Sullivan: How can you bet against a man like UB football coach Mo Linguist?

Jerry Sullivan

New UB football coach Maurice Linguist is a man who knows what he wants. Between telling his future wife he was going to marry her on the day they met to buying a one-way ticket for his UB interview, Linguist seems to have the determination needed to keep UB’s football success rolling. (Courtesy of the Linguist family)

Over the past 15 years, in nine different college football coaching jobs, Maurice Linguist has earned a reputation as one of the top recruiters in the country. But “Mo” landed his top recruit before he ever began coaching, when he was a player at Baylor.

It was his wife, Stacie.

“She was a freshman at Baylor,” Linguist recalled. “I was a junior, sitting with a bunch of football players. She walked in with a group of friends and my jaw dropped to the ground. I stopped what I was doing and walked straight up to her.”

Mo introduced himself, invited Stacie to sit at his table. They chatted for a bit. Then he looked her square in the face and said, “You don’t know me very well, but I’m going to marry you one day.”

“The first day I met her!” Linguist said. “She told me I was crazy. I said, ‘You’ll believe me one day.’ This is all true.”

Stacie confirms the account. “His story is so accurate,” she said with a laugh. “He has me with the tray and the chicken nuggets. He remembers exactly what I wore, a black jacket with a little fur. Yes, in Memorial Hall.”

Soon, they were both crazy — for each other. They became friends and soon began dating, then got married 2014, when Mo was coaching at Iowa State and Stacie studying for the Iowa bar. They have two children: Maura, 4, and Lance, 2. 

“She was my first five-star (recruit),” he said. “Best thing I ever did in my life, married Stacie. Best thing I ever did.”

That’s the man the University at Buffalo hired as its 26th head football coach last May 8, a romantic and an inveterate list-maker, a passionate family man and a detail-oriented football junkie who has soaked up knowledge at every step of his career. 

Dallas Cowboys defensive line coach Jim Tomsula directs the defense, with defensive backs coach Maurice Linguist, right, during an NFL football game in Arlington, Texas, Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)

Linguist is only 37 years old, one of the youngest head coaches in the NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS). On Thursday, he will make his debut as a collegiate head coach when the Bulls host Wagner at 7 p.m. at UB Stadium. 

He has been on the job for just 117 days — or 10 days longer than he spent as a defensive co-coordinator for Jim Harbaugh at Michigan before UB came calling. 

Linguist replaced Lance Leipold, who brought the Buffalo program to unprecedented heights in his six years as head manand led the Bulls to three straight bowl appearances before leaving for Kansas and the lucrative lure of Power 5 football.

Mark Alnutt, who took over as athletics director in 2018, knew the next head football coach could be his most critical hire at UB. No offense to basketball coach Jim Whitesell, but FBS football is the front porch of a college athletic program. A bad choice can ruin you.

So Alnutt had a big task. He had heard good things about Linguist, who had been a defensive backs coach at UB during the Khalil Mack-Joe Licata era. But he told Mo to buy a round-trip ticket for his interview visit in early May. 

Linguist bought a one-way ticket instead. “I said, ‘You need to make this round-trip,” Alnutt said. “If this doesn’t work out, you need to get back to Ann Arbor. Funny thing is, he kept that one-way ticket.”

No return ticket was required. Linguist nailed the interview. It became quickly apparent to Alnutt that this was precisely the man he wanted to replace Leipold as head coach. He wasn’t going to let him get away. 

“We had other candidates,” Alnutt said. “But I’ll say this: He was a very impressive in-person interview. Very impressive. I’ve been a part of several … but this is one of the most impressive I’ve seen, in terms of being prepared.”

Stacie, who works remotely as a litigator for Saegre Drinker Biddle and Reath, the largest law firm in Minnesota, was not surprised to hear that her husband was well-prepared.

“Oh, he definitely is detail-oriented,” she said. “Sticky notes with time frame. He’s a very meticulous person. His parents were both in the military in Guyana. So he has that background. He’s a list person. He’s very thoughtful. He thinks things through. Very analytical. That’s Mo.”

Maurice Linguist of Baylor tackles Oklahoma running back Adrian Peterson on November 20, 2004 at Floyd Casey Stadium in Waco, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

You could say that Linguist has been preparing for this job for his entire life. As a native of Dallas – born on April Fool’s Day – he naturally gravitated to football, and fell in love with the sport.

