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Fall 2008

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Warde Manuel makes believers out of skeptics, convincing
them of UB's potential to become an athletic force without
compromising academics

The Persuader

Warde Manuel makes believers out of skeptics, convincing them of UB's potential to become an athletic force without compromising academics

Story by Nicole Peradotto : Photo by Paul Hokanson

Warde Manuel has two postgraduate degrees. He's been published in respected academic journals. Earlier this year, he was designated one of the sharpest young executives in the sports business industry. But ask volleyball player Katherine Love what impresses her about UB's athletic director, and she'll tell you it's the fact that he's been there.

At 1987 game with
Ohio State, Manuel
puts the pressure
on opposing quarterback
Tom Tupa. At 1987 game with Ohio State, Manuel puts the pressure on opposing quarterback Tom Tupa. Photo: © Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan

“It's awesome to have someone who's been in Division I sports because he knows the ups and downs that we go through,” the senior communications major says. “If ever we need someone to talk to about it, we know we can talk to him because he's been there.”

In Manuel's case, “there” was on the defensive line of the storied University of Michigan Wolverines football team. While the credentials and experience he accumulated since then have informed his philosophy on leading UB's athletics department, his turf time in the late 1980s also shapes his vision for the 500-plus student athletes who sport the Bulls' royal blue jerseys.

“The expectation is that we're not going to shy away from academics or make excuses about what your academic performance is because of sports,” says the 40-year-old New Orleans native. “I tell my recruits, 'If you don't want to do that—if you don't want to be the best academically and athletically—then this is not the place for you.'

“And what we've shown is that we can do both. We've had tremendous academic success and tremendous—compared to what we had before—athletic success.”

As they say in the broadcasting booth, the scoreboard never lies. A highlights reel of the past season would necessarily feature footage of the football team, which claimed a share of the Mid-American Conference (MAC) East title for the first time; men's soccer, which reached the MAC finals for the second time; and women's tennis, the first Division I program in UB history to qualify for an NCAA team championship.

Less obvious to fans are the academic gains the Bulls have made under Manuel's leadership. According to the most recent report from the NCAA's Academic Progress Rate, 15 of the 20 teams showed improvement from 2005–2006 to 2006–2007.

To Manuel, both sets of stats confirm what he's been saying since he first stepped into Alumni Arena: that UB has the potential to become an athletic force, and do so without compromising academics.

“We struggled with negative attitudes a bit when I first came here. People didn't believe that we could be successful. But now people are starting to believe, and not only internally. Now you can see that out in public—that people are proud of what we're accomplishing.”

Equal plaudits for academic success

A firm advocate for both sides of the scholar-athlete equation, Manuel is as proud of students' academic accomplishments as their athletic feats. When two members of the Bulls football squad were selected in the NFL draft last April, he called to congratulate them. And when a senior soccer player walked into his office, bursting with the news that she'd been accepted into graduate school, he gave her a big hug.

“That's the excitement—seeing kids succeed,” he says. “It opens a lot of doors for them.”

Having been a student athlete himself, Manuel is drawn to the drive of the generation that succeeds him. Yet he recognizes that their passion for playing often breeds unrealistic ambitions. “In sports that have professional opportunities, everybody thinks they're going pro,” he says. “They can be sitting so far back on the bench that they're in the last row, and in some way they think they're going pro.

“The reality is, we want kids like that, who have dreams and aspirations. So I never say, ‘You're not going to play professional sports.' I'm not going to kill anybody's dream. But I'm saying, ‘When sports are over, what are you going to do?'”

When injury struck Manuel during his intercollegiate football career, he had to ask that question of himself.

Playing under a legendary coach

Manuel in 1986. Manuel in 1986. Photo: © Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan

As a child, Manuel always had a glove, bat or ball in his hand. But he made the biggest impression on the football field. During his senior year of high school, the 6-foot-5-inch defensive end was named a first-team consensus All-American in his position—the best of the best. He was wooed by so many college coaches that he had to quit the wrestling squad to take recruiting trips.

Ultimately, Manuel accepted the full ride from Michigan, playing under legendary coach Bo Schembechler. Greg Harden, associate athletic director at Michigan, recalls Manuel as the “warmest, funniest, most charismatic character” he met on the team in the fall of 1990.

“It's really unfair to tell a kid he'll be a professional athlete, but every now and then you know that one is destined for a professional career. Warde's destiny for football was pretty much written.”

Despite the heady experience of suiting up for the Wolverines, Manuel describes the passage from high school to college as difficult. “Being a thousand miles from home and going through the rigors academically without having the structure that I had [in high school], I didn't do all the things I needed to do academically my first year,” he admits. “Yeah, I had dreams. But it wasn't necessarily because I had dreams of being a pro athlete as much as it was just not knowing how intense the transition could be.”

These days, the cleat is on the other foot: Any UB student athlete with faltering grades earns a trip to Manuel's office. As the academic progress of UB's student athletes has improved, however, that happens less and less.

In the fall of 2007, Bulls student athletes as a group achieved the highest GPA since 2004 and the second highest since joining the MAC in 1999. The football team posted the highest GPA in its Division 1-A history.

