By Budd Bailey
Jim Whitesell had one major problem while serving as the men’s basketball coach at the University at Buffalo: He had an impossible act to follow.
Whitesell lost his job on Saturday, shortly after the Bulls were eliminated from the Mid-American Conference playoffs. It was something of a surprise, in that UB usually doesn’t fire its coaches. It was a rather “un-UB-like” bit of news. The last firing among the three most high-profile jobs (football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball) was Jeff Quinn, who was cut loose in the middle of the 2014 football season. That was nine seasons ago, or by college athletics’ standards, an eternity ago.
Buffalo has a good track record of picking good coaches as of late. Sometimes they move on to other opportunities; it’s sort of the nature of the beast. But before examining the current situation at the Amherst campus, let’s look back to Whitesell’s predecesors.
Bobby Hurley, a legendary name as a player as a guard for Duke’s all-time great teams in the 1990s, replaced Reggie Witherspoon as the UB coach in 2013. Hurley led the Bulls to the NCAA tournament in 2015, and then took off for Arizona State. But he left a gift of sorts behind.
Nate Oats was an assistant coach at Wisconsin-Whitewater (Division III) from 2000 to 2002, when he shifted gears to become a teacher and a high school coach at Romulus near Detroit. Nate won a lot of games and earned a bunch of honors there. Still, successful high school coaches are relatively plentiful in the grand scheme of things. The catch is that Hurley noticed Oats’ work while recruiting a Romulus player, and offered Nate an assistant coach’s job in Buffalo.
Then in 2015 as Hurley was departing, the UB players made it clear than Oats was the first choice to become the new head coach. Athletic director Danny White got the message, and promoted Oates to head coach. Practically every college player is loyal to his or her coach, in part because that coach identified that particular player as worthy of earning a scholarship and playing in Division I athletics. That buys some loyalty.
Even so, Oats didn’t miss a beat during his stay at UB – in fact, he added a few notes. Buffalo went to the NCAA tournament three times in his four years, winning the MAC regular-season title twice as well. The Bulls even popped up in the top 25 at times, something that would have seemed impossible at almost any other point in the school’s history. There were even sellouts along the way.
You do that as a coach, you attract attention from the big schools. Alabama qualified, and the Crimson Tide soon came calling with a big checkbook. Oats’ departure was a little awkward since it came soon after he signed an extension with UB. But that’s the business these days. Athletic Director Mark Alnutt kicked the tires of other candidates a bit, and may even have offered to job to someone else. But eventually he hired Whitesell as the coach, in part because he had the support of his players. It was a gamble that Whitesell could keep the train going down the tracks due to the benefits of continuity. That’s easier said than done; ask those who have followed John Beilein at Canisius. The Griffins haven’t been in the NCAAs since Beilein coached them there in 1996.
That momentum has been slowed. The Bulls have been slowly sliding during Whitesell’s four years on the job. They have gone 20-12, 16-9, 19-11 and 15-17. If you have been at some home games, you probably have noticed there are a lot more empty seats than there were before he arrived – more than 2,000 per game, on average. Jim obviously had to cope with some different realities as a head coach over four years. Covid-19 messed up everyone’s program, and the transfer portal has changed how coaches find players in fielding a team. It was not the fairest time to judge someone, but it’s all Alnutt had.
In the meantime, Oats has been writing a story in Alabama that is almost unprecedented. The Crimson Tide took a year to build, and then arrived on the national scene in 2020-21 with a 26-7 record. Alabama has been in the NCAAs three straight seasons, and was seeded first overall in the tournament this time. Remember, Oates was coaching high school ball eight years ago, and who now has turned Alabama into something more than “a football school.” This is a university with a team that has gotten past the Sweet Sixteen only once in its history. UB was unbelievably smart and lucky to have him for four years.
At 63, Whitesell’s time as a major college head coach probably is over. He had a 70-49 record in four years at UB, which followed a 109-106 record in seven years at Loyola (Chicago) from 2004 to 2011. There’s nothing to be ashamed about there. Alnutt may have gulped briefly at the thought of a $500,000 buyout to make this move. But the Bulls’ budget ranks in the top half of the MAC, and such expenditures aren’t unusual these days in college athletics.
UB went 0-7 this past season against Toledo, Kent State and Akron, the three top teams in this MAC, and some of those losses were rather ugly. The Bulls’ athletic boss no doubt sensed a drop toward mediocrity, and took a good-sized step toward trying to prevent it. And who knows what might have been happening behind the scenes? Some administrators might have waited another year to act. But Alnutt’s record at picking coaches has been good enough that he certainly deserves the benefit of the doubt for this particular move.
And who will that new coach be? It seems that everyone with a Western New York connection has been mentioned already. That includes Carlin Hartman, an assistant coach in Florida; Xavier associate head coach Adam Cohen; and Alabama assistant coach Bryan Hodgson. Rachel Lanzi of The Buffalo News also brought up two names who check the usual boxes for MAC jobs: Baker Dunleavy of Quinnipiac and Speedy Claxton of Hofstra. They have had success coaching at small programs in the Northeast and might be tempted by an offer to take a step up.
There are a couple of other names close to home that might be interested. Greg Paulus has given Niagara a pulse during his four years there. That wasn’t easy. A MAC coaching job might be a logical next step, and he probably wouldn’t even have to sell his house. Gerry McNamara seemed almost destined to become a head coach at Syracuse someday. But Adrian Autry now has the job at Syracuse as Jim Boeheim’s successor, and he has a new contract that will give him a chance to show what he can do. Would McNamara be open to at least consider getting some head coaching experience down the Thruway? Might be worth a phone call.
It’s more likely, though, that some relative unknowns will pop up and become top contenders for the job. When Felicia Leggett-Jack left the UB’s women’s basketball job to return home to Syracuse, it’s fair to say Becky Burke wasn’t on anyone’s radar as a replacement. The Bulls had to start from scratch as most of the team fled, but Burke has gotten off to a good start under difficult circumstances. Alnutt no doubt is hoping to do just as well with this coaching vacancy.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)