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Sunday, March 03, 2024
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UB Athletics report card: Grading Mark Alnutt’s head coaching hires

Athletic Director Mark Alnutt earns a 2.26 GPA on his coaching hires

George Halcovage III named University at Buffalo Men's Basketball program's 15th head coach.
George Halcovage III named University at Buffalo Men's Basketball program's 15th head coach.

The hiring of men’s basketball head coach George Halcovage III late last month marked the sixth time that UB Athletic Director Mark Alnutt has appointed a head coach. Just over five years into his tenure at UB, it’s time to give Alnutt a report card on each of his hires.

Scott Smith, 2019-present — Grade: B

Smith was elevated to women’s volleyball head coach in 2019 and helped the program achieve its first MAC Tournament win in 10 years. 

The team struggled in 2020 and 2021, finishing below .500 in conference play. But in 2022, the Bulls got back to 10-8 in the MAC and 19-14 overall.

Smith has two good seasons under his belt, but his inconsistency in between earns him a B.

Mike Ruechel, 2018-present — Grade: D

Ruechel was promoted from softball assistant to head coach in 2019 and has failed to finish above .500 every year since. His best season came in 2022, with a 22-24 overall record and a 13-14 mark in MAC play. 

Thirty-three games into 2023, UB is already approaching that loss mark, with a 10-25 (4-7 MAC) record.

Ruechel’s overall spring winning percentage sits at 31%, earning him a D.

Jim Whitesell, 2019-23 — Grade: C+

Whitesell took the helm of UB men’s basketball following a period of great success. Under Bobby Hurley and Nate Oats, the team made the NCAA Tournament four times in six years (2013-14 to 2018-19). The Bulls won the Mid-American Conference (MAC) tournament in 2015, 2016, 2018 and 2019. 

Oats departed for Alabama in 2019, bringing his successful on-court game plan and recruiting strategy with him. By 2023, the Crimson Tide ended the regular season as the No.-4 ranked team in the country. While Oats’ good coaching fortune continued, the same cannot be said for his successor in Buffalo, Whitesell.

UB made one MAC championship appearance under Whitesell in 2021 and fell handily to Ohio, 84-69. 

Since then, the Bulls’ profile and performance continued to decline. In 2022-23, the team had its first losing season in 10 years, finishing 15-17. UB finished No. 6 in the MAC regular season and were dominated in the first round of the conference tournament, losing 101-77 to Akron. Whitesell was fired following that season-ending loss.

While his tenure wasn’t a complete failure, Whitesell failed to fill the shoes of his predecessors and UB lost its place at the top of the conference, earning him a C+.

Maurice Linguist, 2021-present — Grade: B-

Like Whitesell with basketball, Linguist came to UB football after a period of prosperity. In 2020, under Lance Leipold, UB entered the top-25 of the AP Poll for the first time in program history. Leipold also led UB to its first two bowl game wins, in the 2019 Bahamas Bowl and 2020 Camellia Bowl. 

Unfortunately for Buffalo, Leipold walked a path many UB coaches before him had taken. After finding success at a mid-major program in UB, he departed to coach at a Power Five school. In his second season at Kansas, Leipold took the Jayhawks into the top-25 and earned a Liberty Bowl berth.

Linguist took over a team that had high expectations and looked to climb the MAC rankings. Through two seasons, Linguist has done a solid job of rebuilding the program. He recently pulled in his second consecutive MAC No. 1 recruiting class. And despite a disappointing first-season record of 4-8 in 2021, Linguist revamped the Bulls in 2022 and led the team to a 7-6 record and a Camellia Bowl win.

It’s early, but things appear to be trending up for UB football — B- for “Coach Mo.”

Becky Burke, 2022-present — Grade: C+

Alnutt hired women’s basketball head coach Becky Burke to replace program legend Felisha Legette-Jack, who departed for Syracuse following a 25-9 season and a 2022 MAC Championship. (Noticing a trend?)

Although it’s a small sample size for Burke, she had a promising first season. The Bulls righted the ship after a slow start and finished 12-16 (7-11 MAC). 

Despite the fact that just one player returned from the 2021-22 squad, Burke took a team of transfers and new players to the MAC Tournament. UB had its ups and downs in 2022-23, but the team rallied after a six-game losing streak to sneak into the postseason. When Burke’s team needed to step up, it did.

And when the Bulls got to the postseason, they took No. 1-seeded Toledo to overtime in the MAC Tournament quarterfinals, nearly pulling off a massive upset over the Rockets.

Bulls fans will have to wait and see what Burke does with a full offseason to recruit and prepare. The Bulls showed glimpses of what they’re capable of last season, but 2023-24 will give a better picture of the program’s direction. 

For now, Burke earns a C+.

George Halcovage III, hired March 2023 — Grade: TBD

It’s obviously too early to grade a head coach who hasn’t coached a game, but the Halcovage hire is very promising. The 2022-23 men’s basketball season was a disappointment by almost every measure. 

In Halcovage, Alnutt found a youthful, yet experienced, head coach with a championship pedigree. Under Jay Wright at Villanova, Halcovage won two National Championships and appeared in four Final Fours. If Halcovage brings even a little bit of that success and recruiting prowess to UB, the hire could be Alnutt’s crowning achievement.

Results: B, B-, C+, C+, D = 2.26 GPA

Ryan Tantalo is the senior sports editor and can be reached at ryan.tantalo@ubspectrum.com


RYAN TANTALO
tantalo-2023

Ryan Tantalo is the managing editor of The Spectrum. He previously served as senior sports editor. Outside of the newsroom, Ryan spends his time announcing college hockey games, golfing, skiing and reading.

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