“What I admire and respect about Warde is his focus to developing the whole student athlete so they have a great experience at UB,” says women's tennis coach Kathy Twist.

“When he took the position, he immediately spent money on academics. He made the study room more conducive to learning, he redid the computer center for our athletes in Alumni Arena, he bought more computers, and he hired more learning strategists and more tutors.

“Our retention of student athletes needed to be improved. Instead of blaming people or the system, he set out to find appropriate solutions to retain our student athletes. He always has a plan.”

Reinvention as a scholar

During Manuel's sophomore year at Michigan, he sustained a neck injury that caused numbness down his arm. By his junior year, he had to give up football.

“It was devastating to him,” Harden recalls. “There's a school of thought that you can tough this kind of injury out, but you know if you keep playing it's going to get worse. So it was a tough decision, and he had to make it himself. He had to reinvent himself in his junior year and become a scholar, and he pulled it off. The kid was absolutely a stellar student.”

Manuel graduated in 1990, receiving his bachelor's degree in general studies with a concentration in psychology. Three years later, he received a master's in social work. From there, he was hired as an academic adviser at Georgia Tech's Athletic Association before being named its assistant athletic director of academic affairs.

In June of 1996 Manuel returned to his alma mater as an executive staff assistant in the athletic department, being promoted to assistant athletic director in 1998 and, two years later, an associate athletic director. Although it wasn't the sports career he'd envisioned for himself as a young man, he realized that he'd found his niche.

“I just loved the attitude and the focus Michigan had on the combination of academics and athletics, and I learned a lot from it,” says Manuel, who received an MBA while working there. “I realized that I could really be helpful to a lot of kids and help them grow and develop, and do it through the love that I have of athletics.”

According to education professor Percy Bates, Michigan faculty's athletics representative, one of Manuel's legacies from that era was renaming the athletic department's academic support program the academic “success” program.

“It's a subtle difference, but it's a meaningful one,” says Bates. “Warde understands that even if you become a well-known, well-paid athlete, it doesn't last forever. He's a role model who has considerable focus on life after athletics and on becoming a full-fledged, participating citizen.”

Persuasive champion of UB's program

In 2005—weeks after former NCAA president Gene Corrigan issued a report identifying the hiring of an athletic director as key to UB's prospects in the MAC—President John B. Simpson was wading through résumés of more than 40 “very qualified” contenders for the position. When he read Manuel's, he knew he'd found the ideal candidate.

Three years later, Simpson describes Manuel's effect on the athletics program as “transformative.”

“He has been a directed, focused and very strong leader. He's also very ambitious, and I mean that in the most positive way. He wants these teams to achieve in the classroom and on the field, and he's had very good results.”

As he meets with alumni and represents UB to the community, Manuel has proved himself a persuasive champion of the program, adds Simpson. “He understands the place and value and importance of athletics in a university, so he's a very credible salesperson for helping folks understand why making an investment in UB athletics is making an investment in the university in the broader sense.”

In fact, under Manuel's leadership, two of the athletics department's largest financial gifts were secured: a $500,000 gift from alumnus Robert Morris, BA '67, and his wife, Carol, for a sports performance center, and a $640,000 gift from Harold Ortman, DDS '41, professor emeritus of dentistry, to benefit the tennis program.

“It's easy for me to ask people to invest,” says Manuel, who lives in Williamsville with his wife, Chrislan, and their 13-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son. “What makes me most proud is when I ask people to invest in something and tell them the intended result and it happens, and they can see it happen.”

Manuel's next plan is to raise funds for a field house where teams can practice during inclement weather. For his part, football coach Turner Gill doesn't doubt that it will come to fruition.

“For a person to be here three years and get the stability and consistency that he has out of the athletic department is outstanding,” says Gill, the nationally respected former assistant coach from Nebraska whom Manuel hired shortly after arriving at UB. “Everyone is buying into and accepting his vision and his winning attitude.”

That includes student athletes, notes Gill. “Whether at a swim meet or a wrestling meet, he's there in the brunt of it. Some ADs [athletic directors] are up in the press box or they stop on the field, but in the middle of the matches he's there—he's encouraging our coaches and our student athletes.”

Indeed, when the women's tennis team played in the NCAA championship held at UCLA, Manuel stood in the tunnel leading to the courts, high-fiving each player as she passed.

“Ultimately, seeing the kids compete and seeing kids have an opportunity to take it to the next level and win championships is probably the most enjoyable aspect of my job,” he says.

And, as he looks toward the Bulls' prospects, Manuel expects those opportunities will become the norm rather than the exception.

“The first year I came to UB, I heard, ‘It's not going to be successful at Buffalo.' ‘You just can't do it.' And I said, ‘Thank you,' and I moved on. When people tell me that you must not be concentrating on academics if you're doing so well athletically, I just say, ‘No. You can do both.'

“I came to UB because I believe in the vision of this place, and I still do. What drives me is producing success stories. It's very seldom that anybody can nip away at my positive attitude. I challenge you to find someone around me who has a negative view, because I don't want them.”

A former reporter for the Buffalo News, Nicole Peradotto is a Buffalo-based freelance writer/editor.

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