Sil Dan wanted his son, Nathan, to play for the best high school coach in the area but his family lived in North Tonawanda. So Dan put his house on the market, rented a duplex on Sweet Home Road in Amherst and his son played for Reggie Witherspoon.
“There’s no one, as far as a father’s standpoint, you want your son to play for because he teaches them more than basketball when it’s all said and done,” Dan said. “I’ve never hedged on that decision ever.”
For three decades, Witherspoon was a local basketball institution. After his run at Sweet Home High in the early 1990s, he found success at Erie Community College before landing his dream job at the University at Buffalo. On Friday, following his first losing season since 2008, Witherspoon was fired from UB after 14 seasons and the decision sent shockwaves through the area.
“This is a loss to the entire Western New York community,” Niagara Falls coach Sal Constantino said. “He’s been good to the entire Western New York hoops community. This floors me.”
The news came after the Bulls were eliminated by Kent State from the Mid-American Conference Tournament on Thursday to finish the season with a 14-20 overall record.
“The rest of the league is probably happy today because they don’t have to play against him anymore,” said former Canisius College assistant coach Rob Norris, now an assistant women’s coach at Eastern Michigan. “He was one of the three most respected coaches in the MAC.”
But he was probably more respected away from basketball.
“I love him as a man,” said Rob Lanier, the Buffalo native who is now an assistant at Texas. “I got to know Reggie before I got married and became a father. I didn’t grow up with my dad in the house so there were certain people I looked up to as a husband and as a man and as a father and he was one of those people I looked up to.”
Said Constantino: “I had three kids who played for me play under Reggie and they all walked out with their degree. He did exactly what he said he’d do, he tried to make them better basketball players, better people and make sure they got their degree and they all did.”
In a day and age where coaches keep outsiders at arm’s length, Witherspoon was engaging with everyone he came in contact with, which made him unique, almost as rare as the way he arrived at UB.
He was hired away from ECC in the middle of the 1999-2000 season after heavy NCAA sanctions were levied against the program under the watch of coach Tim Cohane. Given the job on an interim basis, Witherspoon’s first game was against North Carolina, which featured Joseph Forte, Brendan Haywood and future All-Pro defensive end Julius Peppers.
His next game was against Bob Knight and Indiana.
Witherspoon went 3-20 his first season but had the interim tag removed and was given a contract worth $70,000.
“He took over a program in disarray and did a nice job getting them on track,” said Medaille coach Mike MacDonald, the former Canisius coach. “It’s an unyielding business and it’s very tough to maintain at the mid-major level but I thought he did a great job.”
It was a painful process rebuilding the program during the probation years and the Bulls won just 21 games from 2000-03. But in 2001 he signed a recruiting class featuring top 100 player Turner Battle, a classic point guard who spearheaded the program to new heights. Eventually, Witherspoon’s team earned a reputation for being hard-nosed, physical and disciplined.
“I thought he was an exceptional coach who I never enjoyed facing,” said Fordham assistant Tom Parrotta, the former Canisius coach. “His teams were always prepared and he was one of the toughest to prepare for.”
Said Niagara coach Joe Mihalich: “His teams were hard to score on and it was hard to guard them. That league is a great basketball league but it’s an unknown league. Those teams are good and he did a great job.”
Witherspoon avoided firings at least twice while at UB. In 2003-04, the Bulls were 5-9 and 1-5 in the MAC when then-interim AD Bill Maher considered making a change at the end of the season. The Bulls won 12 of their remaining 15 games to finish 17-12. After a 77-49 win over Ohio University, then-Bobcats coach Tim O’Shea said UB was one of the top 25 teams in the country.
Warde Manuel, the former UB athletic director, spoke with Witherspoon about his displeasure with the direction of the program after back-to-back losing seasons in 2007 and 2008. The next season Witherspoon went 21-12, tied for his only MAC East Division title and played in the College Basketball Invitational.
Manuel, now the AD at Connecticut, declined comment for this story.
Coaches are defined by NCAA appearances and in 14 seasons Witherspoon came close only twice, losing in the MAC Tournament championship in 2005 and 2009. He tied for a divisional title only once and made one appearance in the National Invitation Tournament, two in the CollegeInsider.com tournament and one in the CBI.
The alphabet soup tournaments are nice, but getting to the NCAAs is another matter. As one coach put it, “the space between the halo and noose are only inches apart.”
“Some of it is luck,” MacDonald said. “The hump is a lot bigger than people realize.”
There were also lingering questions about Witherspoon and his staff’s recruiting acumen.
“The resources there were a lot greater than what the result was,” said Mickey Walker, a Syracuse-based AAU program director for 31 years.
“He wasn’t a guy who did a lot of self-promotion, they weren’t visible recruiting and the administration was probably willing to blame him instead of looking at their shortcomings and a lot of decisions that they’ve made.”
But the Witherspoon era will not soon be forgotten.
“What’s he guilty of? Absolutely nothing but maybe a few misfortunes,” Dan said. “He ran a great program, there was no garbage there and he graduated his players. But the nature of the business is what it is.”