You could know the next Khalil Mack


Welcome to the State University of New York at Buffalo.

It’s a mouthful, but get used to hearing it.

You are entering this school at a very exciting time – at least for athletics. The 2013-14 season was filled with some of the greatest teams and athletes in school history. If you are a sports fan, which I assume you are based on the fact you are reading this, you’ve certainly heard of Khalil Mack – the Oakland Raiders’ No. 5 overall pick and the NCAA’s all-time leader in forced fumbles.

But the notable athletes from last season don’t stop there.

Branden Oliver, the school’s all-time leading rusher, recently signed a two-year contract with the San Diego Chargers. Alex Neutz, the school’s all-time leader in touchdowns, signed with the Cincinnati Bengals less than 24 hours after the NFL draft. These are three of Buffalo’s record-best seven players who were drafted, signed or invited to training camps.

The men’s basketball team won the Mid-American Conference East regular season championship behind the school’s all-time leading scorer and MAC Player of the Year Javon McCrea and first-year head coach Bobby Hurley. Yes, that Bobby Hurley – the legendary Duke point guard with two NCAA Championships and four years of experience under “Coach K.”

The softball team won its first-ever MAC East regular season championship behind first-year head coach Trena Peel – another coach with tremendous accolades as a college athlete. The softball team was led by pitcher Tori Speckman, who finished the season with 22 wins and a 2.17 ERA, including two no-hitters, and Sammi Gallardo, who batted .312 with 16 home runs and 42 RBIs.

The women’s basketball team continues to improve after achieving its first winning season since 2002-03. The Bulls, however, lost in the MAC Quarterfinals.

Buffalo had individual success behind Brittney Kuras’ third-MAC Swimming Championship, as well as track and field champions Zach Ahart and Jonathan Jones.

What do all these players have in common?

They all traded in their respective uniforms for commencement robes this past May. Every player listed above has left an impact on the athletic program, but it’s time for the next generation of UB athletes to leave their mark on school history.

Who will be the next Khalil Mack? The next Javon McCrea? The next Tori Speckman? I don’t have the answer for you and that’s the beauty of college sports.

Fans, coaches and UB’s administration are aware: There’s only a limited time with these players until they must be replaced.

Let me make this clear: You are not at Ohio State. Chances are you’re not sitting next to future professional athletes in class.

But you could be.

Part of the reason I chose this school was to be surrounded by Division-I student-athletes. Even if it’s not a top team in a top conference, it’s still the highest level of competition college athletics offers.

And the Athletics Department is doing all it can to, “Build America’s next big-time college athletics brand,” behind its #NYBI (New York Bulls Initiative) campaign.

Is it a bit naive? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

There are, however, two beneficial introductions that can’t be debated – the Tailgate Concert Series and multi-million dollar donations the school has received.

UB was lacking a game day environment when I first arrived. Tailgates were dull. There wasn’t much going on. And let’s be honest, isn’t the tailgate the best part of a football game?

So I stopped going. I could just watch the game online, which was good enough, right? But now, Buffalo provides an entire parking lot strictly for students and the main parking lot features free concerts. Last year UB hosted country star Randy Houser. This year, the performers include country artists Joe Nichols, Frankie Ballard and Easton Corbin (who will perform at UB’s Aug. 30 opening game).

If country’s not your niche, don’t worry – you can party to top-40 and house music in the student only parking lot. And once the festivities are over, you can walk (or possibly stumble your way) into UB Stadium.

Seeing the next Khalil Mack, James Starks or Javon McCrea is certainly not a promise. I never expected to be witnessing a top-five draft pick emerge when I enrolled at Buffalo. But I did. Regardless of how you feel about the #NYBI campaign and “rebranding,” you will regret avoiding athletics entirely.

The class of 2018 has a very interesting opportunity. You will likely see a lot of younger student-athletes performing this season. In your four years, you will have the chance to really see players develop. Remember: Mack was a just two-star freshman recruit at one point.

But my time is nearly done. The new Athletics Department has cemented itself and handpicked nearly every coach at this university. This is the State University of New York at Buffalo. I don’t see this changing any time soon.

You may be thinking, “But why do college sports matter?” Because it promotes unity. When teams are winning, the students flock to stadiums and arenas. The football team was undefeated at UB Stadium and the men’s basketball team suffered only one loss in Amherst.

Was last season a fluke? I suppose the only way to find out is by showing up and seeing for yourself.