Timing not ideal, but Witherspoon ready for challenges at Canisius

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.


The entire Witherspoon clan was in attendance at Tuesday’s press conference.

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.”


Five things to know about new Canisius coach Reggie Witherspoon


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.

[RELATED: How do the Griffs look without Jim Baron?]

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.”

[RELATED: How were Witherspoon’s UB teams? A year-by-year look]

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.”

[RELATED: How Jim Baron finally walked away]

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.


Canisius hires Reggie Witherspoon to replace Jim Baron

By Nick Veronica

Canisius hired former UB basketball coach Reggie Witherspoon on Saturday, filling the country’s final Division I coaching vacancy that was created by Jim Baron’s unexpected retirement last week.

Canisius athletic director Bill Maher worked closely with Witherspoon at UB before taking over the Canisius athletic department in 2005.

UB fired Witherspoon after the 2013 season in part because he failed to advance to the NCAA Tournament over the course of his tenure. Witherspoon reached The Dance this past season as an assistant with Chattanooga.

Here’s a year-by-year look at how Witherspoon’s UB teams fared, along with their field goal percentage, opponent field goal percentage and national rank. All numbers come from sports-reference.com, which has opponent data back to 2002.

Top-100 finishes are in green; finishes 250th or worse are in red.

Witherspoon’s UB teams

Screen Shot 2016-05-28 at 3.15.50 PM.png

Witherspoon will be introduced at a press conference Tuesday.


VIDEO: Watch Jim Baron’s emotional retirement press conference

By Nick Veronica

Canisius men’s basketball coach Jim Baron announced his retirement Friday afternoon. Joined by his brother, Ed, and sons Jimmy and Billy, Baron was emotional during his 30-minute goodbye to college basketball.

Notes from the interview:

— Baron reiterated that his health is fine and he’s retiring to spend more time with his family. “That’s what’s important to me at this time,” he said.

— Associate head coach Pat Clarke is now running the program as the interim head coach.

—  Athletic director Bill Maher said he hopes to conduct an “expedited search” for a new coach, but has no timeline for when he would like to have the new coach in place. He’s leaning toward not using a search firm.

— “I always value previous head coaching experience,” Maher told me later. “Last time, I felt that was critically important for our program at that point in time. … I’m not going to pin myself down and say I’m absolutely going to (hire someone with head coaching experience), nor did I last time.”

—  Maher on Pat Clarke as a candidate, and if his lack of head coaching experience hurts him: “We actually considered a number of candidates last time that didn’t have head coaching experience. Pat’s been here, he’s been instrumental in what we’ve done with the program. I’ve worked closely with him in a lot of the things we’ve done. If he’s interested – which he’s expressed that he is – I certainly will give him every consideration.”

— Maher was surprised when Baron told him Thursday that he wanted to retire. Maher said his thoughts were, ” ‘Are you sure about this, Jim? Have you thought about it?’ Because it wasn’t something we ever discussed, ‘Hey, I might be retiring.’ That wasn’t ever part of it.  … We talked about the fact that it’s a little bit later than is normally the process. But if you tell me we’re going to have a coaching search in March, that’s not a great time either.”

— I asked Maher what he thought about former UB coach Reggie Witherspoon: “I think Reggie’s a great guy. He’s continued to stay in coaching. I enjoyed working with him at UB (when Maher was an assistant AD). 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.”

Screen Shot 2016-05-20 at 3.45.33 PM