Bulls, fans pay the price for athletic director's failure
Culmination of bad decisions came at MAC quarterfinals
A cohesive team, strong senior players and momentum from improving performance in past years were all squandered in Cleveland because of poor leadership. It was more due to the young, hubristic Athletic Director Danny White, however, than Bobby Hurley, the inexperienced rookie coach.
UB's men's basketball team suffered an upset loss March 14 in the Mid-American Conference Tournament quarterfinals to Eastern Michigan, 69-64. Making accepting the situation even more difficult: that fans expected this to be 'the year' for the Bulls after a disappointing, though understandable, loss in the quarterfinals last year.
The pieces were in place.
The team would have all but certainly performed better if not for a foolish decision by White to fire longtime coach Reggie Witherspoon last March.
Following this year's MAC Tournament loss, UB was invited to the College Invitational Tournament, a respected postseason tournament for quality teams mainly from mid-major conferences. The athletic department snubbed the offer. The New York Bulls apparently only attend larger tournaments, never mind that nothing was gained in cutting the season short after the disappointing quarterfinals loss.
UB issued this statement to Cleveland.com: "We made the decision that our goals were to play in either the NCAA or the NIT. Expanding our post season options are something we will evaluate each year."
UB's athletic department has experienced some rather significant (and at times confusing) decisions since White took over in 2012. At just 31 when he was hired, the young and idealistic director has pushed a rebranding of the department's sports, the "#NYBI" (New York Bulls Initiative).
The initiative, and many of White's actions, has effectively worked to remove UB's association with the city of Buffalo, focusing on associating the school with New York at large.
Changing logos and shifting titles to make the University at Buffalo more about New York is certainly a slap in the face to the community that has given rise to this institution. It is other missteps, however, that are to blame for the department's stagnating performance.
The former men's basketball coach for 14 years, Witherspoon, has been a mainstay of Buffalo basketball for decades. Beginning at Sweet Home High School, moving to coach at Erie Community College and finally UB in 1999, Witherspoon had unmatched community rapport and he made a shattered program riddled with NCAA penalties into a respectable one known for its character.
Last year, Witherspoon was fired from his position immediately following UB's loss at the MAC Tournament. This happened despite his strong performance in years past; rescuing of the formerly in-shambles program when he took the helm; and the confounding difficulties the team had that year, namely inexperience - rebuilding after losing much of the team from its successful 2011-12 season - and injuries.
White cited "need for new leadership" for the firing, promising to do a comprehensive national search for a new coach. He then hired Bobby Hurley, with whom White had connections through Duke University, just two weeks later.
Surely poor performance is not White's only prerequisite for dismissal, given the five-year contract extension White gave to football coach Jeff Quinn despite his dismal 9-26 (.257) record at the time.
As many speculated at the time, Witherspoon's firing was hardly for valuable reasons and the hire was decided long before that March.
Danny White's attempt to plug Hurley into the winning team Witherspoon assembled not only robbed Witherspoon of his team, it robbed fans and players.
There was no doubt that a MAC Championship, or even place in the finals, would be a huge boon to Witherspoon, who had never led a team to MAC title victory. The praise would be rightfully his, and there would have been immense uproar if White had fired the beloved figure after such a successful year (which many expected).
Hurley would have been a good hire if done down the road. The timing and intention behind the coaching shake-up is far more reprehensible than Hurley failing to put a championship team together with a squad he was unfamiliar with, in a new city and school, during his first year as a head coach.
White was keenly aware a title this year (with all the team's talent and expectations) would have given the credit to him for going out and hiring his own guy.
A young, brash director comes in, shakes up the team, rebrands the department and seizes a championship. The headlines write themselves if the plan comes together.
White's arrogance wasn't enough to get the victory. It has succeeded, however - in taking this team from its city and a potential championship from the squad.
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