BUFFALO, N.Y., Jan. 2, 2009 -- The Buffalo Bulls have been playing football for more than a century -- but without much success. The University at Buffalo's football program has been regarded by some as the worst program in the nation and, in recent years, a true laughingstock.
But this season, the Bulls' luck has changed. With dramatic upsets and fairy tale finishes, the team earned the title of Mid-American Conference champions, defeating heavily favored Ball State 42-24 on Dec. 5 at Ford Field in Detroit.
For the just the second time in school history, the Bulls earned a spot in a post-season bowl game. They'll face Connecticut in the International Bowl in Toronto on Jan. 3.
The last time the Bulls earned a bid to a bowl game was 50 years ago. The 1958 team had a monumental 8-1 season and was honored on "The Ed Sullivan Show" with the Lambert Cup for the best small school program in the East.
The hard-nosed '58 Buffalo squad earned a trip to the Tangerine Bowl in Orlando, but under one condition: their two African-American players, defensive end Mike Wilson and star halfback Willie Evans could not attend.
"Coach says that if we go, Willie and Mike are going to have to stay home," said Joe Oliverio, a quarterback on the 1958 Bulls, now 69, who remembers feeling blinded-sided by the news.
The Orlando High School Athletic Association, which hosted the Tangerine Bowl, prohibited inter-racial teams.
"I went and got the paper and there was my picture along with Mike Wilson's on the front page of the Courier Express," said Evans, the left halfback on the '58 Bulls.
In Buffalo, a place where whites and blacks worked alongside each other and the black and white teammates played together seamlessly, the Bulls were angry and dumbfounded when they first heard the news.
I was "insulted that my teammates would be treated based on the color of their skin," said Oliverio.
The university and coach Dick Offenhamer left it to the players to decide whether or not to play the game. They gathered in the basement of the gym to vote.
Team United Against Racism
"We all, in unison, just stood up and said, 'We aren't going,'" said Jack Dempsey, an offensive lineman. "Everybody felt the same and made the same decision, which was the right thing to do."
Even though they turned their backs on a chance in the national spotlight, the team walked out of that gym with their heads held high.
"And to be a part of that is worth much more than any small victory we might have gotten in a bowl game," said Oliverio.
"As it turns out, the fellas on that '58 team were light years ahead of so many other quadrants of our society," Evans said.
The solidarity and spirit of the '58 team has served as an inspiration to the current Bulls. Evans has spoken with the current team, instilling the drive and desire into each and every player to push forward.
"You want to talk about what defines team and what defines unity?" asked Bulls head coach Turner Gill. "The 1958 team."
Gill, 45, is one of four African-American coaches at the major college level. Under his three-year guidance, Buffalo Bulls have defied expectations. Gill recently signed a contract extension in Buffalo after being courted by Auburn University and other major schools with coaching vacancies.
At homecoming this season, Willie Evans and the '58 team were honored by the university.
Many of the '58 teammates have sent their congratulations on the Bulls' bowl bid and feel connected to the players. About two dozen of the players from the 1958 team are traveling to Toronto and will watch the game from the Buffalo sideline.
In the Jan. 3 bowl game, this year's Bulls have extra motivation to win. They are not only playing for themselves, but in honor of the team that stood firm against racism, but never got the chance to play.