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The University at Buffalo will launch a search for a new basketball coach after releasing 14-year leader Reggie Witherspoon on Friday upon the team’s return from the Mid-American Conference Tournament in Cleveland.

Witherspoon, a Western New York native, compiled a 198-228 record at UB and had three years remaining on a contract extended by former Athletic Director Warde Manuel. He took over a program about to be placed on NCAA probation and coached it to the MAC title game in 2005 and 2009. Once UB’s probationary period ended in 2003, Witherspoon’s teams were 173-142 and won 20 games the two years before this one.

UB skidded to 14-20 this season and won two MAC Tournament games before losing to Kent State, 70-68, in the quarterfinals. The year was complicated by a mid-December season-ending injury to starting point guard Jarod Oldham and the unavailability of guard recruit Stan Wier due to an offseason procedure on his knees. Lack of depth became an issue. But it was generally agreed the Bulls were positioned to contend for a MAC title in 2014.

Assuming the returning cast remains intact, the new coach will inherit a team that includes two-time All-MAC forward Javon McCrea and guard Jarryn Skeete, a member of the league’s all-freshman team after replacing Oldham at the point.

UB Athletic Director Danny White, hired about 10 months ago, told Witherspoon of his decision when UB arrived home from Cleveland.

“It’s as difficult a thing as I’ve ever done in my career,” White said. “Reggie is a phenomenal person and continues to mean a lot to this university and the program, and does it the right way. So it’s hard. I think any time we have a personnel change, it’s difficult, but this one was particularly difficult because he’s such a good person.”

A numb Witherspoon said he never saw it coming. “I’m thankful for the way we built a program that’s like a family, and for everybody that supported us and helped us get the program off the ground, and to the point where it is,” he said. “I’m sure I’ll have more to say later, but I’m really kind of shocked.”

White said he understood the circumstances that negatively affected the season but felt a change was needed.

“I took all of it into consideration,” he said. “There’s so many moving parts in evaluating a coach. But it’s never about one season. It’s about a body of work. And in the case of Coach Witherspoon, it’s a 14-year body of work. There’s a lot of success there, and there’s also opportunities where maybe we can take it to another level. So the evaluation was more than just this season.”

Witherspoon was the MAC’s longest-tenured coach and had the respect of his keenest rivals. Akron’s Keith Dambrot told the Associated Press he couldn’t make sense of the decision. Akron, the regular-season champion, had its national-best 19-game winning streak snapped at UB’s Alumni Arena on March 2.

“Completely shocked,” Dambrot said. “If anybody could have done a better job at Buffalo, more power to them. Not only is he a quality basketball coach, but he’s one of the most high-character people I’ve ever been around. It sends a terrible message. Everybody sits there and preaches about academics and integrity, and then a guy like that gets fired.”

White said he assessed the program and contemplated making a change “toward the tail end of the season. I’ve been evaluating it throughout the course of the season and made a final decision last night after the game.”

Candidates for the job will abound, and White said he’ll cast a wide net. Asked if he had someone in mind, he responded, “I do not. We’re going to launch a national search and want to interview as many people as possible. We’re going to take the time to make sure we get the right leader for the next chapter.”

Like the search itself, the timetable is open-ended. The NCAA Final Four is often fertile time to touch base with candidates.

“It’s difficult to say how things are going to go,” White said. “I don’t want to paint myself into a corner there. We’ll take as long as it takes to get the very best coach possible.”

Potential candidates include Buffalo native and Texas assistant Rob Lanier, Niagara coach Joe Mihalich, Loyola (Md.) coach Jimmy Patsos and former Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg. Also, Iona associate head coach Jared Grasso, Lackawanna native and Dayton assistant Kevin Kuwik, and perhaps White’s brother, Michael White, the head coach at Louisiana Tech.

Lanier (two NCAA berths at Siena), Mihalich (two at Niagara), Patsos (one at Loyola) and Greenberg are on the more experienced end of the scale; Grasso and White are on the more youthful end. Kuwik and Danny White were both on the staff at Ohio when the Bobcats beat UB in overtime in the 2005 MAC title game.

One interesting scenario bandied about has Michael White moving to Mississippi to replace Andy Kennedy. If Kennedy becomes available, he may also be of interest to UB. Danny White came to the Bulls from Ole Miss.

The firing of Witherspoon with three years left on his contract is a surprise in that UB has operated its basketball program on a budget below that of its MAC East rivals. The program has not “bought games,” a practice in which lesser opponents are scheduled and paid for the appearance. Such scheduling can add 3-5 victories to a team’s total.

In announcing UB’s plans to enhance UB Stadium, White indicated that buying basketball games wouldn’t be on the agenda until increased football revenues made the practice an option. But obviously, UB has money somewhere. It’s estimated the university will owe Witherspoon between $750,000 and $1 million on top of the cost of bringing in a new coach and perhaps expanding the assistant’s staff and pay, as Canisius did upon hiring Jim Baron.

email: bdicesare@buffnews.com