12/24/08 — Opinion -- Buffalo's first bowl trip historic for many reasons

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Opinion -- Buffalo's first bowl trip historic for many reasons

By Andrew Stevens
Published in Sports on December 24, 2008 1:46 PM

Fifty years after completing one of the best football seasons in Buffalo University's humble gridiron history Willie Evans and Mike Wilson are finally getting their opportunity to represent the Bulls at a bowl game.

Evans and Wilson were the were the only African Americans on Buffalo's 1958 squad that went 8-1 and earned an invitation the 13th annual Tangerine Bowl to face Florida State.

However, the Bulls were informed that the Orlando High School Athletic Association, which held the lease to the stadium in which the bowl game was to be played, stipulated that the intermingling of races during athletic events inside the stadium was prohibited.

Despite protests from the Orlando Elks Lodge, the bowl game's sponsor, Buffalo would only be allowed to participate if Evans and Wilson did not play. The university and head coach Dick Offenhamer left it to the players to decide whether to accept the bowl invitation.

Offenhamer's players gathered in the basement of Clark Gymnasium on the Buffalo campus to decide their postseason fate. Before co-captains Nick Bottini and Lou Reale could pass out paper ballots the players unanimously voiced their opinion to reject the bowl bid.

The '58 Bulls were a team that became united well before it sent the message to the Tangerine Bowl that standing up for what was right meant much more to them than all the notority postseason football had to offer.

This was a team that held scrimmages well after dark where the hitting was so hard games were nothing in comparison. A close loss in the fourth week of the season to Baldwin-Wallace served as what the players described as a "wake up call," and Buffalo didn't play a close game the rest of the season.

Buffalo's football program had been mired in mediocrity following the '58 season before current head coach and former Nebraska quarterback Turner Gill took over the program in 2006.

The Bulls (8-4) had won just five games in the previous four seasons prior to Gill's arrival and three years later Gill has guided the program to places it's never been.

Buffalo upset previously unbeaten and No. 12 ranked Ball State 42-24 in the MAC Championship game and earned a berth in the International Bowl on Jan. 3 in Toronto against Connecticut. The Bulls are in the midst of their first six-game winning streak since returning to the Division I-A level in 1999.

An African American himself, Gill was recently passed over for head coaching positions as both Syracuse and Auburn.

Buffalo's first-ever bowl appearance will be highlighted by honoring the members of the 1958 team which will be in attendance.

The '58 squad has served as inspiration for Gill's current club. Gill, 45, has received e-mails from several members of the '58 Bulls as well as seemingly everyone else that went to Buffalo or played there.

As important as bowl games are to recruiting, pre-season rankings the following year and fan-base enthusiasm the outcome of Buffalo's first-ever bowl game isn't what will matter most on Jan 3.

Honoring a group of men that embodied every sense of the word "team," is worth much more than winning a bowl game or in the case of the '58 Bulls, even playing in one.