As FootballScoop first reported Friday and has since been confirmed by both universities, Lance Leipold has left Buffalo for Kansas.
“Since entering the FBS ranks in 1999, the UB football program continues to rise to unprecedented heights,” UB AD Mark Alnutt said. “From bowl victories to top NFL Draft picks, UB has established itself as one of the top programs in not only the Mid-American Conference, but the entire Group of Five. With our success on the field as well as facilities rivaling some of the best in the country, we know we are an attractive coaching destination and look forward to selecting the next leader of our football program.”
The Leipold hire, made by now-Tennessee AD Danny White, was a definite risk for Buffalo. The man built a Division III dynasty at Wisconsin-Whitewater, but his FBS experience at the time was limited to three years as a Wisconsin GA and three years as a Nebraska assistant.
That risk became an unqualified success. The Bulls were under .500 in four of predecessor Jeff Quinn’s five seasons and, after a 13-23 start, Leipold went 24-10 with two MAC East titles from 2018-20. His 2020 team went 5-1 and recorded the first AP Top 25 finish in program history.
More than that, Leipold installed an identity at Buffalo. The Bulls rushed for 250 yards per game in 2019 and rode the run heavily in 2020; in seven games, they rushed the ball 300 times (compared to 157 passes) for 287 yards per game and 6.71 a carry. They finished second nationally in rushing yards per game and first in yards per carry and touchdowns per game. The Bulls employed two 1,000-yard rushers in 2019 and would’ve done so again in 2020 had they played more than seven games. Jaret Patterson, a 1,000-yard rusher all three years on campus, declared for the NFL draft, but Kevin Marks (741 yards in seven games last year) returns for his senior season.
Obviously, in his ideal world, Alnutt would have Leipold back in 2021 and keep the ball rolling in 2021. There is no need for a reboot on Lake Erie.
Given that, the most pragmatic option may be to promote an internal candidate, and there are a couple good options.
Offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnicki was with Leipold in Buffalo all six seasons and goes back with him to Wisconsin-Whitewater. A finalist for the FootballScoop Offensive Coordinator of the Year in 2020, Kotelnicki called the plays that created the Bulls’ horns-down, hoof-pounding identity.
Defensive coordinator Brian Borland led a top-30 unit in 2020 and also dates back with Leipold to the Whitewater days. He could be an easy choice to move up to the head coaching chair, but he also figures to be a natural choice to join Leipold at Kansas.
Rob Ianello was Leipold’s first lieutenant as associate head coach while also serving as recruiting coordinator and tight ends coach. He was the Bulls’ wide receivers coach for four years prior to that, producing a collection of All-MAC performers. Ianello was a well-regarded recruiter at the Power 5 level and also has previous MAC head coaching experience at Akron from 2010-11.
At the same time, promoting an internal candidate may not be so simple.
Leipold figures to take a number of assistants with him from Buffalo to Lawrence, and money could be a factor. For instance, Leipold made $624,000 as Buffalo’s head coach in 2020 and, before Les Miles was fired and the staff dispersed, Kansas signed Mike DeBord to a 2-year contract at $600,000 per year to be the Jayhawks’ offensive coordinator. So it’s possible Kotelnicki, Ianello and any other internal candidates could make more as KU assistants than as the UB head coach.
This isn’t to say Buffalo is unwilling to invest, however. The program unveiled a Power 5-level locker room in September, in fact.
Expect strong outside interest in this job.
Brian Polian considers Buffalo his home town and worked two separate stints as a Bulls assistant, first as a tight ends coach in 1998 and then as running backs and special teams coach from 2001-03. He spent four years as the head coach at Nevada and, since then, has spent the last four years as Brian Kelly’s special teams coordinator at Notre Dame. He would have strong interest in the position if approached.
Pete Lembo left his job as Ball State’s head coach after the 2015 season to be an assistant with Maryland, but since then he’s been in a number of head coaching conversations. He went 44-14 at Lehigh, 35-22 at Elon and 33-29 from 2011-15 at Ball State, including a 19-7 stretch in 2012-13. In the six years since, he’s built a reputation as one of the best special teams coordinators in college football, spending 2019-20 at Memphis before joining Shane Beamer’s new South Carolina staff this winter.
Other current or former head coaches, especially those with MAC and/or upstate New York ties, could emerge as the process develops.
Oh, and speaking about the process…
There’s no good time to lose a head coach you wanted to keep, but this is a particularly… if not bad, let’s call it a disadvantageous one. The new head coach will have roughly 90 days between his hire date and the opening of training camp, and that’s assuming a relatively speedy search. Spring football has come and gone, and in-person recruiting re-opens June 1 after a 15-month hiatus. The new head coach had better have his plan for camps and visits in place by then, because each and every one of his competitors will.
Of the 129 active FBS head coaches, only two were hired between Feb. 15 and Nov. 15 — Lincoln Riley and Pat Fitzgerald. So there’s not a whole lot of precedent here.
Some guiding principles as the search begins.
More important than the man Alnutt winds up hiring is the traits he seeks over the coming days and weeks. To succeed, Buffalo will need:
— first and foremost, a man of high character who will bring in assistants and players who are good people that will represent the university well.
— someone who’s willing to not re-invent the wheel, especially offensively.
— someone ready and willing to live and work in upstate New York, with all that entails.
— someone familiar with staffing and recruiting on a MAC budget, that also happens to be in an NFL city where the Bills will suck up a tremendous amount of oxygen — particularly now that they’re good.
Leipold proved it’s possible to build a winning identity at Buffalo. Now it’s up to the next guy to keep it going.