't happy about the switch.

"The change in coaching was sort of a shock to me and my teammates," Ruske said. "We didn't understand why it was happening so we just went in and asked [Manuel], ‘Hey, what's going on? The swim team wants to know. We feel like we deserve to know why you're letting our coach go.'"

Ruske questioned Manuel and asked him how he could make a decision regarding the swimming coach when the student athletes on the team never see him at meets. Manuel was stunned and explained to Ruske how he attends most of the meets and is in the stands cheering on the team.

The problem Ruske had was that Manuel wasn't visible on the deck.

"Part of my thinking coming in as the athletic director is that I don't need to be around, I don't need to have them see me all the time," Manuel said. "I'm there to cheer them on and support them. Zach changed me, and my outlook on how to really let them know I'm present and that I'm there for them."

The relationship that blossomed between the two following the change was built on respect and admiration. Even after almost a year since graduating, Ruske still holds Manuel in the highest regard.

"Warde is a great, genuine, and understanding person," Ruske said. "He listens, it wasn't like I was just going in there and he was like ‘Oh it's just another athlete upset about a coaching change.' I was able to gain things from him. I would have to say he was the most influential person in my time at UB."

Junior shooting guard Zach Filzen also has a lot of respect for Manuel. He spoke about Warde's ability to demonstrate how a person should act and said he's learned a lot about leadership from him.

"He has a personality that commands respect," Filzen said. "I think he leads by example and he's a hard worker. He was an athlete himself so he knows what it's like from our standpoint."

Early Years

To truly understand Manuel, it's essential to know where he came from. He was born and raised in New Orleans, La. His father was a manager at the French Quarter Postal System and his mother was a secretary in a middle school in the New Orleans public school district.

Manuel's family upbringing continues to manifest in the way he treats people.

Rodney McKissic of The Buffalo News has covered UB Athletics since 2001. He's met numerous athletic directors around the country and says that Manuel is one of a kind.

"He'll walk around and speak to people he doesn't know," McKissic said. "He's going around shaking hands with people. To me, that's the southern gentleman coming out in him. He's just very friendly, an extremely nice guy, very passionate about what he does. He is in fact a genuine person. He's always got that smile going and he's very easy to talk to."

Manuel went to the University of Michigan, where he played football and received a Masters Degree in social work and an MBA in business. Going back as far as he can remember, Manuel has always been a strong proponent of strengthening his community in any way that he can.

At Michigan, Manuel studied and researched ways in which community centers played a role in safer and more satisfying community life. His major focus was on how sports can bring inner city kids to a place where solid morals and values could be taught and learned under the premise of athletics.

"My mom and dad, when I first started in athletics brought me to the Gernon Brown Community Center in New Orleans," Manuel said. "In that center, I played basketball, I also took piano lessons briefly…A lot of that has gone away. A lot of community centers have closed down, they don't do the programming that they used to, and they don't have all the sports they used to have."

Manuel and his family were ecstatic with the welcoming nature of the Buffalo community when he took the job. He even noted the people in Buffalo as being one of the reasons he wanted to come to the city. The passion for football in the area is something Manuel can appreciate also, considering his roots.

Same game, new strategy

In his time at Michigan, Manuel was a part of three Big Ten Championship football teams and played as a defensive end. In his junior season, he suffered a career-ending spine injury, which led to spinal stenosis, which is a narrowing of the spinal canal around the sixth vertebrae.

The injury was heartbreaking for Manuel, especially considering the level of talent he possessed. Had he stayed healthy and been able to compete in his senior season, experts believed he would have been drafted to the NFL. Ultimately, however, the injury led him to what he was born to do, help student athletes.

"The injury effects a lot of the ways that I try to manage and help the student athletes understand the importance and value of getting your degree," Manuel said. "I think the way it happened to me is key for how I look at things, because it can be taken away at any moment and for any reason, particularly with an injury. I want student athletes to be ready to move forward and be ok with the fact that sports can end that quickly."

Former Bulls quarterback and current New York Jets backup signal caller Drew Willy credits Manuel for building the UB athletic program up through hard work and a vision that had everyone in mind, which further demonstrated his passion for student athletes.

"[He gave] us an identity," Willy said. "I believe he gave our program a lot of discipline and mental toughness. I feel like those attributes transferred over into our team and made us successful on and off the field."

Life at UB

Manuel being active in the community is what allowed Carlton Brock III, a sophomore English major, the chance to get to know Warde.

"The first time I met Warde I was like 14 years old," Brock said. "He had just met my dad when he joined the country club in Buffalo. My dad didn't know anyone and he just came up to us and said ‘Hey, my name is Warde.' He was real nice to my brother and I when nobody else was talking to our table at all. My dad and him ended up becoming real good friends."

The first person on the phone calling Carlton's dad when a family emergency happened a few months ago was Manuel, according to Brock. When Carlton's grandma was sick, Manuel was there to offer his help and to make sure the Brock family had everything it needed.

Manuel and his family spent Thanksgiving dinner with the Brock family. Carlton and his dad are proud to know Warde.

"I know for a fact that my dad is exceptionally proud [of the job Warde has done as A.D.]," Brock said. "I'm also proud of it. When he first came here nobody thought of Buffalo teams as anything, Buffalo was an afterthought. Since then, we've been on ESPN, we were MAC Champions; that's just his influence. I think he'll leave a really positive legacy. I think everybody is going to remember him for bringing huge change to UB."

Another person who has witnessed the effect Manuel has had at UB is men's basketball head coach Reggie Witherspoon, who became coach in 2000. The question everyone was asking back then was whether or not UB could sustain a Division 1 program.

Witherspoon explained how it's been Warde's passion, people skills, and supportive mentality for all UB Athletics that has made him so successful.

"When you're around long enough and you coach at enough different places it's hard to function when you don't have [support]," Witherspoon said. "It's huge to have someone who has that kind of confidence in what you're doing. It allows you to be able to create a stability in the program and when I came, that was grossly lacking.

"It was a revolving door of guys coming in and guys going out. You need that kind of atmosphere and energy on your campus and in your building. Those are things he brings to us. That's an important thing for not only me but for our entire staff. He makes you feel like this is a great place to be and we didn't always have that."

The coaches that Manuel has hired along with the staff he has assembled has brought some great people to UB. Some of that may have rubbed off from the man at the top.

"I always have a philosophy," Manuel said. "When you're 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds and you're walking around, people are probably going to be somewhat intimidated by you anyway. When you say ‘Hello, how are you. Nice to meet you.' People are taken aback. I don't see myself as a person who needs to be recluse and away from people."

WECK 1230, a local AM radio station, broadcasts UB football and basketball games. WECK Programming Director Brad Riter has covered Buffalo sports on the radio since 1998. He got a tip that Manuel was going to be just the man to lead UB out of obscurity before anybody else knew who he was.

"Before the announcement became official, I received a phone call from a source at Michigan that Warde Manuel was about to be named the new athletic director at UB," Riter said in an email. "The source said, ‘You've never heard of this guy but he's very qualified, he's a class act, and he's going to win. You're going to like him.' That was the tip I received in August 2005 and, six years later, I know that it couldn't have been more accurate."

Whatever the future holds for Manuel, it's very likely that his time left in Buffalo is limited. The job he has done and the bonds he has made in this city and at this university will undoubtedly mark his legacy at UB.

Email: sports@ubspectrum.com


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