Demos: UB football in great hands with Leipold

Khari Demos

As a former University at Buffalo football player, I feel more tapped into my hometown team than most.

That's why seeing the progression of head coach Lance Leipold has been so satisfying.

I remember the day he first got the job, taking over for my old coach, Jeff Quinn, in 2015. I was at St. John Fisher at the time, so I was happy to see him leaving Wisconsin–Whitewater after snagging six NCAA Division III national titles there, including one during his last year in 2014.

The same question crept up with any mid-major program who brought in a high-profile coach; we love the move but, realistically, how long will he be here?

I mean, just think about UB's track record on this in recent years. When Turner Gill took the Bulls to the International Bowl after the 2008 season, we all could have guessed he'd get a gig like the one he got with Big 12 member Kansas.

Even though it's basketball, the men's hoops team saw it with coaches Bobby Hurley and Nate Oats leaving for the Pac-12 and SEC, respectively, at Arizona State and Alabama.

I had the same doubts and, who knows, maybe one of the 'Power 5' schools swoops in and vulture UB again. But things just feel different with Leipold.

I know we've all been holding our breath, but it almost seems for naught now. Did you know this was year six for Leipold? I know I sure didn't realize it was that long. It's long enough to stake his claim as the most successful Bulls coach in their Division I era.

Last week's season-opening win was another notch in Leipold's case for that claim. Not only did the win over Northern Illinois elevate his record to .500 as UB's head man, it was the Bulls' first win over the Huskies since 1968, and the first time in 12 tries as Mid-American Conference opponents.

Calling the win a statement performance would be underselling it. NIU has been the class of the MAC — four conference championships since 2011 and 12 bowl appearances since 2004 — so despite UB coming in as the MAC East favorites, a 49-30 win against the Huskies on the road is nothing to scoff at.

But we've seen moments like this from Leipold's teams, knocking off Charlotte in last season's Bahamas Bowl or getting the 10th win of 2018 at Bowling Green. Even losing a 27-14 game at Penn State in 2015 was a strong showing, as was a 23-20 win over a bowl-bound Army squad in 2016.

Leipold seems to get the best out of his players when it's needed most. That's how we've seen him compile a 25-15 record since 2017, including two bowl appearances.

That was evident in last week's game, as the D provided three defensive scores, despite being down three starters. Leipold was thrilled to see guys like former walk-on Eric Black, Roy Baker, Isaiah King, Logic Hudgens and Max Michel stepping up on that stage.

The offense may be in line to follow a tried and true formula for the Bulls, too. Following in the footsteps of Drew Willy and Naaman Roosevelt, Joe Licata and Alex Neutz, or Tyree Jackson and Anthony Johnson, UB seems to have another strong QB-WR duo in Kyle Vantrease and Antonio Nunn.

And with an offensive line that's cohesive and has guys who have some experience over the past few seasons, and a backfield with preseason All-American Jaret Patterson and 1,000-yard rusher Kevin Marks, the Bulls seems to be in great hands.

This just coincides with Leipold and his tenure at this point. Yes, the first two seasons were a struggle, but after a 6-6 showing in 2017, Leipold was able to say he finally had a roster of his guys before exploding for 10 wins the following year.

In my opinion, there are a few things that cement why Leipold could be here to stay. Obviously, it's nice to have his most recent extension, signed in February and locking him up through the 2024 season.

But there's other vital notes here. First off, his Division III background has to mean something. It's one thing if Leipold was coming from another Group of Five program, looking to use UB as a stepping stone before heading to a Power Five program.

What if UB is the end-all be-all? Maybe it wasn't all about getting to a blue blood program. Maybe just being a D-I coach was the goal and this is exactly where he wanted to end up.

Think about the legacy he's already created. Leipold's already recorded the first bowl win, back-to-back bowl appearances and 10-win season in program history. With a chance at UB's first MAC title since 2008, who's to say that's not next on his checklist, let alone others like an undefeated season?

Lastly, and most importantly, Leipold appears to enjoy being in Buffalo. It's one thing to work in an area, but it's another to immerse yourself in your surroundings.

He joked around about not discouraging any table breaking at the Bulls' pre-game tailgate at the Transit Drive-In during a media Zoom meeting Thursday.

"Actually my wife and I went out to the drive-in to one of the concerts that they had broadcasted," Leipold said. "It's a great environment."

Listen, I'm not saying the Transit Drive-In would prevent from him working for (just a random example) USC. But just seeing all that Leipold's done and been about during his tenure, it feels like he wants to stay where his boots are and keep spreading the roots he's grown.

Now Buffalonians, get those tables. There's some celebrating to do. UB football is in great hands.

Respond to sports reporter Khari Demos on Twitter @riri_demos or at khari.demos@gnnewspaper.com. Also, be sure to listen to the GNN Sports Podcast, on Spotify, Anchor, Apple Podcasts and more.

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