ESPN College GameDay rarely devotes three-minute segments to Division III programs. But Lance Leipold’s success at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater was impossible to ignore. And it was only a matter of time before a larger program took notice. UB Athletics Director Danny White was watching, and he pounced on the opportunity to bring one of the nation’s hottest football coaches to Buffalo.
Leipold was introduced Dec. 1 as UB’s 25th football coach, taking over for Jeff Quinn, who was let go midway through last season.
Surely you’ve heard Leipold’s story by now. His record over eight seasons in Whitewater was nothing short of astounding: 109 wins—including six national championships—and six losses. He reached the 100-win mark faster than any coach, at any level, in college football. He was named Division III coach of the year six times, including this past season. Shortly after capturing his sixth national title, he flew to Buffalo to begin his new gig as a Division I coach.
At Buffalo sat down with the 50-year-old Leipold during his first full week at UB to discuss his plans for the program.
What’s it been like so far in Buffalo?
Well, this is the longest stretch I’ve been here—five days. I was offered the job November 30th and introduced that Monday. While we were completing our season at Wisconsin-Whitewater I was able to come to Buffalo on three different occasions, for a two-and-a-half day stay, essentially. We’re just putting the finishing touches on assembling a staff and putting together a recruiting plan.
Any good stories to share so far?
Wow, life’s a blur right now. Everybody in Wisconsin keeps saying, ‘Get yourself a good snowblower,’ and I know there’s more snow right now back there than there is here. I think our campus location, it’s not what sometimes the outside eye thinks this is. I can’t endorse chicken wings by anybody, I know that, but I’ve sure had my share of wings so far, working a lot of late nights. It’s all been good, it’s all been positive. We’ve got a lot of things we want to get accomplished. We’re excited to get going.
What were your family’s thoughts on the move?
They were excited. We have two young children and for children there’s always anxiety with change. As you go through a new chapter it’s exciting. You’re nervous, too. When my family had a chance to get out here, their excitement grew. As this gained momentum, we heard great things about the area, great things about the people. And honestly I think that was even undersold because the hospitality and the willingness of people to go beyond general cordialness has really been amazing to us—welcoming us, trying to help not just my family but our staff’s families adjust as we’re going through these next couple months. And everything you hear about how long people have been here or they’ve moved back here and a lot of different things, that shows we made the right decision to come out here, because it’s a good place with good people.
Has your family relocated yet?
We’ll keep our kids in school for the full year. That’ll give us a little better feel for the area. We did the same thing when I moved from Nebraska back to Wisconsin. They stayed there. My daughter is 14 and my son is 8.
What made the UB job special enough for you to leave Whitewater?
The first thing was the opportunity and the challenge to coach at the FBS [Football Bowl Subdivision] level. It was also the conversations I had with Danny White. In all his presentations you hear the word “potential.” There’s a vision and a plan to fulfill that potential, and I wanted to partner with an athletic director who has that.
This program has had success. It’s just striving to find a way to have consistent success, and that was something that—for me to leave a job where there was probably as close to career security [as possible] to then come to the Division I world of uncertainty—it was going to take something really special. It wasn’t lining up that this was even a target. It was really out of the clear blue when it came. And it was the conversation I had a year ago with Turner Gill about his career path and how UB came up in those discussions. I have a lot of respect for Turner Gill as a coach and as a person.
What will be the biggest challenge in making the jump to Division I from DIII?
I think the biggest will be in adapting to the schedule of a Division I coach. There’s a lot more on the head coach’s plate at a Division I school. But at the same time I don’t view it differently than any new job. You have to really be in a job a year to know what it is, and then you tweak things. It’s been awhile since I’ve been in scholarship football at any level and getting back to that recruiting game and the ever changing recruiting game of FBS football, and dealing with larger staffs as a whole—that’ll be different. There’s more support staff within the program than I’ve ever dealt with as a head coach, and there’s more support people in other areas that are there to help you but are also asking for some of your time. Dealing with that and finding a way to do that is very important. You have to learn to be approachable but you’re not always accessible and you’ve gotta find a way to balance that out.
How will you handle recruiting?
It comes down to evaluation. You have to evaluate to find the best players who are going to help your program—and who fit the academic profile of the university—and then do a good job building that relationship. I still believe that there’s a lot of good coaches at all levels of football, high school on up, and it’s just a matter of where certain people have been. Once you get an opportunity to move up, you’ll be able to show your talents. And that’s why I feel very comfortable with our assistant coaches, that they’ll show they’re very capable of doing that.
The competition is different, too. For example, you’ll lead UB into Beaver Stadium this fall.
That’ll be exciting, but I didn’t take this job because we’re gonna play in Penn State’s 100,000-seat stadium. I’m more focused on creating an electric atmosphere here, one where opponents won’t want to play at UB Stadium, and that’ll be part of our job to focus on what we can control, which is playing our best football each and every Saturday. Will that be a different arena? Absolutely. But I always believe that the game’s played at eye level. It’ll be noisy and you need to practice that, but at the same time you need to stay focused on what’s happening at eye level—that’s where the game’s being played. That should be exciting, though.
What have your meetings with players here been like?
I had the chance to meet with the team the day of the press conference [Dec. 1]. College-age athletes are very resilient and competitive. They want to win. I’m sure they understand that it’s going to take work and we’re going to continue talking about how you earn what you get and it’s going to take some work. They seem to be excited about what we were able to accomplish at Whitewater and they’re hoping those things will transfer into this program. But it’s gonna take work on everyone’s part, the head coach included.
How do you plan to take the success you had at Whitewater and instill it here?
