By Nick Veronica
Canisius named Reggie Witherspoon its men’s basketball coach this weekend. He’ll be introduced at a press conference Tuesday morning.
Here are five things to know about the man who coached UB until 2013:
1. Witherspoon’s firing from UB was a surprise
UB averaged 18.4 wins per season over Witherspoon’s final five years as coach. He was well-liked by the community and had three years left on his contract when he was let go. “Firing by UB blindsided Witherspoon,” one headline read.
Failing to take UB to the NCAA Tournament was a leading cause for Witherspoon’s dismissal. But the Danny White factor played a big role, too.
White – a first-year athletic director eager to make his mark on the program before leaving for a bigger job – fired Witherspoon just 10 months after arriving at UB. White would fire eight coaches over his three years in charge.
“Completely shocked,” Akron coach Keith Dambrot said after learning UB had fired Witherspoon. “… Not only is he a quality basketball coach, but he’s one of the most high-character people I’ve ever been around.”
Bobby Hurley, Witherspoon’s replacement, was a splashy hire for White. It’s hard to say bringing in Hurley didn’t work out – he took UB to the NCAA Tournament before leaving for a bigger job himself – but most athletic directors wouldn’t have cut Witherspoon loose just then. Without Danny White, there’s a chance Witherspoon is still coaching UB today.
2. Witherspoon and Canisius’ AD have history together
Witherspoon coached at UB from 1999 until 2013. Canisius athletic director Bill Maher worked there from 1997 until 2005, serving as the interim athletic director for the final two years.
It’s telling how quickly Canisius filled the position, announcing Witherspoon just eight days after Jim Baron retired and without conducting an exhaustive national search.
Bringing in Witherspoon puts Canisius on an odd hiring streak: This makes back-to-back men’s basketball coaches who happened to be the first candidate Maher was asked about after announcing the previous coach’s dismissal.
Maher brought that quirk up on his own at Jim Baron’s press conference last Friday when I asked him about Witherspoon.
“I think Reggie’s a great guy,” Maher said. “He’s continued to stay in coaching. I enjoyed working with him at UB. When we made the decision to not renew Tom [Parrotta], Jim Baron’s name was one of the first ones someone brought up, and I said, ‘We’ll see. It’ll be something we consider for sure.’ So Reggie, if there’s interest from Reggie, I’ll certainly talk to him about it and we’ll go from there.”
3. Witherspoon went to the NCAA tournament last year
An interesting aspect of the Reggie Witherspoon redemption narrative is that he earned his elusive NCAA Tournament trip last season as an assistant with Chattanooga.
The Mocs went 29-6 overall and 15-3 in the Southern Conference before winning the league’s tournament as the top seed. They were seeded 12th in the NCAA Tournament and lost in the first round to Indiana, 99-74.
4. Witherspoon admitted he was depressed when he was out of coaching
Before taking the position at Chattanooga, Witherspoon spent one year as an assistant at Alabama. But before that, he was out of work.
“You lose your sense of usefulness,” Witherspoon said after accepting the position 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 told Buffalo News columnist Jerry Sullivan the best advice he got came from former college coach Bobby Cremins.
“Bobby Cremins 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.”
5. He’s local
Witherspoon, 55, was born in Buffalo. He starred at Sweet Home High School before playing for John Beilein at ECC – then later coached both of his former schools.
When Witherspoon took over at Sweet Home, he reportedly became the first black basketball coach at a suburban high school in Western New York (in the early 1990s!). Before earning a full-time coaching position at ECC, his day job was selling warehouse supplies, according to that link.
Witherspoon went 43-15 in two years at ECC before becoming the interim coach at UB in 1999 after Tim Cohane resigned five games into the season.
Bonus: His real name is Phillip
According to Witherspoon’s FIBA profile, his full name is Phillip Reginald Witherspoon. The more you know.Follow @NickVeronica