By Mike Harrington
It's Selection Sunday and "Buffalo" won't be popping up on your CBS screens tonight for the 22nd straight year since UB went Division I in basketball and for the 14th time in Reggie Witherspoon's 14 seasons as coach. And that, more than any other reason, is why Witherspoon doesn't have a job anymore. (Click here to read Rodney McKissic's Selection Sunday preview)
From the ashes of what Tim Cohane left behind in 1999, Witherspoon built a program that won a lot of games some years and lost a lot of games too -- especially in his first four years. He did it in a culture of respect and UB emerged from being an outcast in the MAC to a respected opponent on the court.
But Witherspoon never got over the top on Saturday night at the MAC Tournament in Cleveland, losing his only two chances at the final. In the 15 seasons I covered the Big 4, there was no more disappointing single loss than UB's second-half collapse in the 2005 MAC Tournament final against Ohio University.
The Bulls had a 19-point lead in the second half. Nineteen! They had a senior-laden team led by the likes of Turner Battle, Mark Bortz and Yassin Idbihi but they blew the lead, losing on a last-second putback. It's almost like the program never quite got over that disappointment.
In the end, Witherspoon's career path turned out to be eerily similiar to Jack Armstrong's at Niagara. Armstrong took over as a 26-year-old in 1989 with things in disarry thanks to Andy Walker. He had some good seasons but was done by 1998 after some brutal struggles. Armstrong had one 23-win season that landed NU in the 1993 NIT but it suffered heartbreak a week earlier when his team blew a 10-point halftime lead over Manhattan in the Metro Atlantic final and lost by one on a last-second free throw.
When Armstrong was finally fired after an overtime loss to Loyola in a '98 quarterfinal, it was actually a surprise. The Purple Eagles were over .500 that season and star scorer Alvin Young was heading into a senior year. They were trending up.
But Niagara got rid of Armstrong before he could win again and brought in Joe Mihalich. He won the MAAC's regular season title the next season, has gone to two NCAAs and has become the modern-day Taps Gallagher on Monteagle Ridge. Maybe UB Athletics Director Danny White will do just as well.
UB is in a simliar boat. With Javon McCrea on a path to the NBA and heading into his senior year, the Bulls were likely going to be a contender in the MAC next season. If they won big -- or even finally broke through to make the NCAAs -- there was no way White could fire Witherspoon. So he pounced on opportunity now to cut bait.
I don't like it one bit but I get it too. I agree with Jerry Sullivan's column today that Witherspoon was a lot like Lindy Ruff, revered too much for too long for accomplishing too little. But Witherspoon was a Buffalo guy and a perfect fit for UB, which is now just going to become another mid-major stepping stone for whoever comes along and has a modicum of success.
White is really on the line here, especially with the confidence he's shown in a 9-27 football coach. The next couple years are going to be fascinating to watch at UB. White gets huge marks for his choice of Felisha Legette-Jack as women's basketball coach. He better do as well in replacing Witherspoon.