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WITHERSPOON'S WISDOM HELPS SOLOMON COPE

They speak on the phone usually every other week: Anthony Solomon, the St. Bonaventure coach who's going through basketball hell, and Reggie Witherspoon, the University at Buffalo coach who has been there and survived.

They discuss the anguish of running a program devastated by probation and other sanctions and about the humility that goes with cleaning the mess left behind by others. They talk about the rampant frustrations, about fending off the encroaching sense of helplessness and striving for the rebirth destined to arrive, some day.

"The psychology to persevere is what's really important throughout the whole thing," Witherspoon said. "It's sort of like me locking you in a room and I don't tell you when I'm going to let you out. If you were told you were going to break through on Feb. 21 two years from now you'd say, 'OK, that makes it a little easier for me to deal with the days between now and then.'

"But the problem is you don't know. Every day you think you're going to get better, and every day you think you're going to win, but you go to open the door and it's still locked. And you have to keep going back to the door and one day you pull it and it opens."

St. Bonaventure is a long way from escaping the clutches of probation and returning to a competitive state. This is looming as the bleakest of seasons, with electric point guard Marques Green having graduated, the scoring options few, the program's continuity ravaged by the recruiting scandal of 2002-03 that brought the wrath of the NCAA upon the university.

The Bonnies played a respectable first half against Canisius on Saturday night. Then came a woeful second half and a loss for the third time in as many starts even though the schedule has yet to stiffen. They could be looking at a handful of wins. They could be looking at fewer than that. This is what happens when a program is caught circumventing the rules, taking shortcuts.

"I've said to Anthony, 'Probation is designed to help you lose,' " Witherspoon said. "They're putting you back. And you have to start from rubble."

Witherspoon knows the oppression. He suffered through 4-24 and 5-23 years. He had his coaching credentials questioned when there were no visible signs of progress. Solomon's bound to incur comparable skepticism if this season plays out as expected with an unsightly win-loss record. Impatient followers will insist there has to be a better way, a more capable coach. But there's no better way, no quick fix. Rehabilitation is slow and painstaking, as illustrated by UB's four-year struggle.

"I think Anthony has the mind-set that he wants to do this job the right way and build, not 'I'm going to do this job and get out of here quick as I can so I can go somewhere else,' " Witherspoon said. "He wants to do it the right way. And that's really good."

Solomon draws encouragement from where he can. He praises the attitude of his players, who hung tough against Canisius. He notes the strides they've made in the weight room, in their conditioning.

"Certainly, we've made steps," Solomon said. "It may not be shown on the scoreboard at this time, but behind closed doors, in areas that outsiders can't see, our program has taken steps, and I'm proud to say that."

He seized the opportunity during Saturday's tripleheader to take a look at UB, which might have played the best first half in its history in routing Indiana State. A five-win team just two years ago, the Bulls were scary good, signaling once again that the barren days are behind them.

"I went out there and watched Reggie's team, and I was excited by what I saw," Solomon said, excited to see for himself that eventually the door does open.
e-mail: bdicesare@buffnews.com

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