It happens, sooner or later, to most everyone who coaches for a living. But until that moment arrived in March 2013, when UB fired him as head basketball coach after 14 seasons, Reggie Witherspoon never imagined how it would feel.
Witherspoon said it was like having his identity stripped away, like this “inescapable nightmare,” except you wake up the next day and you’re still out of the game.
“You lose your sense of usefulness,” Witherspoon said Saturday, three days after taking an assistant’s job at Alabama. “Yeah, I was depressed. At first it hits you at night, and again when you get out of bed. Then at some point it hits you 24 hours. You feel like it’s with you when you sleep.”
Witherspoon had coached for 28 years when UB let him go, at every level, all of it in Western New York. There’s a routine when you’re a basketball coach, a reassuring rhythm to your days. You don’t feel it until it’s gone.
“Bobby Cremins (a longtime college coach) told me early, ‘I’ll tell you when it gets really bad,’ ” Witherspoon said. “I said ‘It gets worse?’ He told me to wait until practice starts. Your mind is conditioned to have certain thoughts, visions and feelings. You’re going to feel disconnected when the season starts. He was right. You don’t know what to do. It’s like you’re walking around with a costume on.”
Witherspoon had been a fixture on the local basketball scene for years. He and Joe Corey, one of his mentors, taught me most of what I know about Buffalo hoops. It was Reggie’s dream to bring a measure of self-respect back to local college ball.
He made UB basketball matter, but he never made the NCAA Tournament. So when he was let go, it had to feel like failure. But in time, Witherspoon bounced back. Not surprisingly, it was the other men in the profession who restored his sense of identity, who reminded him how respected he was in the game.
Mike Battaglia, coach at the Park School, used Witherspoon as a valued consultant. Rob Senderoff, the Kent State coach, brought in Witherspoon to help prepare his team for a summer trip in May, 2013.
In October, Illinois coach John Groce invited him to a clinic, where Witherspoon and George Karl were honored guests. He spent hours at Groce’s home, talking hoops deep into the night with Karl and Todd Lickliter, a former head coach at Butler and Iowa.
“Todd won 30 games at Butler, was national coach of the year, goes to Iowa and they fire him after three years,” Witherspoon said. “George Karl was NBA coach of the year the previous season and got fired.”
So he wasn’t alone. Jack Armstrong, who was fired at Niagara and became the voice of basketball in Canada, brought Witherspoon to a Raptors game on Thanksgiving. Dwane Casey, who was fired during an ugly scandal at Kentucky years ago, offered advice.
“Dwane said, ‘You have to fight the temptation to stay home and do nothing,’ ” Witherspoon said. “I said ‘That’s exactly what I’m feeling.’ ”
Witherspoon wondered if he would get another break. But a coach with his reputation for teaching and developing players wasn’t going to be out of work for long. Four years earlier, Witherspoon had been introduced to Alabama coach Anthony Grant by a mutual friend, Ryan Ford.
Ford, an Olean native, played at Providence with Billy Donovan under Rick Pitino. Grant was on Donovan’s staff at Florida before taking the Alabama head job. This past March, Ford was in Memphis to see Florida in the regional final of the NCAA Tournament. He told Grant to give Witherspoon a call.
A week later at the Final Four in Dallas, Ford called Witherspoon to see about dinner. Reggie told him he was meeting with Grant in an hour. A few days later, Grant called Ford to talk about Witherspoon some more.
“I told Anthony that from a character standpoint and the way you coach the game and mentor young men, you and Reggie are completely alike,” Ford said. “I told him they would complement each other’s personality. Anthony is very stoic, where Reggie’s personality is infectious.
“They believe in all the same things. They’re very strong Christian men who work hard and have great passion for the game of basketball. They’re both teachers. I just see them being a great fit together.”
Grant felt the same way. Last week, he hired Witherspoon as an assistant. Texas assistant Robert Lanier, a Buffalo native who is close with both Grant and Witherspoon, also feels it’s an ideal match.
“I hold both those guys in the highest regard,” Lanier said. “I think they’re both very fortunate to connect with one another. Reggie has what Anthony’s looking for in the hire. Any time you hire a guy who’s a head coach, you’re concerned about their ability to adapt to a new role.
“There’s a transition,” Lanier said. “But Reggie is unique because he’s never been an assistant. He’s wired in such a way where he’ll view it as an opportunity to get better. Here we all know how good he is, but people outside of Western New York don’t. He’ll get to spread his wings a little bit.”
Witherspoon and his wife, Dawn, were amazed at the sheer size of the facilities at Alabama, an SEC football power that generates staggering revenues. With that comes expectation and pressure. The Crimson Tide is coming off a losing season and Grant is on the hot seat.
“I do feel that pressure,” Witherspoon said, “and I feel that excitement as well – to be useful again, to want to help Anthony and the staff and players on the team.”
He’ll be leaving for Alabama soon. For the first time, aside from tournaments with USA Basketball, Witherspoon will be coaching away from home.
“I don’t feel like I’m necessarily leaving Western New York,” he said. “I feel more like we’re taking Western New York with us.”
On Friday night, more than 100 people came to Dave & Buster’s to see him off. Earlier in the day, Witherspoon attended a funeral for Kenny Berry, an accomplished singer (and Alabama native) who ran leagues and mentored a legion of young basketball players when Reggie was a kid.
It was an emotional scene for Witherspoon, seeing all those faces from his basketball past: Mike Norwood, Dwight Williams, Ray Hall, Willie “Hutch” Jones, Duke Richardson, Romeo McKinney. He thought about Jack Ramsay, the former Braves coach who passed away earlier in the week.
“I walked in and before I could recognize one person, I recognized 15 people,” he said. “I’m sitting at this funeral and I’m thinking, ‘We’re getting ready to leave town in two weeks. If you’re taking Western New York with you, this is some of what you’re going to take.’
“All of those memories went through my mind, because a lot of those people I haven’t seen in so long. But it was good. I needed that. I didn’t need to be at a funeral home, but I needed to see those people.”
Seeing the love for Kenny Berry in that church was a reminder of how many lives a man can touch. It’s a powerful thing to know your life has a purpose. Witherspoon has stood up for local basketball for his entire life. Now it’s time to go show those folks down South.
I’m happy for him, and I’m sure he’ll do well. You know who really should be happy? Alabama.