Former University at Buffalo basketball coach Reggie Witherspoon expressed continued surprise over his dismissal Monday and said he’s still unclear what motivated new athletic director Danny White to release him after 14 years on the job.
Witherspoon met with media members at his home in East Amherst, the first time he has gone public with extensive comments since he was fired Friday. He said that White told him Friday that he had decided back in December to make a change after the season, an admission that startled Witherspoon considering the two had talked in September or October, he recalled, about the stability and accomplishments of the program.
“I expected to resume the conversation we had just prior to the season,” Witherspoon said. “He acknowledged we had that conversion and he said he wished he didn’t have the conversation. He said that he made up his mind in December. I asked him if we were 20-14 instead of 14-20, he stopped me and said, ‘We’d be having the same conversation.’
“Danny and I have never had even a disagreement. It would be difficult for me to sit here and say bad things about Danny because we’ve only had good conversations. Until Friday.”
Witherspoon didn’t fit the profile of a coach on the hot seat. The Bulls had four straight winning seasons before this one, producing three years of 20 wins or more, and a 79-49 record over that span. They dropped to 14-20 this season, a dip not unexpected since four the top five scorers graduated from the previous season, including Mid-American Conference Player of the Year Mitchell Watt.
Complicating the situation, UB lost starting point guard Jarod Oldham to a wrist fracture in mid-December. That created the need for true freshman Jarryn Skeete to play extensive minutes, yet the team progressed to where it snapped Akron’s 19-game winning streak, the nation’s longest, on March 2.
Witherspoon said that’s why he was blindsided when White, hired last May, summoned him to the AD’s office when the Bulls returned from Cleveland on Friday. There was discernible improvement in what became a rebuilding year.
“It’s such a huge departure from the conversation that we had just prior to the season,” Witherspoon said. “It hasn’t really set in. It had set in Saturday morning, Sunday morning and this morning, but it just seems like during the course of the day my mind goes to preparing for next year, and it’s not hard to think about preparing the team for next year because the team I think is pretty well set up to be pretty good next year. So it’s hard to not think about that.”
UB loses just two seniors from this year’s team and only one (starting guard Tony Watson) who was a significant contributor. Watson and fellow senior Richie Sebuharara were among the former UB players in attendance Monday.
Mark Bortz and Jason Bird, members of the 2005 team hailed as the foundation for the program’s growth, also were on hand.
Some of Witherspoon’s detractors point to the fact he was unable to lead the Bulls to a Mid-American Conference Tournament title and the accompanying NCAA berth.
But UB operates at a disadvantage compared to some other schools in the MAC.
Witherspoon was asked to cite some of those disadvantages.
“I’ll do that but I don’t want to sound like I’m a guy sitting here bitter,” he said. “An example is that Akron is about a four-hour bus ride and we take that bus ride. They took a charter jet. Ohio will take a charter jet. We have the highest academic standards in the conference and we’re doing this with less of a tradition than everybody in the conference. … We haven’t had a graduate assistant or a director of basketball operations. Our staff has been greatly scaled down. The MAC did a survey two years ago … and we were last or next to last in almost every item of resources.
“I’ve heard from all those coaches and they said the same thing, like it doesn’t add up.”
None of the returning players nor Witherspoon’s assistants were invited to attend the news conference so as not to place them in a uncomfortable position pending the hiring of a new coach. But Witherspoon and Watson, the departing senior, say they’ve seen no indication to this point of players considering transferring to different schools.
“They had a lot of questions,” Witherspoon said. “I hope they didn’t express they no longer have a reason to be here. I hope that’s not the case.
“We certainly are doing everything we can so that doesn’t become the sentiment.”
In the meantime, Witherspoon said he’s uncertain what his future holds.
“I really don’t know. I thought about it a little bit but I really don’t know.
“I’m just really thankful that we got a chance to bring UB to a point where people were no longer questioning whether or not we should have Division I intercollegiate athletics.
“Thankful just to be a part of that process where we were able to bring a profile of excellence to the campus and make people proud.”