“I remember the first time I wanted to play college football,” he said. “I was 8 years old, watching Texas A&M against Notre Dame. I was sitting there eating a bowl of cereal — I looked at the college game and I said, ‘I want to do this.’”

He has fond memories of all his football experiences: Middle school, Mesquite High School, a year at Air Force Prep before moving on to Baylor, where he played four years at strong safety and was honorable mention all-Big 12 as a senior. 

Linguist was also academic all-conference. He got a bachelor’s degree in communications (it shows) in 2006 and a master’s degree in health, human performance and recreation from Baylor a year later while getting his start in coaching as a graduate assistant working with the Bears’ safeties.

Naturally, he remembers what he wore to his first practice: a green long-sleeved shirt, cap and shorts. More so, he remembers how he loved being a coach. He thrived on the work, the detail.

“I was in the office, doing everything I could do,” he said. “If there was a meal that needed to get picked up, I picked it up. If there was a fax that needed to get sent, I was going to send it. I remember the love I had for just watching young people grow and develop. 

“I don’t know if there was an ‘aha!’ moment, or when I said I was going to do it. I just stayed in the mix of every day, falling in love with the process of what I was doing with my career.”

Asked about his obsession with detail, Linguist offered this aphorism: “I really believe the way you do anything is the way you do everything.”

Joe Cauthen noticed. He was defensive coordinator at Valdosta State, where Mo got his first full-time coaching job in 2008 as a defensive backs coach. Cauthen spent five hours interviewing him for the job.

“I wanted to hire an intelligent guy that could bring something to the table, a good teacher,” Cauthen said. “My background is teaching. I taught high school for five years and coached high school football. I wanted a teacher back in the secondary.”

“He did a good job on his interview. It was his first full-time job. I really liked his energy, the way he spoke and the way he put things together. I wanted our kids to be coached by him. When he left me, I knew he was going to climb fast.”

Mo and Stacey Linguist post with their children, Maura, 4, and Lance, 2, during Linguist’s introductory press conference at UB. (WIVB)

He climbed like a comet. Linguist left Valdosta after one year. He spent the next three years at James Madison, a lengthy stint by his standards. He spent 2012-13 at UB, his first FBS program, coaching the defensive backs for Jeff Quinn. 

“I remember the excitement when we beat Kent State to become bowl-eligible,” he said. “I remember the excitement in the locker room because we’d done something that hadn’t been traditionally done here, which was to go to postseason play or become eligible for it.

“Khalil Mack squeezed the heck out of me.”

He moved on to Iowa State — his first Power 5 job — for two years. Then it was a year at Mississippi State, one at Minnesota, and two at Texas A&M. He took an NFL job with the Cowboys in 2020, then left for Michigan before the UB job opened.

Linguist coached defensive backs at every stop, adding the title or co-defensive coordinator or assistant head coach in later years. He knows as much about coaching defensive backs as anyone in the country. But all along, there was a head coach inside him, just waiting for a chance. 

You never know how a head coach will perform until he gets the job. Jim Boeheim always said the space between the head coach and assistant’s chair is the widest in the game. 

Linguist faces a daunting challenge. He got the job late, which made it tougher to recruit coaches and players. Leipold took coaches and seven UB players out to Kansas. A couple of others left for other Power 5 schools. That’s a lot of talent going out the door at one time. 

But Linguist put together a promising staff in a short time and added 27 new players from the start of June, which included 16 or 17 who had already signed with UB and another 10 or 11 who arrived through the NCAA transfer portal or from junior colleges. He says “every team has a one-year life span” in the volatile world of college football nowadays. 

As his wife would attest, the man can be persuasive. Cauthen had never worked north of Tennessee in 30 years of college coaching. The thought of trudging through two feet of snow did not appeal to him. He hesitated at first when Mo called to offer the defensive coordinator’s job. But he soon relented. 

“How did he get me to come? Well, I believe in him,” Cauthen said Wednesday at the stadium, a day before the opener. “When I hired him, I knew he had a bright future. I didn’t know it was going to happen so fast, but I knew he was going to move on.

“Shoot, I like him. I like his wife. We have a lot of the same values and morals. We have a lot of the same thoughts. And he’s a defensive coach. I’ve never worked for a defensive head coach, so it’s always a pleasure. It’s a different perspective.

