White­wa­ter aims for first Stagg Bowl with­out Leipold

Bullis fol­lowed a le­gend, has team in semi­fi­nal

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - - Sports - Tom Hau­dri­court

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.”

MARK HOFF­MAN / MIL­WAU­KEE JOUR­NAL SEN­TINEL

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.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Lance Leipold is tak­ing Buf­falo to Dol­lar Gen­eral Bowl on Dec. 22, his first bowl game as head coach of the Bulls.

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