Whitewater aims for first Stagg Bowl without Leipold
Bullis followed a legend, has team in semifinal
Kevin Bullis knew what he was getting himself into when he took over for Lance Leipold as head football coach at UW-Whitewater after the 2014 season.
Or at least he thought he did.
“An old friend told me many years ago, you never take the head job after a legend (leaves),” Bullis said. “I didn’t follow that order. I followed a legend who got to 100 victories faster than anyone in history.”
In Leipold’s last game at the helm on Dec. 19, 2014, the Warhawks won the NCAA Division III title, beating longtime rival Mount Union, 43-34, in the Stagg Bowl. It was Whitewater’s sixth national title in eight years under Leipold, who departed with a 109-6 record for the opportunity to coach at the FBS level at the University at Buffalo.
The fifth-ranked Warhawks (13-0) have not been back to the Stagg Bowl since. They will get the chance to return to the title game Saturday when they play No. 2 Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton, Texas. Top-ranked Mount Union plays No. 14 Johns Hopkins in the other semifinal game.
Though failing to make the title game, Whitewater certainly did not collapse after Leipold’s departure. The Warhawks advanced to the semifinals in the first year under Bullis before getting whipped on the road by Mount Union, 36-6. That season, they lost during the regular season to UW-Oshkosh but bounced back to beat the Titans in the quarterfinal round of the playoffs.
In 2016, Whitewater nipped Oshkosh, 17-14, during the regular season and finished with a perfect record before getting knocked off at home in the Division
III quarterfinals by John Carroll. The rival Titans made the tournament as an at-large team and surged all the way to the Stagg Bowl before bowing to Mary Hardin-Baylor, 10-7, in a defensive battle.
It was a different story for Whitewater in 2017, however. Opening losses to Illinois Wesleyan and Concordia-Moorhead, in addition to a 17-14 loss to Oshkosh in conference play, left the Warhawks out of the postseason altogether. The Titans appeared headed back to the title game before blowing a 25-point lead and losing to Mount Union, 43-40, at home in the semifinals.
In many ways, that 7-3 season proved to be a wake-up call for everyone in the Whitewater football program. The Warhawks have been a different team this year, beating Concordia-Moorhead, 24-6, in the second game, later blanking Oshkosh, 20-0, and steamrolling through the first three rounds of the playoffs.
“It really made us look at ourselves," said Bullis, who has a 44-6 record at Whitewater’s helm. “Going 7-3 is not something that anybody feels good around here. It made me look at myself and our program, and (determining) what was the difference?
“The biggest difference was our discipline to our learning culture, and ramping that up significantly. That’s something we’ve improved dramatically, both as coaches and players. I know it sounds simplistic and it is. That’s the foundation of who we are. It’s not lip service.
“This team has been the best practicing team I’ve ever been around and I’ve coached 30 years. What you practice shows up on Saturday.”
Leipold is the first to admit he did Bullis no favors by taking four assistant coaches with him to Buffalo, including defensive coordinator Brian Borland and offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnicki. The top assistant to stay, Bullis, found that building a national-contender staff is easier said than done.
“It really wasn’t fair to Kevin,” said Leipold, who stays in frequent contact with Bullis. “He had to put an entire staff back together. Sometimes, you don’t always get the right mesh at first but he has been able to put together a good staff and the results show.
“That’s a tough league with a lot of good teams. We always felt if we won the WIAC we had a really good team.”
While Bullis tried to live up to the ridiculously high standards set by his predecessor, Leipold was taking on an entirely different challenge in rebuilding Buffalo’s program from the ground floor. The Bulls went 5-7 in his first season but lost several starters and staggered to a 2-10 mark in 2016, a year that began tragically with the death of defensive end Solomon Jackson after a heart-related collapse during a conditioning workout.
“The 2016 season was probably the longest season I’ve had to go through as a coach,” Leipold said. “You want to stick to your beliefs but there are questions. Can we get this thing turned around fast enough for everyone’s desires?
“When I took the job, I knew it was an opportunity to build a program. I was looking forward to that kind of challenge. It was a great opportunity to jump to the FBS level. At the same time, there was a lot of work to do. We had 42 new players on the team that second year.”
Leipold, who signed a five-year deal, got the program headed in the right direction in ’17, with a 6-6 record that made Buffalo bowl eligible for the first time in many years. They were not invited to one, however, a discouraging development that left both players and coaches determined to avoid the bubble in 2018.
“That put us on a mission,” Leipold said. “It was disappointing to not be invited to a bowl because four of our losses were by a total of nine points. We lost two good quarterbacks to injuries but the guys kept battling.
"This year, we got some good wins early – beat Temple on the road; (defeated) Eastern Michigan, who had beat Purdue; won at Rutgers. It built from there.”
The result was a 10-2 record and berth in the Mid-American Conference championship game against Northern Illinois. The Bulls had a seemingly safe 29-10 lead in the third quarter, but NIU caught fire and couldn’t be stopped, rallying for a 30-29 victory to break the hearts of Leipold and his players.
“That was a tough loss,” Leipold said in a telephone interview. “I told the kids we had to learn from it and move on and get better. We’ve got a bowl game to play and this group can be the first in school history to win one.”
Buffalo was invited to play in the Dollar General Bowl on Dec. 22 in Mobile, Alabama, against Troy (9-3) of the Sun Belt Conference. With Leipold in the early stages of preparing his team for that game, Bullis has been putting the finishing touches on his game plan for the showdown with Mary Hardin-Baylor.
In the little spare time the two coaches have, they often send encouraging text messages to one another for jobs well done. Bullis said he never doubted that Leipold and his staff would get Buffalo’s program turned around because “Lance and those coaches are amazing teachers, which makes them great coaches.”
As for trying to escape the large shadow Leipold left and get his own team to a Stagg Bowl for the first time, Bullis said, “I’d be very humbled by it because of all the hard work the kids have put into it.
“A lot of people assume you take over a program like Whitewater and you have the fastest car in the race, and somebody just hands you the keys and you go. It's not like that. We had to rebuild the engine with the staff and restock the team with players.
"That’s a process. It doesn’t happen overnight.”
Kevin Bullis, who has a 44-6 record as UW-Whitewater’s head coach, has the Warhawks in the Division III semifinals for the first time since 2015.
Lance Leipold is taking Buffalo to Dollar General Bowl on Dec. 22, his first bowl game as head coach of the Bulls.