- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 25, 2003

BUFFALO — The story lines vary, but they always yield the same thing — long faces after another painful defeat.

The University of Buffalo is the poster child for college football futility . The Bulls have the longest losing streak in Division I-A at 18. The Saturdays of sadness have included blowouts and heartbreakers since their most recent victory in early September 2002.

A banner hanging outside the stadium reads, “Over the Top.” The irony strikes you as soon as you visit the upstate New York facility and understand the mounting horrors that have taken place on its turf and elsewhere.

A slogan like that in Columbus, Ohio, or Tallahassee, Fla., would suggest a chase for a championship. Way off the big-time college football map in Buffalo, it simply means winning one game.

“[The losing streak] chips away at you, it creates doubt,” said coach Jim Hofher, in his third season at Buffalo. “It is tough to turn around. We have to keep working as diligently as we have and never give up, because this will end. It will. Sooner than later would be good.”

Not that Buffalo (0-8 this season) is on the brink of setting all-time Division I-A records. Northwestern holds that dubious distinction with 34 consecutive losses from 1979 to 1982, and seven other programs have suffered at least 23 straight setbacks.

In fact, these Bulls only share the longest losing run on their own campus. Buffalo, which moved up to I-A status in 1999, also dropped 18 in a row before beating Bowling Green in 2001.

As the Bulls seek not to break that horrific record today, they are 13½-point underdogs against Ohio (2-5) at UB Stadium. This is Buffalo’s best remaining opportunity for a victory; its next two opponents are Mid-American Conference power Toledo and 12th-ranked Northern Illinois.

Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean Buffalo will seize the opportunity. The Bulls have lost 13 consecutive conference games and 11 straight home games, both streaks dating to 2001.

“As many games as I have lost, I have never got used to it,” said linebacker Lamar Wilcher, a fifth-year senior who sat out his freshman season in 1999 when the Bulls went 0-11. “I sulk for a little while after losses — I always do. I will never be satisfied with losing.”

It has been more than 13 months since Buffalo upset Rutgers 34-11 on the road on Sept. 7, 2002. One-sided losses since have included a 23-point defeat by Cornell and a 59-3 setback at Miami (Ohio, not Florida). There also have been close games. Last week against Marshall, the four-touchdown underdogs took the MAC’s top program deep into the fourth quarter before losing.

Something always seems to go wrong. The Bulls narrowly missed two late interceptions and were stung by a controversial penalty before Marshall scored a late insurance touchdown en route to winning 26-16 and spoiling Buffalo’s homecoming.

Undoubtedly, none of the grads on hand were surprised. But the current players broke down and cried after riding an emotional roller coaster that plunged them from euphoria to misery.

Again.

“You could see and taste the win,” said freshman receiver DeSean Larmond, who wakes up in the middle of the night rehashing losses. “You start thinking about plays and things you could have changed. A few freshmen friends I know ask the same questions everybody asks: ‘Why are you not winning?’ I just tell them the same thing: ‘We are getting better. If you came to the games, maybe you would see.’ ”

The loss to Marshall was a sign of progress for the Bulls, a young squad that returns most of its core players next season.

“It is probably the most competitive we have ever been against an upper-division MAC team,” said Hofher, who had a 44-36 record as coach at Cornell from 1990 through 1997. “They have really been surprising from a human nature standpoint. They are very together and very focused on trying to get better.”

Hofher never brings up the streak, because his players already hear too much about it. Instead. he goes out of his way to cite positive factors and not dwell on mistakes.

Still, the Bulls can’t escape the negativity. Running back Dave Dawson, a Pennsylvania native, is regularly asked why he came to Buffalo. Others rarely wear team sweatshirts and gear around campus. Even so, they hear the whispers and mocking remarks behind their backs.

It is a situation that rival MAC coach Joe Novak knows all too well. Novak’s Northern Illinois team is 7-0 (including an upset of Maryland) and nationally ranked, but it wasn’t always that way. Novak remembers when students would turn their shirts inside out because they were embarrassed to be associated with a program that endured a 23-game losing streak ending in 1998. Now he knows that the seeds of a successful program were cultivated during those dark days.

“I thought a couple times that maybe I wasn’t capable of getting it done,” said Novak, recalling his own sleepless nights. “We would always wait for something to happen to make us lose. It takes a while to turn around. The only way to get through it is to be positive and stay the course.”

Now the surprising Huskiesexpect good things to happen.

“Right now, we could be 3-4,” said Novak, who feels current victories are much sweeter because of past failures. “We were in a lot of close games, but we found ways to win. Six years ago, we would have found ways to lose those games.”

Northern Illinois’ revival stands as a model for Hofher and Buffalo — but before the Bulls can think about sustained success, they must win one game.

Nonetheless, some Buffalo players envision their own Impossible Dream turning into glorious reality late this afternoon. They can picture themselves and their fans tearing down the goal posts in a cathartic moment that washes away all the losing of the recent past.

“I would definitely cry,” said defensive tackle Rob Schroeder. “All you hear about is the 18-game losing streak. It’s hard to block it out sometimes. You try your hardest. We just need a win to shut those people up.”

One win.

So close and yet so far.

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