Lance Leipold is UB football's ambassador

Lance Leipold has won 109 games, but none at the D-I level. Saturday is his first chance.

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Things seem different around UB Stadium.

The outlines of New York State as part of UB Athletics’ rebranding are there, sure – but that’s been going on for a while. There’s more.

Construction can be heard at all hours of the day as workers rush to finish a near million-dollar premium-seating club for donors. A sketch of a field house, the absence of which has long been one of UB’s downfalls as an athletics program, sits in the front entrance to the stadium lobby. There are whispers of optimism, even from people who have long doubted Buffalo could emerge out of the basement of Division I football.

Granted, things aren’t perfect yet.

UB is still just emulating the Alabamas and Ohio States of the world – the football programs that dominate their state and national landscape. But Buffalo and its administrators like Athletic Director Danny White seem to finally think they have the head coach to move them up the ladder that is college football.

His name is Lance Leipold.

And if you don’t recognize the name, that’s because he lets his record do the talking.

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Where was the splash hire with the big name? Where was the coordinator from an NFL or Power 5 school? What about Steve Spurrier, Jr.? Joe Lombardi?

Fans and media may have been left with confusion after an ill-timed tweet from Leipold’s niece helped reveal him as the new head coach of the Bulls. They likely thought Buffalo, a team trying to pull itself out of the bottom of Division I, had a hired a Division-III head coach. Why?

But as Bulls players, fans and media alike began simultaneously Googling the name ‘Lance Leipold,’ it became clear that the 51-year-old Wisconsin native was far from just a Division-III coach.

Few coaches in NCAA history have more accomplished résumés than Leipold. Six national championships. Six Division III Coach of the Year awards. The fastest football coach to ever reach 100 wins. A career record of 109-6.

109-6.

He has as many national championships as career losses. In just eight seasons, Leipold has more than twice as many wins than UB in its 15-year Division-I history.

Buffalo has never witnessed that kind of winning.

The skeptics will say the wins came at Division III – a level with no scholarships and with limited resources and talent. Scholarships, recruiting – they’re all things Leipold has either never done before or never done at this high a level as a head coach.

But those who’ve worked with Leipold at Wisconsin-Whitewater and those who’ve been around him the past few months in Buffalo, from players to assistant coaches to administrators, are filled with confidence. A confidence that Lance Leipold has all the tools to be a successful Division-I coach.

“The more I work with him,” White said, “the easier it is for me to understand how he went 109-6.”

Leipold clearly knows how to run a program, just on a smaller scale.

Warhawks senior receiver Joe Worth described Leipold as a “GM,” and said the coach ran Whitewater as close to a Division-I program as one can get – Leipold got tips from coaching legends while working as an assistant at some of the top programs in the country. Amy Edmonds, Wisconsin-Whitewater’s director of athletics, said Leipold kept people engaged with the program through winning on the field and letting people know off the field what the university was doing as an institution.

She describes him as a sort of “ambassador.”

But Leipold has a large task in front of him.

Buffalo had the second-highest attendance in the Mid-American Conference last season, but that was still just good for 100th out of 128 nationally. Buffalo is the only MAC school without an indoor practice facility or with any concrete plan to build one in the near future. UB’s football budget broke even with close to $7 million, but that’s mainly due to support from the university. Leipold could double his career loss total this season alone and the year could still be viewed a success.

But he seems to have a plan to bring attention, donations and talent – all the resources a Mid-Major needs to improve and well, just survive. He always sits in one particular black leather chair in his office because it faces a “State University of New York Buffalo” watermark on the wall.

“So I can see … that we are the flagship university of the New York system,” Leipold said. “We need to make sure people know that because a lot of people don’t.”

He already has the #NYBI lingo down. But Leipold knows the best way to bring in donors, resources and better recruits is to simply win – and this Saturday against Albany is his first chance.

After all, the guy knows a thing or two about it.

Learning from the best

Leipold grew up in Jefferson, Wisconsin, which has a population that’s nearly a quarter of UB’s student body of 30,000, and his small town upbringing is still evident as he makes his way around campus every day. He admits he still gets lost from time to time.

