Danny White must have been really nervous for awhile there. Two weeks ago, UB knocked off an Akron team that had the longest winning streak in the country. They won two games in the MAC Tournament, and were leading Kent State in the second half of the quarterfinals Thursday in Cleveland.
But the Bulls lost to Kent by two, and White wasted no time making his move. On Friday, UB’s young athletic director fired Reggie Witherspoon as the men’s basketball coach, ending Witherspoon’s 14-year run as head man.
White said it was as difficult a thing as he’s done in his career (of course, he’s only 33). But when a coach with three years and roughly $750,000 left on his contract gets fired by a New York state university, it does give one pause. I suspect White had this move in mind from the moment he walked through the doors at UB last May.
The new AD was a baby by Division I standards, but White was also big-time. He played hoops at Notre Dame. His dad is the AD at Duke. He was an associate AD in the SEC at Mississippi before taking over in Buffalo. As a rising basketball guy, you know he wanted his own man in the job.
So White had to act while he had a chance, at the end of a 20-loss season. He couldn’t risk waiting a year, because Witherspoon would probably win.
Next year, Javon McCrea will be a senior and contender for MAC Player of the Year. Point guard Jarod Oldham, who missed most of the season with an injury, will be a senior. Jarryn Skeete, who made the MAC All-Freshman Team after being forced into action at the point, returns. Will Regan, who came on late in the year, is back.
UB will be among the conference favorites next season. You want to talk about difficult? It would have been difficult for White to justify firing Witherspoon if UB won 20 games for the third time in four years.
It’s a perfect setup for White and the next coach. The new guy will inherit a veteran team on the rise. White will likely provide more resources than ever before – starting with better pay for the assistants – and the Bulls will have a big bump in wins, making White look like a genius.
White said he wants to take the basketball program to the “next level.” If the quest for greatness means pushing a good man out the door, so be it. But this is the same AD who gave his football coach, Jeff Quinn, a five-year extension for winning nine games in three years.
Evidently, White has a much higher standard for basketball, the sport he played and coached. OK, then he will be held to a high standard as well. He needs to find a coach who won’t simply contend for MAC titles, but win them, and do it while maintaining high personal and academic standards and being a respected presence in the community.
There’s no need to feel sorry for Witherspoon. He had a nice run at UB. He took a program that was ravaged by scandal and built it into a MAC contender in four years. During a 24-month period from 2004-06, UB won 50 games and came within an eyelash of the NCAA Tournament.
But Witherspoon never won the big one; he never got to the NCAA Tournament. He never quite capitalized on the momentum of that exhilarating early run, when he was the face of local basketball and games at Alumni Arena became an event for the students and hoop fans in the community.
You could see parallels to Lindy Ruff: A good guy who endures for more than a decade, wanting to win big in the community he loved. Each had earned respect within his sport. Witherspoon was an assistant on junior national teams, Ruff for the Canadian Olympic team.
Witherspoon is a Buffalo native, a man who dreamed of making basketball relevant in the city again. He actually worked in the Arena before Ruff and Darcy Regier arrived, as head of basketball operations with Pete Lonergan in the early days of the new building in the mid-1990s.
I’ve known Witherspoon for more than 20 years, since former Baker Victory coach Joe Corey told me about a bright young Sweet Home coach who had become the first black suburban high school head basketball coach in Western New York history.
From the first time I saw him run a high school practice, I knew Reggie was the real thing. He was a brilliant basketball intellect, and passionate about local hoop history. He taught me much of what I know about the sport in Buffalo.
Witherspoon had plenty of doubters when he took over UB in late 1999. He never shook the label of the small-time local guy who was hand-picked from Erie CC by a fellow Sweet Home graduate Bob Arkeilpane. His critics could never accept the idea that a local guy could succeed at that level.
But he’s as good a teacher of the game as I ever saw. Witherspoon took walk-ons and marginal talents and turned them into viable MAC players. His recruiting was often an issue, though. He did a nice job with this year’s team, but the Bulls had a thin roster that was of his own making.
It’s great to build average players into good ones. Almost every player who came to UB got better, and usually left with a degree. But coaching only gets you so far. You need talent. You win titles with stars. Witherspoon seemed wary of the star system. His dream team would have had six players all averaging 12 points a game.
Of course, Witherspoon was forced to operate with fewer resources than his rivals in the MAC. He wasn’t able to “buy” home games against lesser opponents. UB didn’t travel by charter, like other top MAC teams. He didn’t have as much to pay his assistants. Turner Battle turned down a more lucrative offer from a lesser mid-major program to be an assistant at UB.
Winning isn’t easy at UB. Just ask the football coaches who have won less frequently than Witherspoon in the MAC. The plodding success of the football program has held the athletic department back financially and made it difficult to pour more resources into basketball.
Still, White decided to let Witherspoon go, which in total cost the school close to $1 million. It’s an expensive gamble by White, who will likely have to bump up the salary of his next coach and his staff, as Canisius did to lure Jim Baron to Buffalo.
White is putting his reputation on the line. By extending Quinn’s deal and firing Witherspoon, he’s setting a higher standard for basketball. He has a hoop background and a more ambitious vision, and he’s going to show us all how the game is meant to be played.
Let’s hope he succeeds. Otherwise, people might look back at the Witherspoon years and realize just how good they had it.