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Witherspoon joins team he cheered for as kid

You could see it in his face, and in the easy, familiar way in which he engaged with the media. Reggie Witherspoon was back in Buffalo, back in his element, happy once again to be doing what he loves in his own hometown.

“Look at him now, smiling,” said his wife, Dawn, one of a group of family members who were on hand Tuesday as Witherspoon was announced as the new head basketball coach at Canisius College. “He’s just glowing!”

Yes, Witherspoon was positively aglow to be back home as a college head man, three years after getting fired by UB. But do you know when he became the most animated? When I brought Bill Bennett’s name into the conversation.

Bennett, who died in 1999, was a city hoop legend when Reggie was a boy in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Bennett, who played at Canisius, won three Yale Cups in six years at old East High and became the first black basketball coach at the college when he took over the junior varsity in 1972.

Five years later, when the head job came open, a lot of people in the Buffalo community – particularly the black community – felt Bennett would get the head job. True or not, there was muttering about Canisius not being ready for a black head man. Nick Macarchuk got the job instead.

So while it went largely unsaid Tuesday, Witherspoon became the first black head basketball coach in Canisius history. In the minds of some old-timers, he took the job that Bennett didn’t get nearly 40 years ago.

“I’m glad you mentioned that,” Witherspoon said, his voice rising. “I probably should have mentioned Bill Bennett. As far as I know, he was the first black basketball player in the history of Canisius College.

“I mean, this is HUGE to me. I thought about him every day for the last week. Because for everybody in Buffalo, including myself, Bill Bennett was the figure, the guy who tied it all together.”

We live in a supposedly post-racial world. But race matters. Witherspoon, who became the first black head coach at a suburban Buffalo high school when he took over at Sweet Home in 1992, has never shied away from it.

His mother, who was in the audience at the Koessler Center on Tuesday, grew up in segregated South Carolina. Her school was part of the famous Clarendon County lawsuit, which was filed just before the Brown v. Board of Education case that mandated desegregated schools in America.

Witherspoon’s brother, Greg, was the first African-American to play a varsity sport at Amherst. Greg later taught at East High in Buffalo, where Bill Bennett was feared and idolized as the principal.

From the start, Reggie preferred to think of himself as simply a coach, not a black coach. But he knows his history. He was there when UB became the first Division I school ever to employ a black AD (Warde Manuel), football head coach (Turner Gill) and hoop head coach (Witherspoon) at one time.

He has his hands full now. The Griffs enjoyed a revival when Jim Baron had his son, Billy, on campus for two seasons. But they’ve made one NCAA tourney (1996) since 1957 and haven’t reached a MAAC final since 2001 in Brian Dux’s sophomore year. They went more than a decade without reaching a semi at one stretch.

“No doubt, this is a challenging opportunity,” said Witherspoon, who needs to fill two to four scholarships and fill out a coaching staff. “It’s June tomorrow, and trying to put things in place in June is difficult.”

There are myriad challenges at the mid-major D-I level. The MAAC schools don’t have near the TV exposure and resources of major programs. Within the conference, it’s tough to compete with the New York City programs.

At Canisius, there’s a small fan base and indifferent student following. I’ve covered games for 27 years and never felt a palpable connection between the basketball program and the city, especially the sizable black community that sits alongside it.

Witherspoon felt a powerful disconnection and loss of identity when he was fired at UB and spent a year out of coaching. After two years as an assistant at Alabama and Chattanooga, he is thrilled to be rejoined to both his hometown and the head coaching ranks.

He’s a keen basketball mind, a walking encyclopedia of Buffalo hoops. As someone who cheered for the Griffs as a boy and coached at every level here, Witherspoon knows there was a disconnect between the Canisius program and the community.

Baron worked hard to restore a sense of excitement on Main Street. But there’s still not a sense that Canisius is the city’s team. It’s Witherspoon’s challenge to change that, and to win, of course.

“It’s a great hire,” said Dux, who was on hand Tuesday morning. “Great coach, great person. A Buffalo guy. I’ve known him since I was in high school, playing for ACE. Reggie will bring more of a family atmosphere and get the community involved and everyone will back him.”

It takes time. Witherspoon didn’t turn the corner at UB until his fifth year, when his first recruiting class came of age and the Bulls seized the imagination of local hoop fans. Reggie became the face of Buffalo basketball, and UB the city’s team.

Witherspoon remembers when Canisius was “the franchise.” It’s a distant third right now, behind UB and St. Bonaventure. He says he’s talked with Tony Masiello and other Griffs of the past, dreaming of returning the Griffs to glory – or at least creating a sense of excitement in town.

“Roger Brown, who used to chase Calvin Murphy around, stopped his day and came in today,” Witherspoon said. “That meant a lot to me. Yeah, there have been some people who felt, for whatever reason, that they were kind of disconnected in some way.”

In time, maybe the Koessler Center can be revived and glowing, the way their new head coach was Tuesday. People had their doubts when he got the UB job, but he brought that program to respectability and laid the foundation for what’s happening at UB today.

“Coach Witherspoon is used to engaging the community,” Mayor Byron Brown said Tuesday at the Koessler. “It’s what he’s done at every stop along the way in his career. If anyone can do a good job in this situation, it’s Reggie Witherspoon.”