By Budd Bailey
So you want to be a college basketball coach at a mid-major program? Be prepared to multi-task.
That might be the biggest lesson to come out of the ceremony Friday introducing Becky Burke as the new women’s basketball coach at the University at Buffalo.
Let’s consider the situation that Burke entered when she took the floor at Alumni Arena, welcomed by part of the UB band. She is taking charge of a team that went to the NCAA tournament last month, as the Bulls won the Mid-American Conference championship. But that’s not the team she’ll be leading when practice begins in the fall. Roster change is always a constant in college sports, but the creation of the “transfer portal” has raised the stakes.
Dyaisha Fair, the team’s leading scorer, is looking around, while Georgia Woolley and Saniaa Wilson are already off to Syracuse. The “help wanted” sign is clearly out. Burke has to find out what players are staying, what players are coming, and what players are going. If you guessed that the clock is already running on that, you’d be right.
It was a tough enough job in the past, and the opening of transfer rules for players certainly made it more difficult. It’s never seemed particularly fair that athletes – and only athletes – had to wait a year to become eligible at a new school. Coaches leave universities all the time, and other students transfer all the time. They all can jump into new situations almost immediately. Athletes also have considerations concerning making money from name, image and likeness (NIL), something that was unimaginable a short time ago.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not rather chaotic. This year the NCAA also has added the wrinkle of adding a year of eligibility because of Covid-19 issues that have come up, giving seniors and coaches one more angle to ponder. For example, Jeenathan Williams and Ronald Segu of the UB men’s team could have hung around the Amherst campus for one last season, but they decided to move on with their lives and hope for some professional opportunities somewhere. It’s the same story with Niagara, where standout Marcus Hammond is pondering what to do with that fifth year. And Canisius has four key players who are in limbo at the moment.
Burke has one other factor that will be floating about in this new portion of her life. She has a tough act to follow in Felisha Legette-Jack, who left to return to her alma mater at Syracuse on March 26. Legette-Jack managed the rare accomplishment of becoming that rare women’s basketball coach in Western New York who broke through into the consciousness of fans here. Part of that was her winning record, and part of that was the sheer power of her personality, which could fill Alumni Arena at times. If you don’t believe it, ask a local fan who the women’s basketball coach at Canisius or Niagara is.
Burke has one big advantage when it comes to doing the job now: She’s used to it. Burke could be back at the University of South Carolina Upstate right now, and she’d have many of the same issues about her current team. The names are just different in some ways. Familiarity with the job description was a selling point to Athletic Director Mark Alnutt.
“You need to be able to adjust, you need to be able to adapt,” he said. “When we talk about the current collegiate landscape, we talk about the transfer portal. There are 1,100 players in it right now, and there are only 350 teams. That tells you that there are three to four players per team leaving. If you don’t adapt to it, you’re going to be behind. You have to anticipate that you are going to lose people and try to handle relationships, and see how that transfer portal might help up. You still have to build the base through high school athletes, but it’s a different deal.”
Based on her comments, Burke is quite aware what’s involved here. It’s easy to imagine her jotting down items that need her attention … and then sending out for more paper.
“How much time do you have?” she responded with a smile when asked about tasks that need attention. “Our primary responsibility right now is our current players that are here. We’re talking about forming relationships, making them feel comfortable with that transition. They’re 18-to-22-year-olds that need to know they’ll be taken care of and loved the way they need to be. The players (from UB) that are in the portal – we need to have those conversations so that we understand their situation and what it’s going to be. Making sure our roster is filled with the correct players.
“You can say what you want about the portal and allowing people to leave, but it’s still an opportunity for us to go get players as well. I’m excited about finalizing this roster over the next month or so, and making sure we have the team that people expect to see from a skill standpoint.”
Those are the highlights, but there’s more, of course.
“Finalizing my staff,” Burke said. “Getting to know the people in the area, getting to know the people in the athletic department – checking all of those boxes. I don’t know that much about this place, except what I found out in the interview process. I have a lot to learn.
“This is the time when the hours are going to be long, and the mornings are going to be early, but I’ve done this enough times to know what these weeks are going to be like. I embrace it.”
Now that Burke, who played college basketball at Louisville, has hit the ground in Buffalo running, she points out there’s one other item on the to-do list that needs a bit of her attention immediately.
“That’s not to mention that I need a place to sleep,” she added with a laugh.
Maybe someday Burke will get to the point where she can talk about basketball plays and strategies and X’s and O’s. But that’s down the road. There’s work to be done before that.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)