Continuing tradition

Head men’s basketball coach Jim Whitesell’s journey to his new position

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When former men’s basketball coach Nate Oats left for Alabama in March, many were unsure about the future of the program. 

Fans didn’t know if UB would hire someone from outside the school. They didn’t know what impact Oats’ departure would have on the 32-4 team.

After a little over a week, however, the program decided the best man for the job was someone who helped push the Bulls to become a top-25 team in the country last year.

A new era of Bulls basketball began when UB hired former assistant coach Jim Whitesell on April 6, an era defined by past growth and tradition.

Whitesell was the associate head coach under Oats for four years before being promoted to head coach under a five-year contract. He has grown up with, taught and loved the game of basketball since his early days growing up in Iowa. He hopes to continue the Bulls’ success –– and its blue-collar mentality –– and bring another championship to Buffalo. Some players say Whitesell, who many have worked with from their start at UB, has positively impacted their lives and that he cares about them as people, not just athletes. 

And they’re learning from someone who says he doesn’t remember life without basketball.

Whitesell grew up in a small Iowa town with a large family: five brothers who always played pickup basketball together. 

He played in high school, where he started to really appreciate the game and went on to play Division-III ball at Luther College in Iowa. Whitesell attributes his success and where he is today to his experience at Luther, claiming he gained a passion for coaching during his time there. 

“I really enjoyed the learning part of it and comradery of the team,” Whitesell said. “So it made me think, ‘Hey look, I want to be a teacher [or] coach and do this in college.’” 

Soon after, he attended the University of North Dakota for graduate school and became an assistant coach there in 1982.

Whitesell says he never had any doubts about becoming a basketball coach. 

“I pretty much knew [straight out of college],” Whitesell said. “The biggest thing for me was whether to be a high school coach and teacher, or to try up at the college level. … Those were the only things I was trying to figure out.” 

Whitesell has since coached at Minnesota State–Mankato, St. John’s and Loyola. Now, ten teams into his coaching career, Whitesell seems to have “figured it out” and found a home in Buffalo. 

“Every school has its different challenges,” he said. “You’re always looking at the different obstacles each place has.” 

Whitesell coached the Loyola-Chicago men’s basketball team from 2004-2011 and in 2017, watched as the Ramblers made it to the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament. Although Whitesell wasn’t with the team at the time, he “couldn’t have been happier” for them.

But he knew he belonged in Buffalo and says Oats was the reason he came here in the first place. Oats had just been promoted to head coach and needed an experienced assistant to help continue the success former head coach Bobby Hurley brought the team. 

Whitesell, an assistant coach at St. John’s in Queens, New York at the time, got a call from Oats in 2015.

“He said, ‘Look, I need someone with experience to be on my staff here and help out,’” Whitesell said. “I came up here, visited and really loved the place.” 

He went on to help the Bulls make it to the NCAA tournaments twice and win three Mid-American Conference Championships in his four years as assistant.

Fans have great expectations for Whitesell given his previous success. 

He will face a difficult challenge in replacing graduated seniors Nick Perkins, Jeremy Harris and CJ Massinburg. But Whitesell isn’t focused on the past.

“Those guys are hall-of-fame players. … We lost great experience but it’s going to be a great challenge to build our guys up,” Whitesell said. “We’re not going to replace those guys, but instead improve the players we have now.”

And he plans on expanding on what the Bulls have been doing.

“We worked together in terms of playing blue-collar, playing tough defense, run-oriented and exciting to watch,” Whitesell said. “We want to continue that [blue-collar] tradition.” 

As this era of Bulls basketball begins, Whitesell is confident in his team and trusts the upperclassmen to use their experience to help the team grow.

The Bulls bring back seven guys: a mix of returning starters, role players and transfers. This core of returning players is excited about the new head coach, who prides himself on building relationships with his players on and off the court.

Whitesell recruited redshirt junior center Brock Bertram four years ago, and they’ve since become close.

“He’s had my back since day one,” Bertram said. “He works me hard and is always helping me improve my game. … He cares about me, always makes sure I’m getting my academics done, he always asks me about my family and how I’m doing too … it really excited me [when he got the job].”

Junior guard Jayvon Graves, who’s also been around Whitesell for a few years, remembers when Whitesell called him after he got the job.

“As soon as he got the job, we had a great conversation just building our relationship.”

Whitesell signed a five-year contract back in April, and he has many hopes for the Bulls program over that span.

“I want to continue the high success we have. … We want to play at a championship level every year.”

Although his job is to coach the team on the court, Whitesell said he passes down one lesson to his players off the court:

“Enjoy the college experience and get everything out of it. Own your education. … College is one of the most incredible times of your life, so make sure you get the most out of it.”

Sports desk can be reached at sports@ubspectrum.com