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.”

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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.

witherspoonclan

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

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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.”

Loose ends: Answering your Jim Baron questions

Since Jim Baron’s introductory press conference as Canisius basketball coach, The Griffin has been rounding up answers to many of the questions regarding the hiring. Questions are in bold with responses below.

What are the expectations for Jim Baron?

School president John Hurley: “We looked at his ability to build a winner in a tough situation. He did it at St. Francis and he did it at Bonaventure and he did it at Rhode Island. I think he’s ready to do it again.

“… [Baron] asked me how long did I think it would take [to contend in the MAAC], and I said I don’t know because I don’t do this for a living. I said I have an expectation in the next four or five years that you’re going to be able to hit that level. I hope it happens sooner. I think he thinks that we have some good returning players and the short term is actually a little bit better than other kinds of situations that he’s walked into. It’s not like he has to go out and recruit a whole team.

Baron: “Expectations are to go out there and play as hard as we can.”

Was Canisius worried about Baron’s age?

Athletic Director Bill Maher: “No, not at all … experience as a head coach was one of the key elements we wanted. And thankfully we had a lot of that in our candidate pool. But Jim has been experienced as a head coach at the Division I level for 25 years, and for that I think it’s a level of experience and a level of savvy that he’ll bring to our sideline and into our program that will help us be successful in the league.

“There [are] some great coaches in the MAAC. There’s not as many assistant coaches who are moving up to be [first-time] head coaches. If you look at many of the hires, they’ve been experienced guys who have come from different levels and I think you’re probably going to see a little bit of a trend in that direction.”

What demands did Baron make regarding his staff?

Hurley: “There were two positions that he wanted added in addition to the assistant coaches. But we really had to upgrade the salary pool for the assistant coaches to allow him to hire the people he wanted. Also, he wanted a basketball operations position, kind of a logistics coordinator and a video person, and also some administrative support. Then there were some things in the recruiting budget that he looked at, so he’s willing to work generally within the confines, but we did have to upgrade, so we talked to him about those things and we said yeah, let’s go for it. … We haven’t sorted [the cost] all out yet, but it’s north of $100,000.”

What did players think about the hire?

Junior point guard Gaby Belardo: “He looked like a really tough guy, but that’s just how coaches are. He was really straightforward with us, he told us what he was all about – he was all about winning and school – and everybody felt very comfortable with him.

“A lot of people felt very comfortable with Jayson Gee also, but everybody knew that Jim was the right one. … He had the head coaching experience and that’s what we wanted.”

Sophomore forward Chris Manhertz said he is optimistic for the future, but added you “can’t really please everybody” with a new hire. He also mentioned many players liked Jayson Gee.

What style of play will Baron bring?

Baron says he coaches a high-energy brand of basketball that will score points. He noted that Rhode Island upgraded from a 3,000-seat arena to 8,000-seater under his leadership. “I think a lot of it is because we brought a style of excitement, scored a lot of points, [played] up-tempo, pressured the ball. It’s a very, very exciting style of play.”

Are the reports accurate that Baron’s son Billy will stay at Rhode Island?

Baron wouldn’t say much on the topic but implied Billy will not being suiting for the Griffs. “He’s finishing up and doing what he needs to do there. That’s the most important thing now.”

What’s Tom Parrotta up to?

Belardo said “it breaks my heart to see Coach P go, but it’s for the best.” There have been no official announcements on Parrotta getting a new job yet. His house is still on the market and his wife still grabs lunch with the players most days in Old Main. Junior guard Alshwan Hymes said the players have talked to Parrotta and they think he’ll be fine. “He’s a big boy,” Hymes said.

What was the deal with original contract report in the Buffalo News?

Canisius stands by the claim that that report was inaccurate and originally said it had asked the News to correct the story.

“When that was in the news, I was in the middle of a ten-day trip to Florida and hadn’t even met Jim baron at the time the story ran,” Hurley said. “[Baron] was on the list from the list from the start, but it was one of those things we didn’t know was he going to be interested in coming to Canisius, could we put a deal together that would be attractive to him or not.”

Will Baron have any attachment to current players?

Baron: “What I told the players is I’m a little bit different type of coach. Other coaches come in and they look at the players and say ‘they’re not my players.’ Every program that I’ve been a part of, the program’s players become my players. I become part of the program. It’s our program. It’s our team. It’s our family. And I told these guys, you’re part of the tradition, you’re part of the program and you’re going to be a part of what we do. And you’re an important part of what we do.”

Why wasn’t Freddy Asprilla at the press conference?

Multiple sources told The Griffin Asprilla was in class at the time of the conference. The school said Baron instructed players that class took precedence.

What teams are on tap for next year?

The dates haven’t been set yet, but both UB and St. Bonaventure will visit the Koessler Athletic Center this year. The rest of the nonleague opponents are not finalized, but the Griffs plan to go back out to Las Vegas for another game with UNLV and owe a return game to Maryland-Baltimore County. Other home nonconference opponents include Boston University, UMKC and Longwood. Canisius will be on the road for the ESPN BracketBuster game.

Follow along on Twitter for updates on the Canisius basketball team @NickVeronica.

Not yet sold on Jim Baron

Athletic director Bill Maher, left, and school president John Hurley flank new basketball coach Jim Baron.

Jim Baron’s introductory press conference as Canisius basketball coach was Tuesday afternoon, which seems like an eternity ago in the age of the Twitter-based news cycle.

