Craig Cirbus, 38, knows all about being the best. He was part of a collegiate national championship football program during his 11-year career at Penn State University. Cirbus served as an assistant under legendary head coach Joe Paterno.
"Craig is an outstanding young coach and I'm confident that he will provide the Buffalo program with the leadership direction it requires," Paterno said. "Craig has demonstrated the kind of maturity, knowledge and personal integrity his new position will demand."
Cirbus will lead the UB football program through its most crucial period in recent history. The Bulls have competed at the Division I-AA level for the past two years, after moving up from Division III.
UB announced this summer it will once again upgrade its football program, this time to Division I-A, and join the Mid-American Conference, following an invitation from that organization. Current conference members are: Akron, Miami of Ohio, Eastern Michigan, Central Michigan, Ball State, Ohio University, Bowling Green, Toledo, Western Michigan and Kent State.
In the late 1990s, the Bulls will begin playing football in the MAC, and UB eventually hopes one day to be playing such national powerhouses as Syracuse and Penn State.
"It's a monumental move for the football program," Cirbus said. "You've got to be excited and feel good about the university making this move. It's a quantum jump for football and it's going to be tough, but that doesn't mean we can't do it. I think we'll be competitive.''
The move up brings pressure and expectations for the coach. UB will be playing catch-up over the next few years as Cirbus builds for the future, recruiting players to compete at higher levels of competition.
The coach is on the hot spot, but UB's athletic department is offering full support.
"Craig's an outstanding coach, and more importantly, an outstanding human being," said Nelson Townsend, UB's director of athletics. "Some fans, who don't really follow the college game, might think just because he came here from Penn State he's going to win every game.
"That would be nice but we know it takes time to build a winner. We're going to give Craig time to build a program we can all be proud of. Craig has got great credentials and we think we have found the right man for the job."
Cirbus has always been able to meet the demands of the game during his football career, which began nearly a quarter century ago at St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute in Kenmore. He went to UB to study engineering, although the university did not have a football team when he enrolled.
Coach Bill Dando brought football back to UB in 1977, and Cirbus played as an undersized offensive lineman, barely weighing in at over 200 pounds.
"That son-of-a-gun wasn't big but he was tough," Dando said. "The thing that was most impressive about Craig was his intelligence. He was a very heady player. He was very knowledgeable about the game."
Cirbus graduated in 1980 with a B.S. degree in civil engineering. He lucked out in a job search and was hired the day after graduation by Hatch Associates. The company was responsible for the design of Buffalo's underground subway system.
It was a dream job for Cirbus but he needed more than engineering to make him happy. Cirbus just couldn't get football out of his blood so he became an assistant coach at Cheektowaga Central High School for two seasons, 1980-81.
Dando brought Cirbus back to UB the following year as a recruiter and offensive line coach. "It was amazing the way he related to the kids, and the way they took to him," Dando said. "Craig picks things up very fast and is a good teacher as well as a coach. He's honest, well-organized and he's the kind of coach who will look a kid in the eye and tell him the truth."
Cirbus was growing restless after the 1983 season. His engineering career was blossoming, but football was the center of his life. Cirbus knew it was time to make a decision on his future. He could no longer be a part-time football coach and full-time engineer. The game was his priority.
"My avocation became my vocation," Cirbus said with a smile as he sat in his coach's office in UB's new stadium on a warm, summer's day. Cirbus was sweating, as he came off the field after an afternoon workout. Although muscular and about six feet tall, he presents a lean athletic figure, wearing black sweatpants and a green T-shirt.
ANTHONY VIOLANTI is a writer for The Buffalo News.