Reggie Witherspoon is no stranger to the eleventh hour. Anyone would face a major challenge taking over for a retiring Jim Baron at Canisius midway through the offseason, but Witherspoon has faced tougher odds already.
The newly-minted head coach of the Golden Griffins is entering familiar territory both on and off the court. A native son of Buffalo, the opportunity to coach at Canisius is a welcome call home for Witherspoon.
“I’m from here, my family is from here, my wife’s family is from here, I grew up here,” Witherspoon said of the Buffalo area. “Positives are that you’re around family and friends.”
Although a return to familiar surroundings brings obvious benefits, the opportunity to coach in his home town also brings along certain drawbacks of popularity.
“Oftentimes the strength can be a weakness because you never have enough time,” Witherspoon added. “You’re always constantly in a situation where you know everybody, or they know you, or they know somebody who knows you, so the degree of separation isn’t even one. It takes longer to do everything because there’s always a conversation that awaits you. That’s something that you’ve just got to do time management-wise that’s challenging.”
Witherspoon got his first opportunity at the Division I level under less than ideal circumstances. Five games into the 1999-2000 season, Witherspoon was asked to leave his post at Erie Community College and take over a Buffalo Bulls program in crisis. The Bulls, under fire from NCAA violations, parted ways with then-head coach Tim Cohane and reached out to Witherspoon to help navigate the remainder of that troubled season.
Witherspoon was thrown in the fire right away.
“I started [at Buffalo] December 4, 1999, practiced once on that Saturday, twice on that Sunday, once on that Monday, and we played North Carolina at home on Tuesday night,” Witherspoon said of his first week on the job. “Then three days later we played Indiana.”
The Bulls finished the year with a 5-23 record, but Witherspoon stayed on as head coach and had his interim tag removed on March 10, 2000. He would remain in that role for the next 13 years, leading the Bulls to four postseason appearances.
Growing up in western New York, Witherspoon admired Baron as a player at St. Bonaventure, particularly his work as a member of the 1977 NIT championship team. Over the years, their roles would shift but Witherspoon and Baron continued to cross paths.
Witherspoon worked a basketball camp at Notre Dame while in college and Baron was an assistant coach there between 1981-87. Then when Baron returned to St. Bonaventure as head coach in 1992, Witherspoon was beginning his head coaching career at local Sweet Home High School. Witherspoon moved up the ladder to Erie Community College, and onward to Buffalo during Baron’s tenure with the Bonnies.
“I’ve known Jim [Baron] since I was about 19 years old,” Witherspoon said. “He retired and this opportunity presented itself, and it’s a privilege and an honor to be here.”
Baron set a new standard of success in his tenure at Canisius, which Witherspoon will have the task of continuing. In four years with the Golden Griffins, Baron compiled a record of 73-59. His .553 winning percentage was a vast improvement for a program which had been mired in a string of mediocre seasons for the previous decade and recorded just five victories in the year prior to Baron’s arrival.
New faces will not be exclusive to the coaching staff in the 2016-17 season. Canisius will debut six new players this season, including four signed to letters of intent in the months since Witherspoon was named head coach.
Baron signed guards Spencer Foley and Malik Johnson, in November. Since a number of roster spots opened following the coaching change, Witherspoon added 6’11”, 210-pound center Selvedin Planincic, 6’8”, 235-pound forward Dantai St. Louis, 6’4”, 190-pound guard Isaiah Reese, and most recently another big body for the front court in 6’8”, 200-pound sophomore Jibreel Faulkner.
“The first thing when you’re in a situation like this where it’s late—obviously not as late as it was at Buffalo—you have to be able to assess,” Witherspoon said of putting together a roster. “It takes a while to assess the student-athletes in the program and assess what their capabilities are. And while you’re doing that, they’re learning what your expectations are as coaches.”
Witherspoon’s Canisius career will begin in similar fashion to his time at Buffalo—with a stern test right off the bat. The Golden Griffins open their season Nov. 13 with a trip to Rupp Arena to take on Kentucky as part of the Bluegrass Showcase.
Vincent Simone covers the MAAC, Hofstra, and more for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow him on Twitter @VTSimone.