The house Warde built
As the Bulls move to take on the Big East's University of Connecticut this weekend, I find my mind does not focus on the familiar thrill of game day or the dread of playing an elite school.
Rather, I find myself worrying we will disappoint not the fans or the ESPN3 viewers, but someone bigger than that.
Just as an apprentice fears disappointing a mentor, there's something much more sensitive on the line in Storrs, Conn.
Earlier this year, the athletics department found itself without its mentor. In mid-February, Athletic Director Warde Manuel left the Bulls to take the same job at UConn.
His mission in Storrs is much like the mission he had when he came to UB seven years ago. The basketball team is struggling academically. There is work to be done to make UConn better than before.
The news of the change of employment was raw for many fans who upheld the AD with pride and reverie. He came and reformed a perpetually struggling UB program. He started with academics and moved outward.
Manuel ensured the athletes focused on the "student" side of "student-athlete" and pushed them to achieve higher standards in education. Before he came to the university, four sports were struggling to meet the NCAA's Academic Progress Rate cut score at 925.
The year before he left, 10 sports were above 975.
He wanted to engage the Bulls in the community and brought them outside UB to have an impact on the City of Buffalo as a whole. He pushed the whole sports department to take on a responsibility to better the world. The department completed 2,500 community service hours annually.
But those feel like small accomplishments compared to what he gave to the fans.
On a cold day in Jan. 2009, fans streamed over the border and into the Rogers Center in Toronto, Ontario to witness the first bowl game in Buffalo's Division I history.
The game lives in lore now. Not many students on campus today will remember that game or will remember how the Bulls fought to end the first half with a three-point lead. Not many know the joy of the accomplishment, mixed with the acute burn of a 38-20 defeat.
All at the hands of the Connecticut Huskies. How ironic.
The success of the triumphant 2008 season can be attributed to many things. Fans can give credit to former head coach Turner Gill, who had built the program to this great crescendo.
Or perhaps a strong team, led by Drew Willy at quarterback and powered by the speed of James Starks, who ran for a touchdown in that game.
But perhaps the truth is much more sublime.
Perhaps that season started with a challenge. A challenge to be better. A challenge to be a bigger part of the community, a better scholar, a better athlete.
Manuel built upon this foundation and took UB on the ride of its life. In the changes he made to the university, he gave us more than a great program. He gave the Bulls, True Blue and the UB community hope. A reason to Bullieve.
When we head to UConn on Saturday, I hope he sees much more than two teams on the field. I hope the love he feels for the Bulls, although different now, is still as strong as it was when he was our AD. I hope he feels the same pride he felt last March standing courtside in Cleveland as the men's basketball team took on Ohio in the Mid-American Conference Tournament semifinal. He wasn't AD then, but he must have known this was a culmination of what he started.
I hope he sees we succeed today, because we live in the house that Warde built.
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