Ask him if he used to be a quarterback and he’ll say, “Not a very good one.” That humbleness and ‘everyman’ mentality sticks out about him. When ESPN showed up to Whitewater last season for a College GameDay feature on Leipold, the coach looked at the bright lights and cameras and thought, I better go get a suit. He’s the kind of coach that will throw out fade routes to reporters during a photo shoot and tease them about wearing white socks.

Despite his modesty, Leipold ranks in the Wisconsin-Whitewater top-10 for passing yards, attempts, completions and touchdowns from when he played quarterback in the mid ’80s. When Leipold became the Warhawks’ quarterbacks coach right after graduation, his teammates started “calculating the math” of when Leipold would become the head coach of Wisconsin Whitewater.

He would venture away from his alma mater before becoming its leader – for about 17 years. Along the way Leipold was assistant at some of the top teams in the country – programs like Wisconsin and Nebraska. Leipold may have never been a head coach above the D-III level, but he’s been on staffs that have appeared in Rose Bowls and Big Ten Championships and worked with legends like Barry Alvarez and NFL coaches Bill Callahan and Brad Childress.

He also saw the dark side of college athletics.

While Leipold was an administrative assistant at Nebraska, head coach Frank Solich was fired after a 10-win season. Leipold said it opened his eyes as to what can happen in college football. White, Leipold’s new AD, has let go of eight head coaches in three years on the job. He knows the unforgiving nature that sports can have.

After Wisconsin, Leipold had two stints as an assistant with Division II Nebraska-Omaha – the university cut the team in 2011. Then finally, in 2007, after commuting 50 miles a day from Lincoln to Omaha, Leipold got his break. The math his teammates calculated all those years finally added up.

Leipold became the head coach at Wisconsin-Whitewater.

Warhawk domination

Division III football in the town of Whitewater is more than just Division III football. When freshmen come to campus, they paint the streets Warhawk purple, learn the chants, walk through the tunnel into Perkins Stadium and get to see themselves on the Jumbotron.

Leipold embraced the town and it did the same to him. When asked what would happen if Leipold ran for mayor of Whitewater in the ESPNfeature, Whitewater-City Manager Cameron Clapper said Leipold might just win.

Leipold is, for all intents and purposes, a players’ coach – it’s part of the reason he had the success he did at Whitewater. Worth said Leipold worked with him through his ACL tear and that Leipold treated third- and fourth-stringers like he would first stringers.

It was his ability to work through the challenges that come with Division III that made him so successful. Even though Wisconsin-Whitewater’s program had more resources than most D-III football programs, Edmonds says they’re still at the mercy of their state budget process and institution. Leipold got around that by representing the team to the university, community and donors.

“Whatever challenges may be in the way, he can think through those,” Edmonds said. “When I say, vision, it’s real important to have that as a head coach. And Lance had those pieces naturally.”

Soon enough, Leipold had five national championships in seven seasons. Outside of a Championship game loss in 2008 and a 7-6 upset loss that ended Whitewater’s 46 game winning-streak in 2012 – that ironically came against Buffalo State – his record was spotless.

Leipold never had a reason to leave Wisconsin-Whitewater. He was proud of what he had built there for a D-III program. He figured any job offer he did get would come from the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) level – and Whitewater was just as a good as any FCS school.

He said it’d take a special opportunity to leave.

Then the UB job opened up this past October.

Moving up

Behind closed doors, Leipold was getting uncomfortable with the fact his players were being evaluated externally by perfect seasons. Anything less than a national championship was considered a failure for Wisconsin-Whitewater.

“There was a point where it was like, ‘What more could we do?’” Leipold said.

Jim Heuber, Pitt’s current offensive line coach who worked with Leipold at Wisconsin, always told him “When you become a coach, all you can do is leave your job better then you found it.”

Leipold thought,Holy cow. I guess I’m here for good because how am I going to make this one any better than it is? But in November 2014, with five national championships on his résumé, Leipold had made it better.

