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Reggie Witherspoon returns home to become Canisius basketball coach

Reggie Witherspoon is coming home.

The former University at Buffalo head coach was hired Saturday to succeed Jim Baron as the head coach at Canisius College.

Witherspoon, 54, will join Canisius after spending one year at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where he served as an assistant on a team that went 29-6 and made the NCAA Tournament. Before that, he spent a year as an aide at the University of Alabama.

Witherspoon built the UB program from the ground up during a successful 14-year run from 1999 to 2013. UB went 174-143 over his last 10 seasons on the Amherst Campus and posted winning records seven of those 10 campaigns. The Bulls never got to the NCAA Tournament in his tenure and he was fired after a 14-20 season.

Canisius athletic director Bill Maher knows Witherspoon well. Maher served in UB’s athletic department Witherspoon’s first six seasons on the job, and Maher was UB’s interim athletic director for two years until leaving for Canisius in 2005.

“I am excited to take over at Canisius on a number of levels,” Witherspoon said in a statement. “Having grown up here in the area, I remember going to see a lot of Canisius games as a kid. And then as I grew older, I started to become friends with guys that played or were playing at Canisius.”

“The College has such a great academic reputation, and I know the school’s alumni base and fans are dedicated and passionate,” Witherspoon said.

Canisius is hoping to keep the momentum going in its program after going 73-59 under Baron the past four years. However, there is work to be done. The Griffs finished seventh out of 11 in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference last season, with a record of 14-19. Baron and his staff have not crushed recruiting of high schoolers the previous couple seasons, and Canisius has three open scholarships to give.

Witherspoon would appear to check all the boxes on Canisius’ wish list. Maher preferred someone with head-coaching experience. Witherspoon has a winning track record, did a good job with skill development at UB and is a good bench coach. He brings integrity. He has run clean programs. He has the personality to be an engaging face of the program. He is revered in the Western New York basketball community. Witherspoon started his coaching career at Sweet Home High School and coached Erie Community College before UB. Witherspoon has kept his home in Amherst the past three years, even though he has worked elsewhere.

“Reggie brings with him a proven record of building strong basketball teams and developing young men,” Maher said. “He is highly respected as both a man and as a basketball coach. I had the opportunity to work directly with Reggie for six years, and having known him for over 16 years, I am confident in his abilities and his fit for Canisius. Our goal is to win the MAAC Championship and I look forward to working with Reggie to accomplish that here at Canisius.”

Witherspoon will be introduced at a news conference Tuesday morning.

“We are thrilled to welcome Reggie Witherspoon,” Canisius President John J. Hurley said. “At every stop in his coaching career, he has been a proven winner on and off the court. In Reggie, we not only see a successful coach and recruiter, but also an outstanding ambassador and role model and mentor for our student-athletes.”

While UB’s basketball program is a juggernaut now, it was in shambles when Witherspoon took over in 1999. Tim Cohane had abruptly resigned early in the season amid an NCAA investigation. UB had just made a big leap up from the Mid-Continent Conference to the far more challenging Mid-American Conference the season before. The athletics budget was not up to MAC standards. Witherspoon’s first four years in the MAC were difficult. The Bulls went 24-82.

But Witherspoon and the Bulls broke through with a 17-12 record in the 2003-04 season, and he won MAC Coach of the Year honors. UB made the NIT the next year, going 23-10. Witherspoon also won MAC coach of the year honors in 2012. Witherspoon reached the MAC title game twice with UB, in 2005 and 2009.

Former UB athletics director Danny White fired Witherspoon in March 2013, 10 months after taking over at UB. White decided Witherspoon had been given enough time to reach the NCAAs, wanted his own man on the job and was hoping to make a high-profile hire. He did so, luring college basketball legend Bobby Hurley. Witherspoon left a quality roster behind. UB center Javon McCrea won MAC player of the year honors in Hurley’s first season. Hurley and current UB coach Nate Oats subsequently stocked the roster into a powerhouse that has earned two straight NCAA Tournament berths.

Witherspoon played at ECC under former Canisius coach and current Michigan coach John Beilein. He then played at Wheeling (Va.) Jesuit under Jim O’Brien, who went on to coach in the NBA. Before his UB stint, Witherspoon went 43-15 as head coach at ECC. In Witherspoon’s time as a head coach, 40 of 46 seniors have graduated, with eight former players earning master’s degrees and three earning their doctorate degrees.

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