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Sunday, May 22, 2022
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Mark Alnutt talks coaching changes, transfer portal challenges

Fourth-year athletic director chats about the state of UB Athletics

<p>UB Athletic Director Mark Alnutt takes a selfie with Victor E. Bull at a basketball game.</p>

UB Athletic Director Mark Alnutt takes a selfie with Victor E. Bull at a basketball game.

When Felisha Legette-Jack accepted the Syracuse women’s basketball head coaching job in late March, her decision reverberated around campus.

But it wasn’t just her former players and supporters who were affected by her departure; it was also UB Athletic Director Mark Alnutt, who forged a deep friendship with Legette-Jack over the last four years.

But, as painful as her departure was to Alnutt from a personal and professional standpoint, he got right to work, assembling a list of potential successors.

“Oh gosh,” he said with a chuckle, when asked how many names were on that initial list. “It’s funny, because you start off with a list, and you write down the names you have, and then when you get to 20, you’re like, ‘let’s just stop here.’”

Becky Burke wasn’t on that initial list of candidates, but it didn’t take long for her to jump to the top once Alnutt heard about her.

“I heard about her from a second person, and then a third person, I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve gotta dig around a little bit,’” Alnutt said.

Fast forward a few weeks, and Burke was introduced as UB’s 13th head women’s basketball coach Friday. Alnutt spoke about hiring Burke and other salient topics during a Q&A with The Spectrum last week:

‘If they have that opportunity, they’ve done well here’

In 2019, UB had three of the most promising coaches in the country on campus at the same time: men’s basketball coach Nate Oats, women’s basketball coach Felisha Legette-Jack and football coach Lance Leipold.

But, in the three years since, Oats (four seasons at UB) has left for Alabama, Legette-Jack (10 seasons) for Syracuse and Leipold (six seasons) for Kansas.

Alnutt sees this coaching turnover through a pragmatic lens. Unlike many fans who believe coaches leaving the Queen City is an indictment on the program, Alnutt believes that it’s instead a positive reflection on the hiring process.

“If they have the opportunity to go to a bigger school, then they’ve done well here,” Alnutt said. “That’s great for all of us. As I look at it, if you’re having that much success, it’s like, gosh — [we’ve] gotta go through that search again, but we’re in a good spot.”

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Alnutt mentioned another, less-discussed reason why coaching turnover isn’t as bad as it seems: the vacant job is more desirable when the program has enjoyed recent success.

“The quality, the depth — it was much more than when this job was open before Felisha got here,” Alnutt said about the hiring process. “So, you know what? If she [Burke] does come here and have success, it means the next round of coaches will have the credentials, experience and wealth of knowledge that we’re looking for.”

‘We need to have the best relationship possible with our kids’

Alnutt was candid when discussing the new transfer portal rules, which have upended the way mid-majors build their rosters.

“In this day and age, with the portal, everyone’s going through it — you don’t know what that roster’s going to look like [at the start of the season],” Alnutt said.

Last fall, the NCAA granted players immediate eligibility the first time they transfer schools — a stark departure from the previous rule, which required all transfers to sit out a full year before they could play.

UB hasn’t been spared from the measure’s impacts. At least five women’s basketball players — Dyaisha Fair, Georgia Woolley, Saniaa Wilson, Loren Christie and Cheyenne McEvans — have entered the portal since Legette-Jack left for Syracuse (Woolley and Wilson are following Legette-Jack to SU).

The men’s team has at least three players in the portal — David Skogman, Ty Perry and Lucas Saleh. And the football team has had 18 players — including leading rusher Dylan McDuffie and starting quarterback Kyle Vantrease — enter the portal since November.

Alnutt says he stresses the importance of building relationships with players to his coaches the day they step foot on campus.

“First and foremost, we need to make sure we have the best relationship possible with our kids,” Alnutt said. “I talk so much about the student-athlete experience — we need to make sure they have the best experience possible. But the thing with the portal is that they could be having a phenomenal experience, but maybe someone is in their ear telling them they can play in the Big 10 or the SEC. So, for us, it’s building those relationships.”

Alnutt also stresses the importance of building “external relationships” with other programs. He pointed to Burke’s established relationship with Louisville head coach Jeff Waltz — her former coach when she played for the Cardinals — as a key to bringing in players from the portal.

“There might be some players who might not fit what they’re [Louisville] looking for, and he might say, ‘hey, consider Buffalo,’” Alnutt said. “Being able to understand that, don’t ‘woe is me.’ We’ve gotta embrace it, because this is where we are now for the time being.”

‘It’s bringing in the right kids’

Last week, Alnutt says he had a conversation with UB President Satish Tripathi about the softball team’s impressive run this season.

“I said, ‘Sir, I know you’re not going to get too excited, but our softball program this late in the season is three games over .500. That’s phenomenal,” Alnutt recalled.

Alnutt had a point: it’s the first time since 2014 that UB has a winning record through 28 games. That year, the Bulls were Mid-American Conference East Division Champions — the only time in their 22-year history that they have earned such a distinction.

UB is currently 6-4 in the MAC and contending for the final spot in the conference tournament — a testament to the team’s competitive spirit, Alnutt says.

“It’s a combination of culture — bringing in the right kids, who want to be here in Buffalo — and some new facilities,” Alnutt said. “I believe that opening the [Murchie Family] Fieldhouse in 2019, that’s been a huge difference for them.”

Alnutt says he hopes to be able to announce “in the near future” that UB Athletics will turf Nan Harvey Field. UB recently played a weekend series against Western Michigan at Kenmore East High School because its home field was unplayable, due to bad weather.

Justin Weiss is the managing editor and can be reached at justin.weiss@ubspectrum.com


JUSTIN WEISS
justin-weiss-headshot.jpg

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.

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