Former UB coach Witherspoon signs as assistant at Alabama
After year away from the game, ÔSpoon' excited for challenge of SEC
As Reggie Witherspoon answered the final question and his in-home press conference concluded, the friends, family members and former players sitting behind Witherspoon in support proclaimed, "Roll Tide."
Wednesday, Witherspoon announced he is heading to the SEC to become an assistant coach at the University of Alabama. Witherspoon was the UB men's basketball team's head coach for 14 years, from 1999-2013, before Athletic Director Danny White terminated his contract with three years remaining on the deal in March 2013 following a 14-20 season.
In July 2013, The Buffalo News reported that Witherspoon had accepted an offer to become special assistant in charge of athletics at Erie Community College, but in August that deal was nixed because of a contract dispute - it was determined UB would no longer be obligated to pay the remainder of Witherspoon's deal if he accepted the ECC job. Witherspoon said he had been in discussion with other colleges recently but there were no definite offers outside of Alabama, and he is grateful to have the "deep sense of uncertainty" behind him.
"People would ask, and I just genuinely did not know," Witherspoon said. "'What are you going to do?' 'I don't really know.' But thank God. They say if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans."
Witherspoon joins the staff of head coach Anthony Grant, whom Witherspoon said is the primary reason he was drawn to the job.
Witherspoon met Grant when his Virginia Commonwealth team upset Duke in Buffalo in the 2007 NCAA Tournament. VCU practiced that week at UB, and Witherspoon has been a fan of Grant's coaching style ever since - particularly his pressure defense and ability to execute it against great teams, and his propensity to go deep into his bench and produce balanced teams.
"Coach Grant has been terrific with not only me but he's been great as a coach at Florida, at VCU and certainly at Alabama," Witherspoon said. "My wife and I, Dawn and I, got a chance to go down there and visit Tuscaloosa and were amazed by the hospitality of the people there, by the resources there and by the extensive knowledge of building a program that Coach Grant and his staff have."
Witherspoon has spent the past year doing freelance consulting for teams at every level, from high schools (including the Park School in Buffalo) to colleges (including South Carolina and Illinois) to NBA teams. Still, not being a full-time head coach was difficult for Witherspoon.
"It's been a struggle to be away from something that I've been doing for so long, but at the same time it's given me an opportunity to visit different programs ... practices, games, and just see how other people are doing it and understand how they're doing it," Witherspoon said. "And a lot of it validated some of the things we were doing, but it's been a challenge, and this will be a challenge, too - to move, to get down there - but it's one we're really excited about."
Witherspoon said he was shocked to learn how many programs were aware of his methods of coaching - likely referring to the patented high-low offense he developed at UB, known in some circles as "Reggie Rise-Up," which many college teams now run.
Witherspoon was born and raised in Buffalo, and before his time at UB, he coached at Sweet Home High School (going from junior varsity head coach to varsity assistant to varsity head coach) and ECC. Much of his press conference involved reminiscing on his extensive time in the Buffalo basketball community - from crying as a young boy after Buffalo Braves losses to becoming a ball boy at UB - and expressing gratitude for those who have supported him over the years.
"It will always be home ... we'll always be connected to Western New York and mindful of the support that we've had here for 30 years, really," Witherspoon said.
"I am really thankful and grateful to be able to serve as part of the Western New York basketball community and to have been able to have helped in any way, and I'm just so appreciative and so grateful for their support over the years."
The decision of White, who was then in his first year as AD, to fire Witherspoon, who had helped lead the development of UB's Division I program, spurred controversy in the Buffalo community. White hired Rhode Island assistant Bobby Hurley to take over, and Hurley's UB team - led by seniors Javon McCrea, Josh Freelove and Jarod Oldham - finished 19-10 and lost in the Mid-American Conference quarterfinals.
"Even the support that we got here in Western New York was a little bit surprising, going through what we went through just a little over a year ago," Witherspoon said. "Everywhere I went here, really, it surprised me how much support we had."
Grant is 99-51 in his five-year career at Alabama. This year, his team finished 13-19. It was the program's first losing season in 14 years.
Witherspoon said he and his wife will be moving to Alabama shortly.