Edmonds sweated out every offseason worrying about a bigger program swooping in to take her head football coach away.

“I hold my breath every year,” she said.

Edmonds admits Division-III teams like Whitewater can’t compete with schools like Buffalo at the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) level and their salaries. Buffalo Business First reported that Leipold’s contract will pay him $400,000 a year – which is significantly more than predecessor Jeff Quinn’s $250,000 base salary.

When Leipold accepted the Buffalo job, he wasn’t completely leaving Wisconsin-Whitewater out to dry, though. During his interview with White, Leipold demanded that he get to keep coaching the Warhawks through their Division III playoffs even after taking the Buffalo job. He felt he owed it to his players.

It still hurts him that most of his team found out through the media that he was heading to UB. He had always preached to his team to stay focused and communicate. Now he was the one causing distractions. He admits he didn’t communicate to them about leaving for Buffalo as well as he could have.

It was even hard for him to just leave the town of Whitewater. His father Ken still lives there and Leipold would have to move his wife Kelly and two kids, Lindsey and Landon, from their homes and schools. He didn’t even get to have his family beside him at his introductory press conference in Alumni Arena last December because of a canceled flight in Chicago.

But Leipold, like he’s known to do, stayed focused. On Dec. 19, the Warhawks defeated Mount Union 43-34 to win their sixth championship under Leipold. It was his last game with his former team.

UB football’s future with Leipold

Imagine your biggest secret being broadcasted on national TV.

This is what happened to Danny White the day ESPN aired its feature on Lance Leipold.

Leipold had been on White's radar even before White fired Quinn in October. College GameDay let the cat out of the bag to every single coach-hungry athletic director that one of the most successful college coaches of all-time was hidden away at a Division-III school in Wisconsin.

White didn’t appreciate it much.

“It told the rest of the country something I was already thinking about,” White said.

White did research on the most successful FBS head-coaching hires and found that the most successful hires were ones that had already been successful head coaches elsewhere. It seems obvious, but in looking into Leipold, White took it to the extreme.

“Nobody in the history of the game had been as successful as Lance Leipold,” White said.

And luckily for White, no one else cashed in on ESPN’s tip-off. And now Leipold with his near-flawless 109-6 record is roaming Buffalo’s sideline.

Leipold acknowledges how crucial winning games can be on the program to gain resources and how crucial gaining resources are to winning games.

“It’s the ‘chicken or the egg,’” Leipold said. “Sometimes you need these resources to get the wins that you need to get the recruits that you need, and many times you need to win games to get people to support you. So we’ve got to find ways to do both.”

The biggest resource is that field house. Leipold says  the ADPRO Sports Training Complex, the Buffalo Bills’ field house where the Bulls practice during the winter, is a great facility – but it’s a 25-minute drive from campus. Leipold thinks it’s so important that he brought up a potential North Campus field house in his introductory statement at Bulls Media Day this summer.

White points out having an indoor practice facility would help more than just football, like men and women’s soccer, baseball, softball and track and field. Even the basketball programs would benefit because then the outdoor teams wouldn’t need to take up crucial gym time. But make no mistake – it will be the football team that pays for the field house.

Everyone knows college football is where the money is. It’s why the Edmond J. Gicewicz Club, the new club seating that just completed construction, is going into UB Stadium.

So that’s a lot riding on Leipold’s shoulders. Not just the football team’s fate, but almost all of the Division I sports at the school.

White admits Buffalo’s football program needs to win more games. Outside of a MAC Championship in 2008 and bowl game appearance in 2013, there hasn’t been much to cheer about when it comes to UB and Division I football.

“As we continue to show Western New York we can win consistently – not go to a bowl game and then not return for several years – consistently show we can be a player in college football, I think history has shown the crowds will come,” White said.“We’ve got to win more games. Build a winning culture. Having the right leader at the top is critical to that.”

The Bulls and the UB football community at large hopes they finally have one.

They’ll start finding out on Saturday.

Tom Dinki is the editor in chief and can be reached at tom.dinki@ubspectrum.com. Follow him on Twitter at @tomdinki