Building new traditions for UB basketball
Editor’s note: Our reporter filed this story just before the Bulls’ home opener on November 17. To see how the team is doing now, consult the Division of Athletics website at www.ubathletics.buffalo.edu.
Reggie Witherspoon is a basketball coach whose life and career reflect the qualities he wants to instill in his players: pride, character and hard work.
This is a man whose parents, Moses and Phynise Witherspoon, helped integrate South Carolina schools while they were growing up during the segregation days of the late 1940s.
This is a man who spent 19 years coaching at the high school and junior college levels before finally getting his big break last year, when he was named head coach of the University at Buffalo men’s basketball Bulls.
Finally, this is a man who wants to be a role model and teacher for players. “The college game is about spirit, unity and character,” says Witherspoon, 39. “If players can learn those lessons on the court, they can carry them over into life, no matter what they do for a living.”
Reggie Witherspoon seemed like an overnight success story last March when he was named men’s basketball coach following a three-month national search. However, he had served for three months as an interim coach, posting a won-3, lost-20 record in a season marred by a coaching change as well as UB’s self-imposed corrective measures in the wake of a National Collegiate Athletic Association investigation.
Witherspoon must not only rebuild the program on the court, but off it as well. He calls the corrective measures, such as losing a scholarship and delaying the opening of practice two weeks, “a setback.”
Notwithstanding these developments, the coach is determined to instill his values in the players and within the program. “I was raised with good values, and I don’t think you can legislate integrity,” Witherspoon says in a soft voice. “My parents raised me to follow what I believe and do what is right.”
To this day, Witherspoon shows the influence of his parents. “My mom and dad have different personalities,” he states. “With me, I’ll give you some of my dad; if that doesn’t work, look out, because you will get my mom.”
Witherspoon explains that his father is “the nicest man I know. He hardly ever gets mad. My mother is very outspoken and speaks her mind.”
Both the elder Witherspoons were young people when they were part of the famed Summerton, South Carolina integration lawsuit of the early 1950s. Thurgood Marshall, who later served on the U.S. Supreme Court, represented their interests.
“I’m so proud of my parents,” Witherspoon says. They moved north and eventually settled in Amherst, New York, where Greg Witherspoon, Reggie’s brother, was the first African American athlete at Sweet Home High School. Greg went on to play basketball at UB in the late 1970s; Reggie’s other two brothers are Ron, and the late Jeff Witherspoon.
As the youngest in the family, Reggie looked up to his older brothers. “I wanted to be just like them,” he says, “especially when it came to sports.”
Greg played for Ed Muto, the UB Hall of Fame basketball coach, who also influenced Reggie. As a youngster, Witherspoon followed local college basketball: His favorite player was Calvin Murphy, the Niagara University guard. He was also a big fan of Randy Smith, who played with the old Buffalo Braves in the National Basketball Association.
Witherspoon played high school basketball at Sweet Home and returned to his alma mater to spend 13 years coaching. Eight of those were as an assistant; in his five years as head coach, Witherspoon’s team won four consecutive divisional championships.
He moved to Erie Community College, where he posted a won-44, lost-23 record in two-plus seasons. His team went 24-5 during his second year, winning a region III title. For that effort, he was named region III coach of the year.
Some were surprised when Witherspoon was named UB’s interim basketball coach in December 1999. He wasn’t a big name from a big school, but he had earned the job the hard way.
“I didn’t get into basketball to be a head coach at a Division I school,” emphasized Witherspoon, who, at 6 foot 3 inches, looked youthful and athletic in a UB sweat suit at a recent morning practice. “I got into coaching because I like kids and I like basketball. In fact, I love doing this.” That love was tested during his long coaching apprenticeship. He continues, “There were a lot of sacrifices. I did a lot of jobs for low pay because I love the game.”
Last season, Witherspoon made an impact, leading the Bulls to their three victories in the Mid-American Conference (MAC)—two more than the previous season. The team’s playing improved as they learned Witherspoon’s basketball philosophy.
