The University at Buffalo athletic department formally introduced Jim Whitesell as its new men’s basketball coach Monday, capping off a 10-day process in which it sought candidates before ultimately promoting an assistant.
It would have been easy for UB to go for a hot name or an up-and-coming young coach, but UB stuck with somebody who helped make the Bulls a top 25 program.
“When I interviewed, I talked about my vision of the program and what it was about,” Whitesell said. “It was great dialogue, in terms of what I think we can continue to grow on and where we can build off of.
“I can talk to maybe a level that was a little different because I knew (the administration) personally and I worked on campus for four years, so I know the ins and outs.”
Whitesell’s introduction completed Mark Alnutt’s first major hire in 13 months as UB’s athletic director. It also completed a process that began well before former UB coach Nate Oats left to take the same job at Alabama on March 27.
Ten days can be an eternity to some athletic departments and even to some fan bases, but Alnutt wanted to invest time in what he labeled “an important, critical decision.”
“I wanted to make sure I did it right,” Alnutt told the News. “That process, for me, was one that I felt I wanted to do my due diligence, and not necessarily to rush, and to be in position to continue this success. And this program is more of a national brand than it was four years ago, which was going to warrant a lot of interest from the outside.
“But part of my mindset through this process was the fact that, I’m not conducting a coaching search for a program that is failing. I’m conducting a search for a program that has been highly successful.”
Alnutt and Oats entered contract negotiations in March that ultimately made him the highest-paid men’s basketball coach in the MAC, but Oats told Alnutt that he would still entertain legitimate offers to become head coach of another college basketball program.
“He also said, ‘There might be some opportunities,’ and in his words, what he said was ‘Someone’s going to offer some stupid money,’ ” Alnutt said.
The day after UB lost to Texas Tech in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on March 23, Alnutt said Oats told him that Alabama had contacted him. Two days later, he informed Alnutt that representatives from Alabama planned to interview him in Western New York.
Then, at 2 p.m. on March 27, Oats called Alnutt to tell him he accepted the job at Alabama, after speaking with the university president.
“I spoke with Greg (Byrne, Alabama’s athletic director) and told him, ‘You’re getting a good guy, but don’t forget about our $750,000 buyout,’ ” Alnutt said, tongue-in-cheek.
Terms of Oats’ contract at Alabama include a stipulation that the school agree to pay Oats' buyout of $750,000 to UB, "upon presentation of sufficient documentation to support such buyout payment."
Whitesell was at Lewis University in Romeoville, Ill., when he learned of Oats’ departure, and immediately was named UB’s interim coach. He submitted his name for consideration for the opening, and said he talked every day with Alnutt about the search process and the parameters.
The wheels of the hiring process, however, moved slowly. UB promoted Oats to head coach in 2015, four days after Bobby Hurley left to become the coach at Arizona State.
This year, UB went quiet during its search.
“For someone who’s not familiar with the process, they can say it’s an eternity, but it fits in the wheelhouse of in terms of, you’re looking at a lot of these other searches that have happened,” Alnutt said. “The earliest is five days, some are still going on. Look at UCLA. They’ve been looking for a coach since January. That’s an eternity.”
During the 10-day search period, Whitesell had to maintain the status quo in a program that suddenly faced a period of uncertainty.
“I had to sit down with the players and ask, ‘Are you okay?’ ” Whitesell said. “And I had to tell them, ‘I’ve been through these processes before, this is part of it. Stay the course, everything’s going to be okay, but it just takes a little time. It won’t happen overnight, but it’s going to move at a good clip.’ I was convinced of it.”
Alnutt assembled a search committee that included Nate Willis, UB's deputy director of athletics and chief operating officer; Donald Reed, UB’s senior associate athletic director for athletic and academic performance; and Eric Gross, UB’s deputy director of athletics for external operations.
On March 28, the committee crafted a list of 40 candidates. The next day, it hired a search firm to act as a third party, allowing it to contact coaches under contract and vet candidates.
UB also included its players, including Jayvon Graves and Nick Perkins, in the hiring process. Perkins said the administration constantly communicated during the process.
“We all had a conversation with (Mark) and I stayed around for an interview, a conversation, one-on-one,” Graves, a sophomore guard, said. “I talked about what I want, I talked about what the team wants.
“I told him that I’m comfortable with how (Whitesell) coaches.”
Including the players in the search process, Whitesell said, was vital.
“We tell our players all the time, this is a players program,” he said. “We want your input, we want your accountability. Not only are you giving your thoughts, it’s your program. You helped build it.
“Our players put a lot of time and sweat into this program, so certainly, they were deserving of giving that input.”
UB’s committee evaluated the 40 candidates, then conducted phone interviews with 12, including former UB point guard Turner Battle and Buffalo native Carlin Hartman, now an assistant at Oklahoma. Six finalists emerged, none of whom Alnutt identified, other than Whitesell.
Alnutt interviewed the finalists in Minneapolis – three on Thursday, including Whitesell, and three on Friday. The finalists came from a pool of candidates that included head coaches and assistant coaches from Power Five and high mid-major programs.
Alnutt said he decided Saturday morning to offer Whitesell the job.
“What came back to me (about Jim) was the familiarity, not just with the players but of UB, of Buffalo, and being able to be a part of something special,” Alnutt said. “As a top-25 program, and who we’re competing with, we don’t have certain resources and facilities, and he’s adapted to that.”
When asked if there were candidates who turned down the job, Alnutt declined to comment.
“Any of the six (finalists) would have been a great fit for UB,” Alnutt said.
Now, the heavy lifting begins for Whitesell. He has given himself a week to 10 days to fill out his staff, including a strength coach, a second assistant coach and a recruiting coordinator. Whitesell said Monday that he will retain Jamie Quarles as an assistant coach, and that he will promote Tom Fox to director of basketball operations. Fox previously was UB's video coordinator.
Whitesell will have to reorganize UB's incoming recruiting class as the NCAA's spring recruiting period opens Thursday. Whitesell also has to reach out to forwards James Rojas and Andre Allen and guards Durey Cadwell and Noah Williams, who either decommitted from UB or reopened their recruitment.
UB has not yet granted releases to players who signed National Letters of Intent, but Alnutt said he wants those players to speak with Whitesell before granting a release or making a decision on their futures at UB.
"My vision here, in the next 30 to 40 days, is to take care of (the players), make sure they're in good shape," Whitesell said. "And we've got to get out and recruit, and I need everyone's help in that."