My first inclination was that Canisius made the wrong decision. I didn’t think Baron was the right guy for the job. After sleeping on it and doing more research, I’m still not sure he was the right hire, but he’s growing on me.

When the media gathered in the Koessler Athletic Center to talk with athletic director Bill Maher after he let go of Tom Parrotta, Baron’s name was the first we mentioned as a potential successor. He was fired the same day as Parrotta and had ties to the area, whatever those are worth.

The feeling I got Tuesday talking to those in charge of decision-making was that Canisius wanted Baron all along, and everything else – perhaps even bringing in the other candidates, Jayson Gee and Dave Duda – was just part of going through the motions and meeting NCAA rules. Could Baron’s availability have played into Parrotta’s dismissal? I think that’s pushing it, but the thought certainly crossed my mind.

Baron turned 58 during the hiring process and there’s a good chance this could be his last coaching job. I thought Canisius should have brought in an up-and-coming assistant coach; someone with his best years ahead of him.

Baron was a safe pick, though the decision-makers won’t agree. When you hire a guy with 25 years of head-coaching experience, you know what you’re getting. It’s going to be better than it was, but just how much better remains to be seen. I would have liked to see the school try to hit it big with an emerging coach – basically trying to find another John Beilein, the former Canisius coach who now walks the sidelines at Michigan.

But Maher and school president John Hurley decided to go in a different direction. Maher was on the Canisius football team in 1987 when basketball coach Nick Macarchuk picked up and left for Fordham and Hurley was on the search committee that brought him here. Maher was also less than 12 months into his first formal athletic director job when he hired an assistant from the Hofstra staff named Tom Parrotta in April 2006. One hundred twenty-one losses later, Maher opted for an experienced candidate who isn’t going anywhere, not willing to delve into the unknown once again.

Baron’s press conference didn’t get off to a good start either. Everybody’s been playing up the local guy angle, but forgive me if I’m not on board with that one. He left St. Bonaventure in the spring of 2001, when the World Trade Center stood tall and the Buffalo Bills were cutting Doug Flutie in favor of Rob Johnson. In layman’s terms, that was a long time ago.

Then Baron got up to the microphone and made an Anchor Bar joke. Nobody who’s really local would make mention of the Anchor Bar. That’s a real touristy thing to do. And if anyone didn’t make that connection, Baron’s Brooklyn accent should have tipped them off – I’ve haven’t heard of the “Anca Bahr.” It must be new.

Baron also confused me talking about the impressive legacy of players from Western New York and the AAU programs here, because this area certainly isn’t known for basketball, but if he meant trying to take whatever local talent there is away from the University at Buffalo, I think that’s something people would get on board with.

The scouting report on Baron is that he isn’t going to win you over at the press conference, and I’d agree with that, because the farther removed I get from it, the more I think I understand his message.

There’s a big difference between talking to Baron and listening to what he said on a recording. At an arm’s length away, Baron seemed callous and reminded me of a cross between my old neighbor who would yell at me for going on his lawn and a character from a movie I saw once about the BTK killer. On the recording, he sounded sincere and ready to bring about change to the men’s basketball program.

Hurley and Maher were genuinely excited to bring Baron in. Hurley said he wasn’t even sure if they were going to be able to interest him or put together a package that would be acceptable to him, so they see Baron as a big step forward for the program.

While I won’t credit Baron fully if the team is successful next season – especially if Jordan Heath and Freddy Asprilla are key factors, because let’s be honest, that’s Parrotta’s team – I do give him credit for improving Canisius’ commitment to basketball.

Hurley told me the school is going to spend over $100,000 on new positions and other improvements to the program – largely paid by boosters and other financing. While you could say any coach would have done better with that much more help, Baron forced Canisius’ hand and I’m giving him full marks for that. It had to be weird for a man without a job to think of himself as having leverage on an employer, but make no mistake, the school made sure it found a way to meet the demands Baron wanted (he should have asked for an ice rink, too).

Amid all the overly optimistic lines being thrown around at the rally – er, press conference – there was one thing Baron said that I really liked:

“What I told the players is I’m a little bit different type of coach. Other coaches come in and they look at the players and say, ‘they’re not my players.’ Every program that I’ve been a part of, the program’s players become my players. I become part of the program. It’s our program. It’s our team. It’s our family. And I told these guys, you’re part of the tradition, you’re part of the program and you’re going to be a part of what we do. And you’re an important part of what we do.”

That quote changed how I thought of Baron. He wasn’t a serial killer anymore, but a man wise with experience, like George Feeny from “Boy Meets World.” That was exactly what Canisius needs to hear right now. The players didn’t want Parrotta to leave and weren’t exactly sold on Baron, but having the new coach say that is really as much as anyone can ask for.

Parrotta was as involved in the school community as a coach could be, and while I don’t think we’ll be seeing the new coach’s wife wearing her lucky shirt in the stands or grabbing Subway with the players, Baron wanting to become part of the tradition and recognizing how important student involvement is will go a long way towards filling hole Parrotta left.

Hurley started off the press conference by listing the great coaches in Canisius history: Joseph Niland and Bob MacKinnon, Macarchuk and Beilein. The next time Canisius hosts one of these introductory conferences, the list will probably still be only four names long, but Baron walks into a position where it can’t get much worse than it was. Achieving the same results he has attained at other schools would be viewed as a great success, and having a basketball program it can consider even remotely successful is something the Canisius community anxiously awaits.