St. Bonaventure’s Storyteller
by Ethan Kibbe
Soft jazz flows through the air on the second floor of St. Bonaventure University’s communication school. Melodies of Duke Ellington and Count Basie harmonize with a steady hum of conversation, interrupted frequently by the biting crack of laughter. In his tiny office, barely large enough for a desk and two chairs, Paul Wieland, a professor, is doing what he does best: telling a story.
On this rainy March morning, the gleam in his soft, blue eyes and the excitement in his voice brighten the room as he regales one of the students in his Sports Television Production class. The conversation revolves around the April Fool’s pranks he pulled while managing public relations for the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres. It could just as easily be about the time a Bobby Hull slap shot broke his finger or about one of the many exploits he carried out while teaching sports broadcasting to students.
This master storyteller has an anecdote for every occasion. “I talk about my life, and it’s been a long one, so I’ve got a million stories,” Wieland said, chuckling. He has made a living by telling them. After reporting for the Buffalo Courier Express and the Buffalo Evening News, the 1959 Bonaventure alumnus moved his family first to Detroit and then to the Garden State to write speeches for General Motors executives. In 1970, the owners of the Sabres asked him to run the team’s public relations department. So Wieland returned to western New York, working in the front office and as practice goalie. He quickly hired a staff, employing sports journalists from his alma mater. “The first three people I hired were Bonnies,” Wieland said.
Wieland, who served as a color commentator before directing the team’s cable telecasts, quickly took to teaching his protégés about broadcasting and writing for sports. Years later, those skills would come in handy as a professor.
“It’s amazing how for the last number of years, I’ve harkened back to the stories and one-line comments he had that I’m now sharing with people in the industry,” said Gerry Helper, a 1979 Bonaventure graduate Wieland hired to his Sabres staff. ”He took his job seriously, but he always found time to laugh,” Helper said.
After a quarter century with the Sabres, Wieland resigned when the team was sold. He moved to Massachusetts and spent six years running a public broadcasting station. One day, Lee Coppola, his friend of 50 years, called. Coppola, also a Bonaventure alumnus, had worked under Wieland with the Sabres before returning to Bonaventure as the dean of its journalism school.
Coppola needed a professor for a course in television news production, something Wieland hated. Coppola offered him the job anyway. Wieland refused. “If you hate it, why don’t you come teach people to make it better?” Coppola challenged him. Wieland took the position and once again came back to western New York. At 62, the de facto grandfather of the Jandoli School of Communication began molding the next generation of St. Bonaventure storytellers.
“[Bonaventure] had a broadcast sequence before Paul arrived,” Coppola said. “But now we have almost a broadcast major. He’s taken a weak part of the curriculum and turned it into a shining star of the Jandoli School.”
But Wieland’s career in hockey and sports broadcasting brought Bonaventure more than a knowledgeable professor.
He coached the university’s club hockey team until a heart attack and neuropathy in his legs forced him to hang up his skates. In 2008, through his connections in television production, he persuaded a friend to donate a production trailer to the university so it could telecast live events.
He then launched SBU-TV Sports and began using the trailer, known to students as the truck, as a classroom, broadcasting live sporting events.
“We were the only school in the country at that time that had its own truck for the exclusive use of students,” Wieland said. “Other schools used students as interns on professional shows. We did it the other way. We had two professionals as teachers and filled every position with students.”
His new courses brought greater exposure to the school’s basketball team as alumni tuned in to see their beloved Bonnies in action. But Wieland made sure to show lower-profile sports teams too, giving rugby, lacrosse and baseball players moments in the limelight.
His students learned new skills as they adjusted from scripted studio shows to producing the well-choreographed dance routine that is live sports television.
“When you’re doing live sports, you’re doing journalism on the fly,” Wieland said. “The viewers aren’t seeing the game. They’re seeing your version of the game.”
Six of his students now work at ESPN. He continues to mold new sportscasters, even inspiring students who previously had no interest in sports television.
“I took Wieland’s course because I needed another class,” said Emily Losito, a student of his. “I tried it, and now I’m taking the truck class again next semester. It’s opened up another career path for me.”
Despite the widening age gap between him and his students, Wieland’s messages still hold weight with his pupils.
“Don’t ever measure youthfulness by age,” Coppola said. ‘He may be much older than his students, but in his mind, he never left Bona. He respects his students. That’s the key, and their vigor invigorates him.”
Now, as his career as a professor winds down and he approaches retirement at the end of the semester, the quick-witted sage still shows up to work every day dressed in his customary sweater and dress pants. Much like his trusty thermos of coffee and NHL attaché case, he always carries a story to tell, even if it is one he has told before.
“Paul’s stories are like reruns of your favorite sitcom,” said Christopher Spiker, a 2014 graduate who works as a reporter in Watertown, New York. “You know what’s coming, and you know where the good parts are, but when you get there, they’re still great anyway.”