Boyes, a quiet legend, retiring from Buff State after 34 years

Jerry Sullivan

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — It started, of course, with his father. Tom Boyes was a “typical old school guy,” a hard worker and family man who held people accountable. There was, as his son Jerry recalled half a century later, no room for excuses or short cuts. 

Tom worked most of his life as supervisor at an Army munitions depot in Interlaken, a small village about 20 miles north of Ithaca, between Cayuga and Seneca lakes. Jerry remembers sitting at a retirement dinner for his dad, back when he was a young, ambitious football coach.

“I thought, ‘How can anyone stay at the same place for 31 years’?” Jerry said with a laugh. “What the hell. Here I am, 34 years later.”

Yes, he lasted longer than his dad. On June 30, Boyes will retire as Buffalo State athletics director, putting a cap on a 34-year career that saw him lead the football team to unprecedented heights and guide the college’s sports programs into the modern era during his two decades as AD. 

Along the way, Boyes led the Bengals from a grid non-entity to a national Division III power, beat brain cancer, went to nine straight postseason tournaments, quit to devote himself to the AD job, came back as coach, and became perhaps the most recognizable, respected figure on campus. 

He stuck around, and Buffalo State was richer for it. He and his wife, Sue, raised three children, and he never regretted not chasing the bigtime. Due to the coronavirus, any tributes and fanfare for Boyes will be postponed. He’ll walk away quietly, which is fine with him. 

“I’m quite thankful that I don’t have to go through that,” Boyes said. Modesty is another quality he inherited from his dad. He called himself lucky 10 times in a half-hour interview.

“He is the most humble person I have ever met in my life,” said Tom Koller, senior associate athletics director at Buff State. “This is a guy who was an all-American at Ithaca, got to an NFL training cap, went to bowl games, took the Buff State football program and grew it to national prominence.

“And yet to this day, I have never, ever heard him talk about himself or his accomplishments.”

Humility came in handy when Boyes was hired as Bengals head football coach in 1986, after serving for nine years as an assistant under his former coach and mentor, Jim Butterfield, at Ithaca. Buffalo State, which began playing football in 1980, had no tradition or full-time coaches. 

Fred Hartrick hired Boyes because he felt he would create something enduring, that he wouldn’t take shortcuts. The Bengals won just one game in each of the first four years. Boyes hired five assistants at $1,000 apiece that first year.

“I was his first hire,” said Terry Bitka, who had played against Ithaca as a star offensive lineman at Cortland State. “I was living in my parents’ basement in West Seneca. I was fortunate. Jerry got hired late and had to throw a staff together. So fresh out of college, I was a college position coach at 23.”

Bitka never left. He’s still at Buffalo State as defensive coordinator under interim head man Christian Ozolins. He says he owes everyone to Boyes. He got his masters at Buff State, a full-time coaching position in 1992, and he raised his family here, too. 

But those early years…

“When I came in, Buffalo State was not a hotbed, I’ll tell you,” Boyes recalled. “My mentor discouraged me from taking the job, to tell you the truth. But I wanted to be working with young men who were willing to do what it takes to be successful.”

He made it clear in his first meeting with the team. There was talk of accountability, that thing his father valued. About 20 of the kids didn’t bother to come back for the next practice.

“Jerry was very patient,” Bitka said. “He had a plan. The first year was kind of a throwaway year. There was no recruitment. There were days we’d come in off the practice field and say, ‘We should be coaching women’s volleyball.'” 

“But Jerry was always positive. He’d say, ‘We just have to stay the course. We’re getting closer, guys. We’re getting closer.’”

In their fifth year, when their first recruiting class were seniors, it all clicked. Finally, all Jerry’s lessons bore fruit. The fundamentals, doing things right, not cutting corners, being a good teammate. The nineties were a glorious run of success.

Right in the middle of it, before the 1994 season, Boyes got cancer at age 40. He thought he had an ear infection; it was a tumor behind his left ear. In a seven-hour operation at Sisters Hospital, they removed the growth, costing him the hearing in his left ear.

“Boy, was I lucky,” Boyes said. “I had a surgeon they called Magic Hands. So I was fortunate to be where I’m at. That humbles you. Over the years, it becomes just another thing that happened. But it does help you keep things in perspective.”

Sure, there were times when he wondered if he might have gone to Division I, with the big crowds and the million-dollar salaries — to “get in the race,” as he put it. Then he remembers how precious it was to raise a family in one place. 

“I remember going to one of those clinics when I first got into coaching,” he said. “I remember distinctly coaches talking about how much they appreciated their wives, because they raised their children. They weren’t able to be there.

“I’m like ‘Whoa! That doesn’t sound very good.’ I want to be a part of my kids’ lives. I want to be involved and there’s no greater thing than watching your kids do their thing.”

