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Jim Whitesell, Greg Paulus take different paths to Big 4 basketball

Jim Whitesell thought he wanted to be a teacher, but one year of student teaching convinced him that he wasn’t cut out for working in a classroom. But he thought of the summer days he spent with his five brothers as they grew up in Iowa Falls, Iowa, calling orders on a basketball court or running routes on an open field.

Whitesell liked using a constructive manner to tell people what to do, and he liked doing it inside the confines of a gymnasium, rather than a classroom. For the past four decades, he’s made the basketball court his classroom, whether it was in suburban Chicago or in Western New York.

Whitesell became the University at Buffalo’s men’s basketball coach in April, but his first coaching job in 1982 at Ellsworth Community College in central Iowa brought an unexpected set of responsibilities. Along with a nominal coaching stipend, he received campus housing and became head of a dormitory filled with college students.

“My goal was to be a college basketball coach, and that was part of it,” Whitesell said. “I really wanted to be more basketball, all day long, coaching, and I knew that the track to that started with getting a graduate assistantship.

“That was a great learning experience. All of it. There’s a process of working your way up and trying to work your way up the ladder.”

Whitesell didn’t have the same pedigree or path in coaching basketball as Greg Paulus, who became Niagara's interim head coach on Oct. 24. Paulus was an All-American basketball player at Duke, then played quarterback at Syracuse for a year. He earned his first college coaching job in 2010, and originally joined the Purple Eagles as an assistant coach in the spring.

Paulus wanted to coach, but not just because of his success as an athlete. He learned how to manage the personalities of his six siblings and seeing how they handled their own experiences. He listened to coaches as they tried to sway him through the recruiting process and asked him, “Where do you see yourself?”

“Coaching was always something that I wanted to do,” Paulus said. “I had coaches and influential leaders who impacted my life so positively, that I wanted to do that for someone else.

“But it started with being one of seven kids. Those were my best friends growing up, and their friends were my friends, and sports was always such a big part of what we did. My passion for relationships started by having such a close-knit family, and we’re still very close.”

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Whitesell and Paulus will meet for the first time as head coaches when UB hosts Niagara at 2 p.m. Dec. 21 at Alumni Arena. Their coaching influences started within their families and led them to working about 20 miles away from each other in Western New York, even though they find themselves in different situations at separate schools.

Whitesell is a veteran coach who takes over one of the Mid-American Conference’s most successful teams in the last five years, after the departure of Nate Oats to become Alabama’s head coach. Paulus is a first-year Division I coach who takes over a team that finished last in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference last season. He will lead the Purple Eagles after the abrupt departure of Patrick Beilein, who resigned on Oct. 24.

“He’s not happy with the circumstances of taking over for Patrick, but Greg knew he wanted to be a coach for so many years,” said former Ohio State coach Thad Matta, who hired Paulus as a video coordinator in 2011. “He knew he had to climb the ladder to become one."

Hoops instead of Hollywood

The Whitesell name is more synonymous with Hollywood than it is with college basketball. Four of Whitesell’s five brothers are or have been in the entertainment business: John is an Emmy-winning television and film director; Chris is an Emmy-winning television writer; Patrick is a talent agent and co-CEO of William Morris Endeavor Entertainment; and Sean, who died of brain cancer (glioblastoma multiforme) in 2015, was an actor, producer and writer.

In March, as John Whitesell was at a sports bar in Southern California, Jim's image and name suddenly appeared on a television screen during the NCAA Tournament. A network singled out the UB men’s basketball assistant coach during the Bulls’ first-round game against Arizona State.

One of John Whitesell’s friends noticed the familiar name on the television screen.

“Jim Whitesell,” his friend repeated. “Hey, do you know him? Is he related to you?”

“Yeah, that’s my brother!”

The entertainment bug didn’t bite Jim Whitesell, though his brothers joke that one of his stronger qualities as a coach is maintaining a certain persona.

“We all kind of envy Jim,” said Thomas, Jim's older brother and the head of real estate for Pacific Western Bank. “We all wish we were basketball coaches! We’re all sports fans and have always liked that. He has the cool job, the job that comes with a lot of glory, and he’s in entertainment by being a basketball coach.”

Jim Whitesell didn’t do it on the same big stages as his brothers. He was the head coach at Division III Elmhurst (Ill.) College from 1987 to 1992, then coached at Division II Lewis University in Romeoville, Ill., from 1992 to 2004.

At Loyola (Chicago), he won 109 games as its head coach, but was fired in 2011 after seven seasons. Four years later, when he was let go after two seasons as an assistant at St. John’s (2013-15), it was one of the few times he questioned whether he belonged in coaching.

“For maybe a week, I thought, ‘What else is out there? This is a crazy business,’ ” Whitesell said. “But I’m still grateful for Nate Oats to have given me a call and bring me to UB. Connie [my wife] and I came here to visit and we loved it.”

