In the latest installment in his "Coaching Greats" interview series CHN writer Jon Teitel caught up with current University at Buffalo head coach Reggie Witherspoon, who has won 174 games in more than a decade at his hometown school. Witherspoon also played two season at Erie Community College under current Michigan head coach John Beilein, and this season's UB squad features one of the best players in the MAC in forward Javon McCrea.
Jon Teitel: At Erie CC you played for Coach John Beilein. What was it like to play for him, and what made him such a great coach?
Reggie Witherspoon: It was great playing for John and was a terrific learning experience for me. One of the things he emphasized was balance. In my second year playing for him we had six guys scoring in double figures. He also emphasizes shooting. He wants you to be able to shoot the ball very well.
JT: At Wheeling Jesuit you played for Coach Jim O'Brien. What was it like to play for him, and what made him such a great coach?
RW: The year before he took over the team won only three games, but in his first year with us we won 17. It was terrific being a part of that turnaround because I learned a LOT of stuff that I still use now. He really emphasized defense. Play hard and block out...he really emphasized blocking out.
JT: You were the first African-American head coach of any varsity sports team in the Western NY Suburban School District. How big a deal was it at the time, and how has the school district worked on diversity since then?
RW: It was written about at the time and seemed to make a few people uncomfortable, but for the most part I think it was well-received. I did not realize it until after it was brought to my attention by a reporter. There are still not a lot of African-American coaches at the high school level in suburban schools, but there are a few. The diversity in the makeup of the students has change dramatically, so slowly it has increased the diversity in the schools.
JT: You spent five years as head coach at Sweet Home High School, where you won four straight division titles. How were you able to come in and be so successful in such a short time span, and why did you decide to leave to become coach at your alma mater?
RW: I was there for eight years as an assistant prior to becoming head coach, which I think certainly helped because I had a feel for the kids that were in the program. I graduated from Sweet Home so I had a feel for the school district and the tradition that it had. We had a very good staff in place and it created more of a program than a team. The kids would have a pretty good understanding of the way we did things by the time they got to the varsity level. Erie CC called frequently during my 13 years at Sweet Home. After a while it felt like they were ready to take on the challenge of competing at the next level, and it was a challenge that I wanted to embrace.
JT: You became coach at Buffalo in 1999 after a staff turnover due to rules violations. Were you concerned that it would take a long time to rebuild, and what is the key to rebuilding a program in such a situation?
RW: I knew that it would take quite a while. #1: get the right people in. #2: we had sanctions and a lot of restrictions from the NCAA so we did not want to take any shortcuts, which I think in the long run has helped us. Our initial concern was to stabilize the program, and in the long haul we wanted to attract good student-athletes to our program. There was concern that it would take a while, which it did.
2005 Postseason NIT
JT: MAC POY Turner Battle made a shot with two seconds left in regulation en route to a five-point overtime win over Drexel. How exciting was it to hang on for the win?
RW: That 2005 team was just a great team. It was a great experience for the school to get into the postseason, be a part of the NIT and have a home NIT game. We had a terrific game at home against Drexel after coming off an emotional loss to Ohio.
JT: Pat Carroll scored 26 points in a five-point win for eventual runner-up Saint Joseph's. How close did you come to winning that game?
RW: I thought that we would get a home game after the win over Drexel but instead we had to go to St. Joe's. They were a terrific team and it was a fight right down to the end.
JT: In 2009 you were named MAC Coach of the Year. What did it mean to you to win such an outstanding individual honor?
RW: It was humbling that my peers would think that much of me but it was not just me. It was an award that the players played the biggest part in, and then the staff, and then me. It was a real honor.
JT: In 2010 you were an assistant coach under Jeff Capel on the USA Men's U-18 National Team that won a gold medal at the FIBA Americas U-18 Championship. What did it mean to you to win a gold medal, and which player impressed you the most (Austin Rivers, Quincy Miller, other)?
RW: Having a FIBA gold medal is an honor that I will never forget. It was a great learning experience working with Paul Hewitt and Jeff. The entire USA Basketball staff was such a first-class organization and we had a lot of very impressive young men.
JT: When people look back on your career, how do you want to be remembered the most?
RW: I just want to be remembered(!), hopefully as someone who cared about his players. When my players look back I want them to understand that I was someone who really cared about them, and the door is always open when they come back.
Witherspoon is also on Jon's list of best coaches in MAC history.
Akron: Keith Dambrot (2004-present) 174-82, 2 NCAA tourneys, 2 conference titles
Ball State: Ray McCallum (1993-2000) 126-76, 2 NCAA tourneys, 2 conference titles
Bowling Green: Harold Anderson (1942-1963) 362-185, 3 NCAA tourneys, 3 conference titles
Buffalo: Reggie Witherspoon (1999-present) 174-203, 1 conference title, 1-time conference COY
Central Michigan: Dick Parfitt (1972-1985) 178-168, 2 NCAA tourneys, 2 conference titles, 1-time conference COY
Eastern Michigan: Ben Braun (1985-1996) 185-132, 3 NCAA tourneys, 3 conference titles, 3-time conference COY
Kent State: Jim Christian (2002-2008) 137-59, 2 NCAA tourneys, 4 conference titles, 2-time conference COY
Miami (OH): Charlie Coles (1996-present) 262-217, 3 NCAA tourneys, 3 conference titles, 1-time conference COY
Northern Illinois: John McDougal (1976-1986) 136-141, 1 NCAA tourney, 1 conference title, 1-time conference COY
Ohio: James Snyder (1949-1974) 354-245, 7 NCAA tourneys, 7 conference titles, 2-time conference COY
Toledo: Bob Nichols (1965-1987) 375-213, 3 NCAA tourneys, 4 conference titles, 3-time conference COY
Western Michigan: Herbert "Buck" Read (1922-1949) 345-169