Gill, Bulls do what couldn't be done

Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson
DETROIT -- As Buffalo players gathered in the middle of the field after their 42-24 win over Ball State in the Mid-American Conference Championship game, Willie Evans stood on the sideline, hands in his pockets, taking it all in.

Evans was one of two African-American players on the 1958 Buffalo team that declined a bowl invitation because the bowl wouldn't let integrated teams play. It was the only bowl invite the Bulls ever received and the only semblance of a championship they'd ever won.

So as Evans stood on the sideline, he was filled with pride as his alma mater achieved a goal that was 50 years overdue.

"Unbelievable, remarkable and all the other possible adjectives you can think of," Evans said. "To see these young men work so hard and see them come through with a win is just great. You can't imagine what this is doing for the University and the Buffalo community."

In the midst of the chaos, Buffalo athletic director Warde Manuel couldn't contain his emotion either. His eyes welled up with tears as he hugged every player, manager, coach and member of the 1958 team within arms reach. The emotion was not just from pride in his program, but from the fact that for so long Buffalo had been the doormat of the NCAA.

Entering this year, the Bulls were 13-59 in MAC play, the worst winning percentage of any school in the conference, and 17-86 overall as a member of the MAC.

The Bulls' eight wins this year (8-5) is the team's most wins since becoming an FBS program The Bulls are 15-22 under Turner Gill, but were 10-69 in their previous seven years of FBS football.

"So many people told us we couldn't do it, told us not to come [to Buffalo], told [coach] Turner [Gill] not to come and just the belief of the kids and the community and the university and to be where we are today is just overwhelming," Manuel said. "I thought it would take a little bit longer, but Turner is the best person, the best coach, the best motivator, the best leader, one of the best I've ever been around. What he's done with these kids, we were told we couldn't do it here."

After Friday's game, representatives from the International Bowl offered an invitation to the Bulls to their Jan. 3 game, which they accepted. Manuel said the entire 1958 team, several members of which have been around the program most of the year, will also get complimentary trips to Toronto to play the representative from the Big East.

"The president and I have decided that the 1958 team will have a bowl experience, and they will be coming with us and we will have them with us, as many of them that want to come, to Toronto for the International Bowl," Manuel said. "They're a part of it. It's great to do it on the 50th anniversary and we look forward to them finally having, after 50 years, the bowl experience they rightly deserve."

Quarterback Drew Willy, a senior who was the freshman starting quarterback when the Bulls were 1-10 in 2005, hugged Evans and the two shared a laugh and some kind words. Willy hugged Manuel, who looked like he didn't want to let him go, and Willy hugged his fellow seniors -- guys who had toiled through one and two-win seasons to have this one moment in the middle of Ford Field to the sound of about 5,000 chanting fans.

He said Thursday he thought all along that Buffalo was a team of destiny. That destiny smiled on the Bulls yet again.

"All the overtimes, all the late heroics, I think someone up above was looking out for us," Willy said. "I think we're a team of destiny. This is what we came here for. My class, we came here to turn it around. When you've got a man like coach Turner Gill, everything is possible. We were 1-10 my freshman year and to go out a MAC champion is something I can truly cherish."

And then there was Gill, the coach who took on the task of turning around a hopeless team and doing so in a short amount of time. Gill was lost in the sea of blue and white after the game, but when he finally reached the interview room, he let out a big "Wooo!"

"Great feeling, great feeling," Gill said "Proud of these guys. Proud of these student-athletes. They understand love. They understand faith. They understand belief. They understand family. This is what this program is today. It's what it's going to be also tomorrow."