By Nick Veronica
May 31 is not an ideal deal day to introduce a new college basketball coach. The fall semester is less than three months away. Worse, recruiting is in what the NCAA calls a “quiet period” until after the Fourth of July, meaning coaches can’t watch recruits play or talk to them in person unless it’s on campus.
Reggie Witherspoon acknowledged those challenges Tuesday morning but took the microphone undeterred as Canisius College named him the 24th coach in school history.
“Canisius has been doing Division I basketball for a long time,” Witherspoon said in front of players, administrators, alumni and even the mayor at the Koessler Athletic Center.
“It’s not a starter situation, it’s just rough road ahead. The timing is not great. But it’s a program that has been in existence for a long time. You have a lot of alumni who are in the area that care about the program, and I think that’s a plus.”
Witherspoon has been in tough spots before. Consider the circumstances he walked into at his last Division I head coaching job.
Witherspoon took over at UB five games into the 1999-2000 season after Tom Cohane left amid alleged recruiting violations. He was hired on Saturday, Dec. 4. The Bulls played No. 7 North Carolina on Tuesday. After that, it was off to No. 15 Indiana.
That was being thrown into the fire. This is just less than ideal.
“Reggie’s name quickly rose to the top,” Canisius president John Hurley said, “and made it a relatively easy decision.”
Athletic director Bill Maher spoke to the urgency in hiring Witherspoon just eight days after Jim Baron’s surprise retirement.
“We had to quickly look at our situation, assess where we were as a program,” Maher said. “There’s only about five weeks left of the summer session before [players] leave for the summer. To give those young men and the new coaching staff the best opportunity to meet, assimilate and understand each other, time was of the essence.”
Funny thing about timing. Witherspoon was back in Buffalo visiting family two weeks ago when a stomach illness delayed his return trip to Chattanooga, where he was an assistant coach.
When he started getting text messages saying Baron had retired, he thought people were playing a prank on him.
“I thought actually it was a joke,” Witherspoon said. “People have been saying, ‘Are you going to come back? Eventually you’ll come back.’ I didn’t see that [about Baron]. We were planning on driving back to Chattanooga and the texts started around 9 in the morning and I really thought they were people joking with me, because we would’ve been on the road. So I thought people were saying, hey, let’s get him when he’s about 400 miles into this trip and just make a joke out of it.
“I got a couple different text messages, and then one of them said ‘Coach Baron retired,’ and ‘SERIOUSLY’ was in all caps with exclamation points,” Witherspoon said. “And then I realized, maybe he did retire. He signed an extension in March and Jim and I are friends so I didn’t see this coming.”
But once the ball got rolling, “It didn’t take long for me to say yes to this opportunity,” Witherspoon added.=
He inherits a Canisius team that graduated its leading scorer and starting center. He has four scholarships to fill.
In following Baron, Witherspoon is tasked with replacing a coach who recruited one of the top-five players in school history (even if it was his son), took Canisius to the postseason three times (even if it was the CIT), and forced the school to increase its financial commitment to the program.
Witherspoon, 55, also becomes the first black head coach in the inner-city school’s 112 years of men’s basketball. (Former women’s tennis coach General Bass is believed to be the only other black head coach in school history.)
Witherspoon said returning to coach in his hometown is “an awesome privilege.”
“It’s unusual for Division I coaches to be in a situation where you’re at the press conference and you have your mom here, my mother-in-law, my father-in-law, my wife, my two daughters, my sister-in-law, my brother,” Witherspoon said. “It’s an honor to have that support, care and love here.”Follow @NickVeronica