When Felisha Legette-Jack took the Syracuse head coaching job on Sunday, few people around the women’s basketball team were surprised — not even her old boss.
“This is something, to be honest with you, that we were aware of and anticipated,” UB Athletic Director Mark Alnutt told the media in a press conference.
Legette-Jack’s decision probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise. After all, Legette-Jack — the winningest coach in program history — was the first female athlete to have her number retired at SU.
But beyond the allure of returning to her alma mater, Legette-Jack was likely drawn to SU for the same reason numerous former UB coaches have left for Power Five programs: the spoils of these major programs — a hefty pay raise and the prominence of a high-level coaching job — are too immense to refuse.
In a press release, SU Athletic Director John Wildhack called Legette-Jack a “builder of programs,” a moniker she earned by leading the Bulls to three Mid-American Conference titles and four NCAA Tournament appearances in 10 seasons.
But for all her success as a “builder of programs,” the program Legette-Jack is departing likely doesn’t have as strong of a structure as Alnutt would like. If history is any guide, the program is like the straw house from “The Three Little Pigs”; the big bad wolf is ready to blow it all down.
That’s not Legette-Jack’s fault, of course. She has every right to leave UB, just as her former counterparts on the football and men’s basketball teams — Lance Leipold and Nate Oats — did in the last few years.
But college athletics is a business built on relationships, where recruits choose their school because of coaches, and programs thrive because of coaching stability. In most cases, once the coach departs, so does the program’s success.
That was the case with the football and men’s basketball teams, and is almost certainly the fate awaiting the women’s basketball team.
In March 2019, Oats left for the University of Alabama having led the Bulls to three NCAA Tournament appearances in just four years. His successor, Jim Whitesell, was left with a recruiting class that decommitted entirely in the nine days following Oats’ departure.
Unsurprisingly, Whitesell has been unable to get the Bulls back to the Big Dance.
Two years later, in April 2021, Leipold left for the University of Kansas, having led the Bulls to three consecutive bowl game appearances. In the months following his departure, nearly two dozen players entered the transfer portal.
His successor, Maurice Linguist, went 4-8 last season.
It’s not just Leipold and Oats who have left in recent years: in 2009, football head coach Turner Gill left to take the Kansas head coaching job; in 2015, men’s basketball head coach Bobby Hurley — Oats’ predecessor — left to take the Arizona State head coaching job.
And it’s not just the coaches who have left for greener pastures.
Alnutt’s predecessor, Allen Greene, left in 2018 to become Auburn’s athletic director; his predecessor, Danny White, left in 2015 to become UCF’s athletic director. This year, he took the same job at the University of Tennessee.
The unfortunate reality is that women’s basketball is likely looking at a major rebuild — and, if they hire a successful head coach, another rebuild in a few years’ time.
Junior guard Dyaisha Fair — the nation’s fourth-leading scorer — entered the transfer portal just two days after Legette-Jack announced she was leaving to Syracuse. It wouldn’t surprise anyone if freshman guard Georgia Woolley — the reigning MAC Freshman of the Year — or top recruit Lexi McNabb — the daughter of former NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb — decided to follow her.
No matter who the new coach is — even if it’s longtime Legette-Jack assistant Kristen Sharkey — the Bulls are likely in for a long and uncomfortable rebuild.
But such is the life of a mid-major, especially one like UB, that loses talented “program builders” just as quickly as it hires them.
UB simply can’t offer the compensation that larger programs can. The university’s athletic department spent $8.1 million on the salaries, benefits and bonuses of its dozens of coaches last year; by comparison, there were four head football coaches across the country who themselves made $8.1 million or more last year.
It’s not only the difference in compensation that drives coaches to larger programs; it’s also the obvious discrepancies in media coverage, TV exposure, facilities, attendance, climate, fan following and level of competition.
If it seems inevitable that coaches leave the Queen City, it’s because it is.
If UB can’t hold onto Legette-Jack — someone who notably said in 2016 that she “finally found a university that can handle all of me,” in reference to her intense personality — it’s going to have a tough time holding onto any of its successful coaches.
That should be one of Alnutt’s biggest priorities going forward: figuring out how to retain the talented men and women in UB’s coaching ranks, so that the university is a destination — not a stepping stone institution.
But it’ll likely be a difficult task.
Alnutt himself is a former student-athlete at Power Five powerhouse Missouri and came to UB after serving as the athletic director at Southeast Missouri State University — an upgrade in terms of compensation and prestige.
If he got a call from a major program to serve as their athletic director, he would almost certainly say yes.
And really, can you blame him?
Justin Weiss is the managing editor and can be reached at email@example.com
Justin Weiss is The Spectrum's managing editor. In his free time, he can be found hiking, playing baseball or throwing things at his TV when his sports teams aren't winning. His words have appeared in Elite Sports New York and the Long Island Herald. He can be found on Twitter @Jwmlb1.