Niagara Gazette

March 26, 2013

PARRINO: Hurley elevates UB hoops

By Matt Parrino
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette —

Members of the media covering the UB basketball program during Reggie Witherspoon's tenure knew the drill after games at Alumni Arena: settle in and get comfortable. 

After a post-game radio interview, a walk through the True Blue fan section, a meet and greet with the VIP season-ticket holders, post-game interaction with his team and meeting with his assistant coaches, Witherspoon would finally be ready for questions.

To a writer on deadline the exercise in patience became an aggravating chore.

But once Witherspoon entered the room, sporting his trademark smile, and started educating a room full of reporters on the game of basketball, the frustration seemed to melt away into almost complete and undivided attention.

After games, Witherspoon wasn't playing the role of a big shot, he was making his way through the Buffalo basketball community that he helped create at UB. People from around the city and members of the local high school basketball scene were routinely guests of Witherspoon, and his reach in the community and impact on young athletes has been well-documented.

That's what UB lost when Athletic Director Danny White fired Witherspoon on March 15: the pioneer of UB — and to a smaller extent, Buffalo — basketball.

I was shocked and disconcerted when I learned the news. I have covered UB basketball for five years and in that time developed a professional respect and admiration for Witherspoon and the way he led arguably the most successful program in UB athletics since the school re-entered Division 1 in 1999.

I thought White made a mistake.

But then something unprecedented happened. White responded on Tuesday afternoon by announcing the hiring of former Duke point guard and two-time NCAA champion Bobby Hurley as Witherspoon's replacement.

I have lived in Buffalo my entire life, followed all of the professional and college teams in the area, and can't remember a higher profile coaching hire. Hurley's success as a player was staggering, and bringing that kind of experience into the UB locker room is significant. 

He'll immediately command players' respect and, while he's only been coaching for three seasons, he's had a ton of success as an assistant under his brother Dan Hurley at Wagner College. This past season, Hurley joined his brother at Rhode Island and was in the process of helping the Rams turn things around. RIU only won eight games last season but with two transfers and a full recruiting class, many believe the team will be very good in coming seasons.

Twitter did what it usually does when something unexpected happens: produce some interesting reaction. Some are already dubbing Hurley, who comes from a basketball family (his father, Bob Hurley Sr., is a legendary high school coach in New Jersey), the successor to iconic Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski.

It's too early to anoint Hurley, who has never coached a game, the heir to the Blue Devil thrown. He's taking over a program that plays in the underrated and highly competitive Mid-American Conference, which has proved to be an annual gauntlet the Bulls have yet to conquer.

But I like the Duke connection. Krzyzewski is one of the greatest coaches in the game's history and Hurley ran his system for four years. Even if UB is just a stepping stone for Hurley, White made a historic impact with this hire, and redeemed himself for a decision that I still believe to be a bit hasty.

Witherspoon guided UB to its most successful four-year run in program history from 2008-2012, coached the MAC Player of the Year (Mitchell Watt) last season and, not only had the leading candidate for next season's MAC POY (Javon McCrea), but many experts predicted that UB would begin the 2013-14 season as the MAC front runner.

There is no rewind button in life, however, and White made the decision back in December to move in a different direction, despite waiting until the day after the Bulls' season ended to terminate Witherspoon.

White is young, has a vision for Bulls basketball and his ties to the Duke program (his dad is the Duke AD) seemingly helped him land a talented young coach with loads of potential.

Witherspoon's place in UB sports history, despite never reaching the NCAA tournament, is undeniable. He transformed a laughing stock basketball team into a respected, perennial contender, and his contributions to UB and the city of Buffalo should always be remembered.

Now UB moves forward and Hurley seems like the perfect fit for the job. Hopefully, in time, he'll need some time before his post-game press conference. In the halls of Alumni Arena, that's how you know you're doing it right.

You can respond to Tonawanda News sports editor Matt Parrino on Twitter @MattParrino or by email: matt.parrino@tonawanda-news.com