This is the final of three parts in a series on “The State of College Sports” in Western New York.
Athletic directors at the University at Buffalo and at Niagara say that the reception for new men’s basketball coaches at each school has been overwhelmingly positive.
Jim Whitesell takes over a program at UB that has set a standard for the Mid-American Conference, while Patrick Beilein will attempt to resurrect a Purple Eagles program that’s only had one winning season in the last six.
The test of any program in transition will come when the Bulls and the Purple Eagles open the season in November, but neither UB athletic director Mark Alnutt nor Niagara athletic director Simon Gray has steep expectations for Whitesell or Beilein.
“I’ve never been one to put any wins on the season, but the expectation out there is that we will continue to be competitive in the Mid-American Conference, which I know we will be,” Alnutt told the News at a recent roundtable discussion with athletic directors from Canisius, Niagara and St. Bonaventure.
Beilein takes over a program that hasn’t finished higher than third in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference in six seasons. Niagara also faces a challenge when it plays a nonconference schedule with nine road games, including games against St. Bonaventure and Buffalo.
“There is certainly not the expectation that, in one year, we’re going to do whatever it takes to get back to the mountaintop,” Gray said. “We want to build a sustainable model where we can be successful over a longer period of time. We explained that to Patrick and to his staff, on the way in. They’ve attacked recruiting with that mindset.”
The Beilein name is enough to catch the attention of local basketball fans, but that isn't what swayed Gray to hire Patrick.
“We go out and look for the right fit for our programs,” Gray said. “One of the harder things you can do is when you try to force a hire for the wrong reasons. The profile may be flashy, but it isn’t going to work with what we provide. That’s what I look for, someone who is going to be the right fit and who is going to succeed in the parameters we have.”
While Niagara had three players transfer after its men’s basketball coaching change, only guard Colby Moultrie transferred from UB following Whitesell’s hire. Otherwise, all of the Bulls’ returning players remained with the program, including guards Davonta Jordan and Jayvon Graves, transfers Gabe Grant and Antwain Johnson, and sophomores Jeenathan Williams and Ronaldo Segu.
Whitesell also rebuilt UB's 2019 incoming recruiting class as the Bulls lost their original class in less than three weeks after Nate Oats became head coach at Alabama on March 27.
“That’s a testament of the faith our roster had when he was named, that we were able to keep our top roster,” Alnutt said. “Obviously, there are some holes to fill, we understand that, but he’s done a tremendous job of retaining the current roster and what he had to do for recruiting. He had to essentially go out and design an entire recruiting class.”
Meanwhile, the transfer portal has brought about one of the biggest buzzes in college sports. Athletes who intend to leave a program enter their name in an NCAA database, and coaches can contact any college athlete once their name is in the portal. While schools cannot block transfers, they can remove scholarships from players in the semester they choose to transfer.
UB’s basketball program had only one player enter the transfer portal, but UB’s football program lost tight end Tyler Mabry and wide receivers KJ Osborn and Charlie Jones to transfers. All would have been impact players with the Bulls this season. Takal Molson left the Canisius basketball team for Seton Hall, and Bona had three players transfer, including guard Jalen Poyser, who is now at McNeese State.
Canisius athletic director Bill Maher believes the transfer portal reflects a changing culture in sports.
“NBA players are signing one-year contracts, and they’re deciding where to go and want to play and they’re making it a very public conversation,” Maher said. “Recruiting, from a social media standpoint, is very public. It’s a very flattering process for the kids. If you can do it more than once, then why not get flattered more than once? All those things factor into it. When you couple that with the legal environment that’s driving change, at the national level of the NCAA, to try and say, ‘What can we do? What is a defendable position from a transfer standpoint?' All of those things lead us to the environment we’re in right now.”
Transferring doesn’t just affect an individual. Bona athletic director Tim Kenney looks at its impact on a team and, in particular, its Academic Progress Rate, data that tracks an athlete’s progress towards graduation.
“If a kid leaves our institution and he’s below a 2.6 (grade-point average), we’re going to get dinged,” Kenney said. “They’re fully eligible to go play for the other institution. They could go on and win a national championship, but we’re getting penalized from it if they’re not graduating over there or if they leave below a 2.6. That’s something that needs to be looked at, because it’s an unintended consequence.
“That’s something we have to keep a look at, keep beating a drum on it, and have a change.”
Gray wants to take a longer period of time to see how the implementation of a transfer portal impacts mid-major or high-major programs.
He’s seen another impact the transfer portal has made on recruiting.
“It caused coaches to spend more time vetting, if that’s possible, who they’re bringing into their program and if they’re the right fit,” Gray said. “I’ve just seen this more in the last two years. It’s starting to get scary, (the idea of) ‘Where am I going to go and where is my landing spot?’ I’m hopeful that will slow down the nature of it.”