There’s not a magic recipe anybody has, or they’d be selling it for lots of money. It goes back to evaluation and recruiting and development of players. But there’s still some things that are fundamentally true and it goes back to evaluation and recruiting and development of players, that we’re all going to continue to learn and get better. We’re going to focus on the process of getting a little bit better in this program each and every day.
At your introductory press conference here when you talked about going from Division III to D-I you said, ‘Football is football.’ What’d you mean by that?
That one sure seems to stick in town! The game still has to be played, you still have to execute. I go back to that let’s get better today than we were yesterday, and I’m trying to get better as a head coach each and every day. As long as we know that we don’t know everything and we’re willing to work at getting better. That can be from Pop Warner to the NFL, so whether we’re at Whitewater or Buffalo, it also plays true.
Was there anything you didn’t accomplish at Whitewater that you wanted to?
There were probably some things off the field that I was working on to improve the program, facility-wise and things. The record’s there but I can talk more about the six losses than anything, and that’s the competitive nature of coaching. Games are often decided in three to five plays and I can talk about the three to five in each of those games that didn’t go our way and why. I was proud that we took something that was very good and made it better. But at the same time we got to a point where success was being evaluated or judged by perfection, and that wasn’t fair to the players. If I said I wanted to be 115-0, I don’t think that would be fair.
That’s your prediction for Buffalo, though, right?!
Right, yeah! It’s about doing your best. We are judged in this profession by wins and losses and every coach understands that more and more every year. At the same time, there’s a way to get your program better in a lot of different ways before you even take the field.
How would you describe your personality and coaching philosophy?
I want to surround myself with quality people, not just as coaches but as people. I like to think I have a decent sense of humor, but when it gets down to it, I’m pretty intense, I don’t like to lose. One of the best ways to have fun in this game is to win, and that takes work and sacrifice.
What are your short- and long-term goals?
We need to establish what we’re going to be about as a football team and what it’s gonna take to get there. We’ll worry about today and tomorrow. We can’t worry about games in September. We need to stay focused on a little bit at a time and we’ll build on it from there. If we start worrying about things that we can’t control or things that are too far down the line, I don’t think that’s the way we’re going to reach the success we want. Focus on the process and embrace it.
At Whitewater, we never talked about winning a national championship. If people start calling and asking what hotel you’re staying at for the national championship game and it’s week three of the season, if you get caught up in that, you’re never getting there. We’re going to work toward September 5th [at Penn State], but we’re not going to be talking about September 5th. We’re not going to talk about going to play at Penn State now because we play a week before that. People have catchier phrases—“1-0”; “win the day”; “do these things”—it’s all about the same thing, and that’s focus on what we have to do to get better. If each guy found one thing to get better at today, we just got a lot better as a football team. I think there’s a great foundation at UB. We just have to find a way to become that consistent winner that our alums deserve.
Who were some of the coaches that inspired you throughout your career?
The gentleman I replaced at Whitewater and even played for, Bob Berezowitz. Probably my biggest break in coaching was the chance to be a graduate assistant at the University of Wisconsin under Barry Alvarez in the early part of him building that program. That was the opportunity that really got me on the path. I spent 10 years over two different stints at the University of Nebraska Omaha under Pat Behrns. One of my bigger mentors and friends in the profession is Roger Hughes, the head coach down at Stetson University [in DeLand, Fla.]. He was the head coach at Princeton for nine years. We worked together. He’s one that I bounce things off. Frank Solich at Ohio University gave me an opportunity at the University of Nebraska, which I’m forever grateful for.
Where’d you grow up?
Jefferson, Wisconsin. My parents went to Whitewater, my sister went to Whitewater. My parents both graduated and got teaching jobs 15 miles away.
Whitewater’s been such a big part of your life. Will it be strange not being there?
You just go. It’s probably more [this] fall when we walk out here the first time that it will hit me. At the same time, the adrenaline rush of leading this football team out on the field will be exciting, too. The good thing is, Whitewater is my alma mater. Now I’m an alum and I get to second-guess the coach! When you have a great opportunity and you’re able to do what we did, I think as you turn in your keys and move on you feel good about how you left it.
Have you had a chance to reflect?
Again that goes back to my process: You spend any time looking in the rearview about how cool that was or patting yourself on the back, somebody’s catching you anyway, so it’s just good to stay in the moment.
What was your reaction to the introductory press conference at Alumni Arena in December?
It kind of hit me as I was looking around that this was a pretty important deal. It was very flattering. I go back to the potential Danny White talked about and the vision and everything that everybody is doing here to help build the program in the right direction. Again, things happen fast and we [Whitewater] were still playing and things are going on. It’s different if our season was complete. You’re thinking about your team and then all of a sudden you’re getting this call at 9 o’clock at night on a Saturday that they want you on a 5:45 flight and all of a sudden your life is changing. You don’t really have a lot of time to do those things. But it’s awful exciting.
What were some of the highlights of your conversations with Danny?
The potential and his thoughts on this university, being the flagship of the State University of New York and his vision that we can be a consistent winner in the MAC. When you talk about the potential and the other things—facility growth, branding growth—all that just got me excited and made me want to be part of it. I want to be here awhile. You look at the majority of my time, I’m not a guy that bounces around. I don’t like doing that to my family. I don’t believe in it. I believe in establishing relationships and seeing the benefits of the work put in when you invest in something and commit to it. That’s where you really get a chance to see the rewards of what you do and everyone benefits.
What’s your message to alums around the country?
I always believe in team efforts and their support of this university and the Athletic Department, especially football, is greatly appreciated. I’m excited to be a part of this. I’ll do everything I can each and every day to make them proud of what we’re doing here.