Long-time coach fired by UB; Witherspoon, MAC coaches respond
Witherspoon directs freshman point guard Jarryn Skeete (10) during Witherspoon's last game as UB's head coach, a Thursday night MAC Tournament quarterfinals loss to Kent State (70-68). Skeete took over as starting point guard midway through the season. Rebecca Bratek /// The Spectrum
Since Athletic Director Danny White fired long-time men's basketball coach Reggie Witherspoon on Friday, Witherspoon has only heard from the athletic department regarding one matter: How soon can he clean out his office?
"How I feel is like death," Witherspoon told The Spectrum. "At times, it just feels like death."
Witherspoon coached the Bulls for 14 years and accumulated a 198-228 record, including a 92-66 mark over the past five years, three of which the Bulls advanced to a postseason tournament.
Aside from a phone conversation with The Buffalo News and a press release, White has stated he will not be answering any questions on the firing.
As of Tuesday, Witherspoon was still trying to quantify how he lost his job. Asked if he had a message for UB and the basketball community, he responded in three parts.
"I love UB," Witherspoon said. "First, thank you. Second, hold on to what you have. Be very careful. Always grow. Always look to improve and enhance what UB is about. Don't take shortcuts. Be careful if a shortcut, fast-talking guy comes in and promises you something that is not built with proper values ... be careful of a fast-talking shortcut artist."
The Bulls' young squad finished 14-20 (7-9 Mid-American Conference) this year but won two MAC Tournament games and came three points from the conference semifinals.
Akron head coach Keith Dambrot is preparing his team, the 2013 MAC champion Zips, to take on Virginia Commonwealth in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday.
"I was shocked when I saw he wasn't coming back," said Dambrot, the 2012-13 MAC Coach of the Year. "It's typical. The athletic directors talk about graduating players, making them better people, but really it comes down to they all want to play in the NCAA Tournament.
"There's no other reason they could possibly let a guy like Reggie go. In our league, you could be very good every year and never play in the NCAA Tournament. You've got to be lucky. If they think Buffalo is an easy job, then they have another thing coming. It's a very difficult job and he's done amazing."
With all but one major contributor (senior guard Tony Watson) returning, and led by two-time first-team All-MAC forward Javon McCrea, many expected the Bulls to compete for a conference championship next season.
The Bulls' floor general and No. 2 scorer at the time, junior guard Jarod Oldham, broke his wrist in mid-December and did not return for the remainder of the season. Witherspoon trained true freshman Jarryn Skeete at the point, and Skeete developed into a MAC All-Freshman team performer.
"If he was let go because of performance reasons, then I'm not seeing it," said Western Michigan head coach Steve Hawkins, now the longest-tenured (13 years) coach in the MAC. "They were the No. 2 seed last year. There's not a coach in this league, myself included, that did not say: 'Wow, if Oldham had not gotten hurt, they would have been really good this year, and they have everybody back next year.'"
Hawkins worked alongside legendary coach John Wooden for 10 years.
"[Witherspoon's firing], in my opinion, is a representative of some of the things that are wrong in college athletics," he said. "In my opinion, a college basketball coach is still considered an educator."
Though he was one of the pillars that built UB's basketball program into a respected commodity, Witherspoon is not sure he will attend any more games in Alumni Arena.
"I don't know if the university wants me," said Witherspoon, who grew up in Buffalo and coached at Sweet Home High School and Erie Community College before taking over as UB's head coach during the 1999-2000 season. "They've dismissed me, and I haven't been given any indication that I'm welcome there ... My kids go to school there. It's really an embarrassing and humiliating effect."
Coaches from all over the country, from local high schools to schools in Hawaii, have offered support. The hope among most coaches, Witherspoon said, is that they'll stay at one school and build a family-like atmosphere, and they believe that will result in reward, not termination.
Kent State head coach Rob Senderoff's team ended Buffalo's season in the MAC quarterfinals.
"He's one of the best coaches in our conference," said Senderoff, who was a part of the 2008 Indiana coaching staff that was fired. "When you've invested as much as you have in your kids and your program, it's not easy when you're told that you're no longer needed or wanted at your school."
Senderoff explained that Witherspoon essentially invented the high-low offense he has been running all 14 years at UB. Senderoff said almost every team across the country runs some version of "Buffalo," the set inspired by Witherspoon's strategy.
"Because he's not Coach K, he hasn't gotten that notoriety, but to me he's an innovator in our profession," Senderoff said.
In fact, when Hawkins' Western Michigan team played at Michigan earlier this season, Wolverines head coach John Beilein approached Hawkins after the game and said: "That offense you were running for part of the game, I call it Reggie rise-up."
Though Hawkins said he is among the most respected coaches in college basketball, Witherspoon said he is not sure if he will continue coaching. He is most proud of how the UB program grew in popularity among students during his tenure. When he arrived, he said, students never wore UB gear around campus. Now, many sport the blue and white.
Witherspoon said his house has been full since Friday and he described the outpouring of support as "a saving grace." All his current and former players who live locally have come to his house and many have brought meals.
"It's been like a funeral," he said.
Witherspoon said he is still in shock.
Hawkins said it is going to be very difficult for UB to find a better coach and campus representative than Reggie Witherspoon.
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