“It’s been fun. He’s done a heck of a job.”

Linguist hasn’t won a game. But evidently, he has won a lot of people over. The energy and enthusiasm are palpable at UB practices, where coaches exhort the players and the guys line up to exchange handshakes at the end of workouts. 

Jake Fuzak, a starting offensive tackle from Williamsville, was effusive in his praise of the new coach. Fuzak wasn’t sure he would return for a sixth season (the pandemic gave everyone an extra year). An aspiring movie director, he had been accepted to the prestigious Chapman University film school in California.

Jake Fuzak celebrates with running back Jaret Patterson (Courtesy of UB Athletics)

But when Chapman allowed him to defer his entry to film school for a year, Fuzak decided to stay. He’s getting some looks from NFL teams. He has the rest of his life to direct films. This is a rare chance to play one more year of college football. 

“I chose to stay regardless of who the head coach was going to be,” said Fuzak, who helped lead the way for a record-setting ground attack in 2020. “I felt like an older brother whose parents just got divorced. I wanted to make sure my siblings stayed the course and didn’t veer off path, you know?”

Fuzak didn’t know what to expect from his new coach. But he quickly became a convert. He knew they had something special when he looked over during 110-yard sprints and noticed that Linguist was running with them. 

“He’s a breath of fresh air,” Fuzak said. “Coach Leipold and his staff handled a lot of the inner workings of our football team much like a business, whereas Coach Mo handles it a little more like a family. There’s way more interpersonal communication. 

“He’s way more relatable. He understands. He’s been around at the highest level, other high-level colleges. He understands. He has that fatherly, but also friendly, relatability. He’s young, he’s energetic, he’s hungry. I don’t think they could have made a better hire.”

Relatable and analytical. It sounds like the perfect combination for a head coach, who needs the qualities of both a stern, calculating father and empathetic friend. Stacie Linguist says her husband has both in abundance.

“He’s business-minded, very savvy, but he has a lot of emotional intelligence,” Stacie said. “He cares about people. He’s about the total development of the player. He wants them to be the best players, but he also cares about them as individuals. 

“He wants them to come over to our house. Over the years, on Thanksgiving, we’d have players over. Even with our house-hunting process, the main concern was we want to have the players over, to be part of the family.”

That resonated with Alnutt, a noted family man and father of four. He loved Linguist’s energy and knew he would make a connection with the players, the coaching staff and the community.

“He’s impressive, in terms of his personality, how he engages with people,” Alnut said. “We get unsolicited feedback from people. My wife was at a Canisius High football scrimmage on Saturday. A parent called her over, who she didn’t know. Her son is a freshman walk-on on our football team. She told my wife, ‘Hey, his experience has been unbelievable under Coach Mo.’”

Cauthen said Linguist has taken particles of football knowledge from everyone he’s coached with and carries them in his head, “like a library, if you will.” But Mo knows you’re only as good as your ability to get good players and help them to become good men. 

“As much as I’m in the football business, I’m in the people business,” Linguist said. “Just connecting with people and being able to relate to people. There’s a lot that separates us, but there’s also a lot that connects us. Finding those connections with those people and sharing common stories and common backgrounds, we feel very strongly about.”

His is a distinctly American success story. He has a grandfather from Barbados. He is one of five children of Maurice and Maureen Linguist, who came to the U.S. from Guyana, a small country on the northern coast of South America. His parents settled in Texas, where they both work as registered nurses in Dallas. 

“I have so much love,” he said. “I grew up in Texas, but I have a very unique perspective, because my family did not grow up in the States. I’m thankful to have the opportunity to live in this nation, this country, and to enjoy the freedoms that we have because of all the people who make so many sacrifices for us every single day.”

Every single day, he strives to build on the UB football culture that he inherited, and to take it to another level. On Thursday, he coaches his first game as the head man. He said he’ll be excited, but he’ll temper his emotions. He’ll be too busy dealing with the infinite details of a football game to feel the pressure.

“I’m very aware of where we are,” he said. “We’re very aware of what we need to do. Pressure comes from outside expectations. Nobody’s going to have higher expectations than me.”

Now UB begins to find out if he’ll achieve them. How can you bet against a man who told his wife he’d marry her moments after first setting eyes on her, and who bought a one-way ticket for the biggest interview of his life?

Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.

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