Published January 9, 2019
The plane touched down in Buffalo in the wee hours of the morning on Dec. 23. UB Bulls football players, coaches and staff stepped onto the tarmac, collected their luggage and boarded buses bound for the North Campus, or hopped into their own vehicles to head for home for the first time in nearly a week.
It was the end to an exhausting, but memorable, week in Mobile, Alabama, where the Bulls played in the Dollar General Bowl. Of course, the 42-32 loss to Troy stung as UB was in search of its first bowl victory, but players, coaches and staff relished the opportunity to extend the season by playing in the bowl game.
So, just what, exactly, happens over the course of bowl week? Sure, there’s a football game to be played. But bowl games are big for one key intangible: the opportunity for players to grow closer together through shared experiences in a place most have never before visited.
“It’s been great just bonding with the team,” said Matt Myers, a freshman quarterback from West Seneca who will vie for the starting job next season now that Tyree Jackson has declared for the NFL Draft.
“When you talk about bowl experiences and what it’s all about for our young men to see things and be places they’ve never been, it’s definitely come true for us,” Bulls coach Lance Leipold said in a press conference a few days before the bowl game.
“We’re thrilled to be here and the experience has been fantastic for not only our student-athletes but our coaches and their families and all of our supporters that are here,” added Mark Alnutt, UB’s director of athletics.
The Bulls arrived in Mobile on Dec. 18. The festivities got underway that evening with a kickoff party in the team hotel featuring famed Southern delicacies, such as moon pies. Barbers were on hand to give free haircuts and trims. Many players could also be seen watching the UB men’s basketball team’s win over Syracuse on a large projection screen.
The following day began with one of the more emotional events of the week as players visited with pediatric patients at the University of South Alabama’s Children’s & Women’s Hospital. The visit was particularly poignant for UB offensive lineman Austin Kunick, a childhood leukemia survivor who at one point was told he wouldn’t be able to play sports.
“I went through a lot of experiences like this, meeting players from the Bills and the Bulls. To be able to come back and talk to kids that are in the same experience that I had, it’s really nice because it feels like I’ve come full circle. I’m able to give back in the same way that was given to me when I was little,” Kunick said.
A tour of the USS Alabama (“The Mighty A”) was another bowl week highlight. Players, coaches and staff seemed in awe of the size and grandeur of the ship, and many posed for photos aboard the vessel with their teammates and families.
Before the tour, players heard from former NFL scout Jim Nagy, now executive director of the Reese’s Senior Bowl, which will be played Jan. 26 in the same stadium as the Dollar General Bowl.
“Congratulations on an awesome season. I know you guys have really turned things around up there,” Nagy said, noting that he’s “a huge fan of the MAC” because his dad was a Central Michigan graduate. Nagy also watched a lot of Mid-American Conference football while living in Ohio when he worked as an area scout for the New England Patriots (He spent 18 years in the NFL.)
He singled out UB wide receiver Anthony Johnson, a projected first-round pick in this year’s NFL Draft, who will play in the Senior Bowl. “We are really excited to have Anthony down at the game. He’s one of my favorite players I saw on tape this year,” Nagy said.
The Bulls heard from another notable speaker, former New Orleans Saints quarterback Archie Manning, during a luncheon the day before the game. Later that evening, downtown Mobile turned into the scene of a Mardi Gras parade featuring the UB and Troy marching bands, along with floats from Mobile area organizations.
Of course, no trip to Mobile’s Gulf Coast would be complete without stuffing your face with fresh seafood and ‘Bama barbecue. “The food down here is awesome. A lot of fried chicken, lot of Southern food,” said junior offensive lineman Evin Ksiezarczyk. “It’s been really fun. There’s nothing I can say that’s been like, ‘Awe man, I don’t want to be here.’ I would love to come back again.”
Bulls pride was on display throughout the week as supporters sported their UB gear. Former UB Athletics Director Allen Greene, now the AD at Auburn University, even stopped by the team hotel the day of the Dollar General Bowl to wish the Bulls well. And more than 450 UB alumni and supporters turned out for a pre-game tent party hosted by the UB Alumni Association.
While the loss to Troy was disappointing, the Bulls enjoyed their best season in program history, winning 10 games for the first time ever. President Satish K. Tripathi lauded the team’s accomplishments this season in this statement:
“Congratulations to our UB Bulls football team on such an exciting and historic season.
“All season long, our student-athletes’ performance has been nothing short of inspiring. They have given us so many reasons to celebrate, and I couldn’t be prouder of the way they have represented UB on the national stage.
“Today’s game caps an impressive, record-breaking season for our team. It exemplifies the culmination of many years of hard work on the part of our student-athletes and coaches, and it shines a light on our athletics program’s rise in the national ranks.
“I would like to extend my heartfelt congratulations to our student-athletes, our coaches and our athletics director. The success of our athletics program is energizing our university, our community and fans near and far.”