“I want relentless intensity with balance and depth,” Witherspoon says. “I want players who will work as hard as they can. You have to see a certain level of aggressiveness out on the court.”
Witherspoon’s return as basketball coach marks continuity for the team and his system. This year, with nine new players, Witherspoon says his main goal is for the team to get better every day, keep up the intensity and work hard. Those are longtime trademarks of Witherspoon basketball.
“I’ve known him since I was in the eighth grade,” says Damien Foster, a 6-foot 5-inch senior guard. “He has always been a disciplined coach. He respects his players and they respect him. Every time you step out on the court, he expects you to work hard.”
The team struggled last year, but Witherspoon’s recruitment as interim coach was a positive factor in a season of disappointment.
“It was difficult for everyone last year, but we all learned a lot by going through it,’’ Foster says. “This year, things seem a lot more comfortable and I’m glad [Coach Witherspoon is] here.”
Witherspoon offers more than basketball advice to his players. “If you have a problem, you can talk to him,” Foster explains. “He’s very open and you can talk to him about anything, and anytime you can talk to a coach it makes the relationship with the team better. He also has a good sense of humor and is fun to hang out with.”
Foster, like the rest of the Bulls, is optimistic about this season, even though the schedule included a game in December against North Carolina, who last year made it to the Final Four.
“We’ve got a better attitude this year,” Foster says. “All the guys are on the same page. The coach makes us feel this is going to be a better season.”
The Bulls have good size up front with such junior players as Kevin Swoffer, 6 foot 10 inches, of Independence, Missouri; Joe Veal, 6 foot 9 inches, of Chicago, Illinois; Clement Smith, 6 foot 8 inches, of Brooklyn, New York; and Maliso Libomi, 6 foot 8 inches, of Malakoff, France. Other players to watch include Jason Robinson, 6 foot 6 inches, a junior from Seattle, Washington; Louis Campbell, a senior from Rahway, New Jersey; and Robert Brown, a junior from Oak Park, Michigan.
On paper, the team looks big, fast and aggressive, but Witherspoon cautions that building a winning program will take time. The MAC is rated as the ninth best conference in the nation, with five teams in the MAC winning 20 or more games last year.
“There are no shortcuts and we have to establish a new tradition for basketball at UB,” Witherspoon says. “You have to establish a vision and keep trying to realize it. I’m not just looking at wins. I want to get better—we’ll get wins if we stay true to our vision and work hard.”
Bob Arkeilpane, UB’s director of athletics, believes Witherspoon will reach those goals. “He’s a very knowledgeable basketball coach and a man of integrity,” Arkeilpane says. “Reggie also has a good rapport with his student-athletes.”
This is a time of change for Witherspoon and the basketball program. “Whenever a new coach comes in, you always have a transitional period,” Arkeilpane says. “Reggie has to meld new kids and a new system.
“We also know that this program has to live with sanctions, and the reason for those sanctions happened before Reggie was with the team. I’m looking for him to be a positive influence because Reggie has tremendous character. He’s a stand-up guy and other people like to be around him.”
Away from the gym, Witherspoon lives in Amherst with his wife, Dawn Taggart, and their two daughters, Lydia, 8, and Rachel, 6.
There are similarities as a father and a coach for Witherspoon. He views basketball in bigger terms than an athletic contest. His parents stressed honor and integrity and he does the same at home and on the court.
“I tell my players what they’re doing here is about more than basketball,” Witherspoon states. “This is about maturity and character and building life skills.”
Reggie Witherspoon’s life and basketball career is a testament to his skills as an educator and human being. Now he’s ready to lead UB to what he hopes is a basketball renaissance.
“We’re still in our infancy in so many ways,” Witherspoon says. “But
we’re going to grow and we’re going to get better.”
Anthony Violanti is a writer for the Buffalo News.