BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) -When Warde Manuel was at Michigan, he got a big kick out of Wolverines equipment manager Jon Falk's response whenever he was asked which sports championship was his favorite.
``The next one,'' Falk would always say.
Manuel, now the athletic director at the University at Buffalo, has discovered there are exceptions to the rule, especially at a school that doesn't come close to matching Michigan's long-standing athletic success.
As championships go, this one - the Mid-American Conference title the Bulls won last week - is proving to be something special for Manuel, and perhaps more meaningful than anything he ever enjoyed as a football player and later as an assistant AD at Michigan.
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Manuel has reason to be proud after the Bulls pulled off an improbable - and until a year ago, inconceivable - upset in beating previously undefeated No. 12 Ball State 42-24 in the MAC championship game at Detroit last week. Next up, Buffalo (8-5) will make its first bowl appearance on Jan. 3, when it faces Connecticut (7-5) in the International Bowl at Toronto.
This is a distinct turnaround for Manuel, who upon taking over in Buffalo in the summer of 2005 was immediately confronted with doubters who wondered whether the Bulls could ever field a competitive team after going 9-59 in their first six seasons after joining the MAC.
Manuel then placed his stamp on the program when he fired Jim Hofher following a 1-10 season and took the risk of hiring Turner Gill, the former Nebraska star quarterback and Heisman Trophy finalist, to take over as a first-time coach.
With Manuel's vision and Gill's contagious upbeat style, the Bulls have created an unprecedented buzz on campus. They even rated mention this week from Late Show TV host David Letterman, who grudgingly congratulated the team for defeating Ball State, his alma mater.
In response, UB officials playfully came up with a top-10 list of their own billed, ``Why you wouldn't want David Letterman rooting for your football team.'' The No. 1 answer: ``Dave can't spell BCS.''
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``People thought this would be impossible,'' receiver Naaman Roosevelt said. ``They laughed at me and made fun of me when I told them I was going to UB. But now it's a great decision, and I'm happy with it.''
Running back James Starks also heard the skeptics when he committed to playing for Buffalo.
``It was, `UB doesn't win, blah, blah blah.' It was real bad,'' Starks said. ``Now I can talk to those people and say, `Hey, look at what we did.'''
It wasn't easy for a team that opened the season with a ``Bowl or Bust'' mantra and quickly got off to a 2-3 start.
The Bulls turned their season around by overcoming a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit to beat Army 27-24 in overtime. That victory sparked a five-game win streak that included a 43-40 quadruple-overtime win at Akron and a 40-34 double-overtime win at Bowling Green that clinched Buffalo its first East Division title.
Beating Ball State, though, was the high point. Buffalo entered the game a 15-point underdog and had never defeated a ranked team.
Shortly after the victory, Manuel walked onto the field and made his way directly to Gill. The two enjoyed a teary-eyed hug.
``I was starting to cry because of all the excitement and joy and was overcome by it,'' Manuel recalled. ``It sort of hit us both, the magnitude of what had been accomplished by the team and what it meant for them and the university.''
It was an emotional moment, too, for Gill.
``It was about joy, the joy of gratification. People said that we would not be able to get it done,'' Gill said. ``It was just the emotion about it, and just proud of each other and that we did it.''

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