Zach, his youngest, is a four-sport athlete at Kenmore West and will play quarterback at Cortland in the fall. Kris played golf at St. Bonaventure. Kaitlyn, the eldest, married Jack Mrozinski, who played football at Buff State and is now head football coach at Hiram College. 

Boyes was back at work less than a month after his cancer surgery in June of ’94 (and hitting golf balls; his short game is exquisite). That’s typical. Lately, he’s been going to the office four days a week during the pandemic. Most guys, knowing they were close to retirement, would be coasting by now.

“That’s not my mindset,” he said. 

Boyes continued his magical run after beating cancer in 1994. In 1999, they made him athletic director. After the 2000 season, he quit as football coach because he thought he was cheating the team. 

“I felt I was starting to let the football program down a little bit,” Boyes said. “I had just taken over as athletic director and devoted a lot of energy to that. I looked at a freshmen in the first preseason meeting and ‘Who’s that young man?’ Before, I knew everybody, their name and where they’re from.”

“That bothered me. It was time to move on,” he said.

“And the program fell off the face of the Earth again,” Bitka said. “But Jerry’s an all-in guy. He wasn’t going to do anything half-assed. He had too much pride.”

The Bengals won just one game the first two years without Boyes. After an 11-year run of winning seasons, in which they won 74 percent of their games, they suffered eight straight losing seasons without him, losing 78 percent.

Boyes threw himself fully into the AD job, spearheading numerous upgrades and renovations of athletic facilities, the the elevation of many coaches to full-time status and the addition of a women’s ice hockey program. But there was still a big hole in his life. Coaching.

“I started to miss it, once I kind of got the administrative thing down. I had a veteran staff. As an athletic director, it’s all about the coaching and professional staff. They made it easy for me. They made me look good.”

Sure, he was lucky as usual. The administration knew full well that it wasn’t luck that won all those games in the Nineties. In 2008, they asked him to go back and coach the football team. They didn’t have to ask twice.

Boyes asked Sparky Adams, who lived across the street in Tonawanda, to come back and help coach. Adams was a legend at Kenmore East in the 1970s and 80s. They named the high school field after him. He had coached for Boyes twice before, the last time in that 2000 season before Boyes left. 

“So I went back and worked for another year,” said Adams, who was 77 at the time. “Then I retired officially. So it’s been a long time, a wonderful time.”

You wonder if Boyes wanted his old friend to experience the joy of coaching one last time. You appreciate the wonderful times more when they’re gone. 

The Bengals never recaptured the wonder of the nineties when Boyes returned. But they had seven straight non-losing seasons from 2011-17. In 2012, they beat No. 1-ranked Wisconsin-Whitewater, ending that team’s 46-game winning streak. 

Lance Leipold was the Whitewater coach at the time, a Division III coaching giant who would go on to prove himself at the University at Buffalo. Boyes never got that sort of affirmation in the profession, but the men who know him believe he could have succeeded at the highest levels. 

“Oh, absolutely! No doubt about it.” Bitka said. 

“He never blew his own horn,” Adams said. “He was a great man and could have gone to any level. Absolutely. He enjoyed what he was doing, and that’s so important, that you enjoy where you are and the people that you work with.”

Boyes retired for good as football coach after the 2018 season, saying he no longer had the energy for the job. 

Koller and Bitka both say that Boyes’ gift for personal relationships was the key to his success as a coach, recruiter and administrator.  Bitka said it didn’t matter if it was the president or the janitor, Jerry knew how to relate. Lucky? Boyes made his own luck. 

Actually, Koller found his new boss a little distant when Boyes hired him away from UB in 2001. He felt Boyes was ignoring him on a walk through campus. Someone told him he must have been on the wrong side, talking to Jerry’s deaf ear.

“We joke about it to this day,” Koller said. “He’s one of my heroes. I mean that sincerely. He’s an incredible mentor, an incredible leader, an incredible friend, an inspiration to not only me, but to staff and hundreds of football players who played underneath him.”

Yeah, Boyes is the lucky one. Who gets to coach hundreds of young people, to teach them to be accountable, to not take short cuts — to be the father of a college football program? 

“I really appreciate so many of them who have written to me,” Boyes said. “Hearing about the lessons they learned is gratifying. It’s humbling. It’s what it’s all about. The wins, ah, they’re great. We’ll remember those for our lifetimes. But the best thing is watching them be successful in their lives.”

“I’ve always said, ‘Be where you’re supposed to be, do what you’re supposed to do, and do it with great passion.”

He’s 66. It’s time to move on. His family remains his abiding passion. That and golf. Zach will be playing quarterback as a freshman at Cortland State in the fall. He’ll be rooming with Ryan Bitka, an all-Western New York center from Amherst. 

Yeah, Terry’s son. After 34 years, it all comes full circle, and staying in one place seems like the luckiest move in the world.

Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning digital reporter who joined the News 4 team in 2020. See more of his work here.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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