When you’ve won more than 200 games as a college basketball coach, you have the equivalent of a doctorate in coaching the game.
Reggie Witherspoon didn’t need to get another doctorate after he was fired by the University at Buffalo three years ago. But that’s essentially how he spent the last two seasons.
Witherspoon, the new head coach at Canisius College, worked as an assistant coach under Anthony Grant at Alabama two years ago and Matt McCall at Tennessee-Chattanooga last season. Those two are disciples of Billy Donovan, head coach of the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder.
Donovan’s impact on the game is significant. He ran the powerhouse Florida program for 20 years and won back-to-back national titles in 2006 and 2007.
Along the way, Donovan advanced a match-up, pressing, up-tempo defensive style –- actually, he built on the one he learned from Rick Pitino -– and it has been emulated across the country.
The 53-year-old Witherspoon now is part of the Donovan coaching tree.
“He never really had the opportunity to go and take a back seat and digest someone else’s system,” said Ryan Ford, an Olean native who’s a close friend of Witherspoon’s and was the best man at Donovan’s wedding. “What better system to learn than someone you are so aligned with philosophically? So now to be able to spend that kind of time with two different coaches in two different situations really, really was a great opportunity for him to develop as a coach. He got to solidify in his mind things he already was doing, tweak some things and maybe adjust and say I prefer these other things. I think all those things happened for him.”
The 2-year degree
Witherspoon is a rarity in college basketball in that he never served as an assistant coach, aside from a brief stint at Sweet Home High School. Former Canisius coach and current Michigan coach John Beilein is one of the other few major-college coaches in that boat. Witherspoon, with 240 wins over 16 seasons, largely is a self-made coach.
“They don’t have the rabbi, so to speak,” Ford said. “They don’t have that person that kind of can pull strings for them and get them opportunities. So they’ve earned their own and developed a style of play and a persona.”
“First of all, just to see anybody do it differently was beneficial,” Witherspoon said. “I went in knowing there’s a lot of good ways of doing things. There’s not one good way. You learn a lot seeing someone else do it differently. Donovan has been enormously successful. I’m really grateful I had the opportunity to be up close and see how they do it. . . . Plus, I got to see a high-major, tremendous-resources, look at the approach at Alabama, and then a place where we didn’t have those tremendous resources,”
Witherspoon was a good fit for Alabama because Grant was looking to add an offensive mind, and Witherspoon’s offense meshed with the Donovan philosophy.
Witherspoon’s half-court offense is based on spacing, ball movement and high ball-screens in the middle of the floor.
“The offense that Reggie runs is very similar to the offense that Billy runs, yet Reggie developed it on his own,” Ford said.
Witherspoon envisions incorporating many of Donovan’s defensive principles – as long as it fits the Golden Griffins’ talent.
Many good defensive teams overplay passing lanes in the half-court to force turnovers. Donovan’s Florida teams played a more compact defense to close off penetration lanes. It’s a way of protecting the rim even without a tall rim-protector.
The turnovers for Donovan’s defenses came mostly in the full court. Many pressing defenses apply the double-team when the ball is inbounded. Not in the match-up press. To oversimplify: The ball-handler ideally is pushed up the sideline, where a double-team occurs near half-court.
Virginia Commonwealth employed this style to the nth degree under Grant and Shaka Smart, who then brought it to Texas.
“Long term, yeah, I think it will be part of our identity,” Witherspoon said. “We have to find our way and find out how much we can use.”
“You have to decide what is being emphasized; where is the commitment?” Witherspoon said. “There were times we’d struggle pressing the past two years. But in both places we were committed to it. We didn’t necessarily have relentless pressure at either place. We didn’t necessarily feel we had the depth it may take to have relentless, full-court pressure for the whole game, like Shaka Smart is doing.”
Is Canisius ready to play a heavy dose of pressing? Maybe not this year. The guards need to be excellent on-ball defenders. The small forward ideally is a long-armed athlete who’s adept at picking off passes in the middle of the court.
“I’d like to blend it,” Witherspoon said. “I’d like to enhance the things we have been doing and blend in some of the things we like from this system that fit our personnel.”
The whiteboard in Witherspoon’s Canisius office on a mid-October day reads: “One of the best things you can do for yourself is to do the most you can do for each other.”
Witherspoon’s success always has been based more on his ability to motivate players more than Xs and Os.
“A lot of our business is just how to treat people,” said Chattanooga’s McCall. “Reggie is one of the best people in our business, and it’s not even close. He treats people the right way. He has an unbelievable ability to relate to players.”
“His ability to keep our players in the right frame of mind throughout the entire season for me was huge,” McCall said. “If we finished practice and a guy had a bad practice, Reggie was there to spend time with him. If a guy didn’t play much in a game and was disappointed, Reggie was there to keep things in perspective for him. If you have a guy like that on your staff, it’s so beneficial.”
It’s also critical to the style of play Witherspoon likes. Constant ball movement means one man can’t get selfish and bounce the air out of it looking for a drive or a shot. The first step in teaching that kind of mindset is leading by example.
“A big part of doing a job like this is being a servant and you want to help as many people as you can,” Witherspoon said. “But I wish we could add two or three hours to the day to do it.”
Witherspoon says he learned lessons in time management at Alabama that will help him at Canisius. He says there have been plenty of times the past five months when he and his wife, Dawn, look at each other and say: “Remember Alabama.”
That means don’t get stuck in unnecessary, time-draining activities.
“Nick Saban has a huge impact on the whole state, especially Tuscaloosa,” Witherspoon said, referring to Alabama’s football coach. “He’s been able to get the point across on time. It takes coaches a lot of time to do their jobs. He’s not going to apologize for it. When they play at home, you can’t just go and sit down at a restaurant. There’s going to be a two-hour wait. The town swells by 150 percent. So it applies to all coaches. If you’re the gymnastics coach, they’re not going to make you wait to get a table.”
“My wife went to open an account at the bank, and they said, ‘Don’t come back here anymore. We’ll come to you. If you need a PIN number, we’ll come to you.’”
How does this apply to Canisius? Being great at time management is critical to a coach’s success, especially when he’s a hometown guy.
“My wife says OIS -- obligations, invitations and situations,” Witherspoon says. “You have more of that when you’re home. . . . There’s so many friends and family here, and it’s hard to say no. So it helps to have that perspective. As much as we want to do so many things here, we can’t do it.”
So on the eve of the basketball season, Witherspoon is immersed in the daily grind of building a Canisius team that’s picked ninth in the 11-team Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.
It’s not easy for him to be reflective when there are seven newcomers on the team and even the six returnees are learning his schemes from scratch.
“People say must feel good to be back at home, but we really haven’t had the experience of being home much,” he said. “For the most part it’s been go, go, go, go, go. . . . It’s a big challenge when you’re in your hometown.”
“I heard this quote,” says Ford, “We don’t always get in life what we deserve but we almost always in life get what we earn. I think Reggie is a prime example and this situation is a perfect example. He did not deserve to get fired. However, what he’s done in the last three years, he’s earned the right to be back as a head coach in Buffalo. Canisius should be so happy that they have him because they’re definitely going to get a better version because of what he’s experienced the last two years.”