At UB, he became an associate head coach and a defensive guru as the Bulls allowed an average of 73.9 points per game during Whitesell's four years as an assistant, including a low of 70.5 points in 2018-19. He also became the sugar to Oats’ sometimes salty sideline demeanor. When a player had a bad stretch or had just been berated by Oats, Whitesell was almost always the first assistant to approach that player and offer a few words of advice.

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He couldn’t have done that without his experience as an assistant coach. Each time he was out of a job, Whitesell humbled himself in a way by joining another program in a support role, rather than in a supervisory role. That change, Patrick Whitesell said, gave Jim Whitesell an invaluable perspective.

“The best thing that happened to Jim was getting fired from Loyola, believe it or not,” said Patrick, Jim’s youngest brother. “You’ve only done it your way for so long, and when you become an assistant, you see how others do it and you’re fitting into their system. I think Jim was able to see that and say, ‘There’s a bunch of different ways people are doing this, and there are things I’m going to do better, and I’m going to incorporate that into how I approach things.’

“Now, he’s going to be a much better coach because he was an assistant somewhere else.”

'A no-brainer' of a hire

In Paulus’ first season as a video coordinator at Ohio State, Matta noticed his assistant was doing something uncharacteristic as the Buckeyes prepared for a game.

“He stood on a trash can and taped scouting reports to the wall,” Matta said. “But to me, that showed me that there was no job too small for him, that he was willing to do.”

Matta also remembers how Paulus constantly wanted to learn, and constantly peppered him with questions, sometimes even at inopportune times. Matta used 20 minutes before every game at Ohio State as a “cool-down period,” to center himself before a game.

Paulus kept interrupting him as he meditated, cutting into what Matta called “quiet time.”

“But he was an inquisitive, young coach, and you had to admire that enthusiasm,” said Matta, who recruited Paulus when he was a senior at Christian Brothers Academy in Syracuse. “He was a continuous learner, and when he took vacations, it wasn’t to the beach. He went to San Antonio to observe the Spurs or to Utah, to talk to the Jazz.”

Paulus began his coaching career in 2010 as an assistant to Billy Lange at the Naval Academy, but Matta said hiring Paulus was “a no-brainer.” Matta coached the Buckeyes from 2004 to 2017, and Paulus was on his staff from 2011 to 2017, first as a video coordinator and then as an assistant coach.

When Matta was dismissed as head coach, so was Paulus. He joined Louisville’s staff in October of 2017, less than a month after David Padgett was named interim coach of the Cardinals, following the firing of Rick Pitino when the FBI identified Louisville in its college basketball recruiting investigation.

Paulus went through a similar transition on Oct. 24 at Niagara, only a few months after he joined the Purple Eagles as an assistant, following a season at George Washington in the same position.

In Paulus’ first week as head coach, Niagara forward Nicholas Kratholm noticed a quality about the 33-year-old in his first head coaching job.

“He is really passionate about relationships, and about communication with his players,” said Kratholm, a junior who transferred from Miami Dade College. “That’s one thing he’s embodied, since he’s been here.

“Open communication is so important for a lot of things, not just basketball. When you have a group of guys who spend so much time together, being open and honest together is so important. If we can do it off the court, we can do it on the court.”

Justin Roberts, a redshirt junior guard at Niagara, remembered Paulus as a college athlete.

“My family wasn’t a very big fan of Duke,” Roberts said, laughing. “He’s a glue guy, a hustle guy and a very good leader, and you have to be, when you’re a point guard. He knew how to lead his team. As a coach, I knew where he coached and that he had a good feel for the game, and we feel very confident with him here.”

A shared passion for the profession

Jim Whitesell and Paulus talked in September at a Coaches vs. Cancer Tip-Off happy hour event in Buffalo, and found a few common bonds, including their big families and their apprenticeships in college basketball.

Whitesell is a head coach for the first time in eight years, and in earning each job and, even when he’s been let go, he’s found a way to maintain a passion for teaching at every level he has coached.

“I’ve always loved coaching, whether it was Division III, Division II or Division I,” he said. “It’s always been fun. I’m thrilled to be here but when you coach, you just love to coach. You like the relationship with the players. You like seeing it, you like teaching, you like seeing the progression. And coaches, you get to be part of a team, and that’s one of the fun parts of being a coach.”

Paulus didn’t anticipate earning his first coaching job as a replacement, two weeks before the start of the season. But he did.

“Nobody is prepared to be a head coach, and he’ll make some difficult decisions,” Matta said. “He’ll have to draw on what he’s been taught, and I told him, ‘You’ve seen a lot.’ He’ll collect everything he’s learned, and I told him, ‘Present it as who you are.’ ”

"Be yourself" is the best piece of advice Paulus has received, and it's the basis for his guiding principle in coaching.

“That’s important,” he said. “Follow your passion. Continue to work hard and help other people. That’s a constant message I’ve learned from family, from growing up in Syracuse and along the path of coaching throughout. That’s something that’s been a part of each of my experiences.”

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