Published October 4, 2022
The story of UB’s 1958 football team and its star running back, Willie Evans, will live on in name for generations of students after the university formally renamed Porter Quad the Willie R. Evans Quadrangle during a ceremony last week at the residence hall on the North Campus.
“We want our students to know who Willie was and how he lived UB’s mission,” President Satish K. Tripathi said. “For those of us who were fortunate enough to know him, Willie will always live in our hearts and, with this residence hall named in his memory, he will inspire our students for years to come.”
The story behind the renaming has been widely told in recent years.
Evans, who died in 2017, was one of only two Black players on the 1958 team that went 8-1 and earned a bid to the Tangerine Bowl in Orlando. But when the players learned Evans and teammate Mike Wilson would be barred from playing, the team unanimously declined the invitation.
Decades later, that decision still resonates.
“What took place there is inspiring,” said Mark Alnutt, vice president and director of athletics. “What took place there is way ahead of its time.”
So, two years ago, when UB began looking closer at how historical names of buildings, spaces and roadways on campus align with its identity as a “diverse, inclusive and welcoming scholarly community,” there was no question that Evans and his enduring legacy deserved this unique distinction, Tripathi explained.
“Willie not only exemplified our university mission, he left our university community with an impactful legacy of service and provided us with a model for a meaningful life,” he said.
Evans’ widow, Bobbie, told Tripathi how overwhelmed she was when he called in June of last year to give her the news of the renaming.
“You were speaking about Willie and what he meant to UB. My thought was, ‘It’s just Willie,’” she said. “He was very proud of being part of the UB family and whatever he did, he never ever gave any thought that he would get anything in return for it.”
Bobbie Evans was among the more than 100 people who gathered in a lounge of the residence hall on Sept. 30 to formally dedicate the Willie R. Evans Quadrangle — and talk about Willie.
In attendance were four of his teammates from that 1958 team: Fred Kogut, Joe Oliverio, Nate Bliss and Stan Kowalski.
“He was a helluva player,” Oliverio said. “A player’s gentleman — intelligent, wonderful teammate, loyal to the team and proud of UB. He was humbled when we decided not to go to the Tangerine Bowl.”
“I’d like to think Willie’s spirit is with us now,” Kogut said, “and as a result of this dedication of the building, his spirit will live with UB forever.”
Evans went on to graduate from UB in 1960 with a bachelor’s degree in physical education, later earning a master’s degree from SUNY Buffalo State in 1988. He worked for more than 30 years in Buffalo Public Schools, where he coached, taught physical education and retired as director of physical education.
Always well dressed, Evans impressed the same on his players. He loved jazz and dancing, and taught his students how to samba and cha-cha. He was a World War II history buff, whose apple, lemon meringue and coconut custard pies were legendary among family and friends.
Evans knew that anger was unproductive, and he didn’t worry about what he couldn’t control, his wife said.
“He believed that you have to put 100% of yourself in everything and anything you do,” Bobbie Evans said. “If you don’t, it’s a waste of your time, your energy and your talent, and a lot of brain cells, too.”
Deeply devoted to his alma mater, Evans served as president of the UB Alumni Association and was the recipient of the Community Leadership Medal, the Distinguished Alumni Award, the Russell J. Gugino Award and, along with his football teammates, the Chancellor Charles P. Norton Medal, UB’s highest honor.
Now, each year, as UB welcomes new undergraduate students to the residential hall that bears Evans’ name, the values and ideals he stood for should be inspiration and motivation for them all, said Brian Hamluk, vice president for student life.
“I must say that, being brought down the path here, I was overwhelmed seeing his name,” Bobbie Evans said. “It would have been nice if he were here, as well.”
I knew Mr. Evans as my daughter's tennis coach at City Honors. He was, indeed, a gentleman and superb example to young people of what it takes to make a meaningful life.
I knew about the honorable stand his UB teammates took at a time when that kind of moral decency wasn't common. When I entered Amherst College in a class of 250 students, only one person was of color, so I can well understand the kind of strength and self-belief it took for Willie to conduct himself as he did — not unlike Jackie Robinson and Jessie Owens.
I write this on Yom Kippor — the Jewish Day of Atonement. America as a whole needs to face its immoral past, atone for it and move forward to a "more perfect union."
I hope UB Archives has a good collection of material about the 1958 team boycott of the Tangerine Bowl and will exhibit it at some point.
Howard R. Wolf
Regarding Howard Wolf's comment, the UB Archives does hold materials on the stance taken by the UB football team to boycott the 1958 Tangerine Bowl. To supplement these holdings, we conducted an oral history interview with Willy Evans back in the late 1970s, which I believe is now accessible online. Thanks for thinking of the archives, Howard!