By Matt Parrino
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — It's been a remarkable year for the University at Buffalo athletic program.
Khalil Mack rocked the college football world, and the men's basketball team won the first outright Mid-American Conference East regular season title in school history. The New York Bulls Initiative is in full motion, and the UB brand has never been so nationally illuminated.
But, alas, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
With arguably the most talented senior class in school history, including Mack — the potential No. 1 pick in April’s NFL draft — the football team fizzled after contending in the MAC for most of the season. And the basketball team, led by the school's all-time leading scorer in Javon McCrea and first-year head coach Bobby Hurley, bowed out of the MAC Tournament as the No. 3 seed in the quarterfinals against No. 6 Eastern Michigan. That’s the same EMU squad the Bulls beat 76-66 earlier in the season.
Danny White had a vision for UB Athletics when he took over for the departed Warde Manuel: make the UB brand a part of the national conversation. That vision has included a trio of marquee moves, including a controversial five-year contract extension for head football coach Jeff Quinn, the replacement of 14-year head basketball coach Reggie Witherspoon with the hiring of Duke legend Bobby Hurley, and the re-branding of the University at Buffalo as the flagship school of New York State.
I don't question whether White has the best of intentions. I mean, he has elevated the program, but at what cost? I sit here one day away from the start of March Madness, with the Bulls once again watching, and I am left wondering, less than two years into White's tenure, if the grand design is flawed.
As I watched the Bulls fold under the pressure of Eastern Michigan’s 2-3 zone last week, I looked at the scoreboard and noticed that it displayed “Buffalo.” But a glance at MAC Player of the Year Javon McCrea's jersey revealed big, bold letters that read "NEW YORK," with Buffalo barely visible.
Doesn't that ambiguity defeat the purpose of this whole initiative? If you're going to call yourself the New York university, shouldn't you go all in? It's not like Ohio State refers to itself as the State University of Ohio at Columbus.
I get what you're going for, Danny, but you are never going to engage the Buffalo community by distancing yourself from a city which holds community pride paramount to anything else.
Look at the Bills. They haven't made the playoffs in over a decade and ‘The Ralph’ is still sold out most Sundays.
Following the loss to EMU, the Hurley-Witherspoon debate raged on, particularly on social media, despite its irrelevance.
The truth is, Bobby Hurley didn't fire Reggie Witherspoon. Comparing the two coaches is an exercise in futility, because the coaches have contrasting styles and their own specific strengths and weaknesses.
Hurley arrived in Buffalo and brought excitement. He did a great job this season, leading the Bulls to 20 wins and the program's first outright division title. But as a first-year head coach, was he outmatched in Cleveland?
Witherspoon was fired after a 14-win rebuilding year. The Bulls were coming off a MAC semifinal loss to Ohio, which went on to win the league title and advance all the way to the Sweet 16. They lost key contributors, including three starters, one of whom was MAC Player of the Year Mitchell Watt, and played most of the season without starting point guard Jarod Oldham, who was posting career-best numbers (10.1, 5.3, 4.7).
I don't question White hiring Bobby Hurley. It was a shrewd move that brought in a young and obviously talented coach, who also brings serious recruiting potential.
I question the rash decision to fire Witherspoon, a UB institution, after one bad season on the heels of the winningest four-year stretch in program history.
Who knows, maybe a veteran coach like Witherspoon calls the lone remaining timeout with under five seconds to play against EMU after junior Will Regan captured a rebounded with his team down only one score. Regan instead was left on an island, looking for an open teammate for several seconds before he throwing an errant pass that all but ended the game.
Maybe Witherspoon installs a better game plan to attack the devastating EMU zone that UB knew it was going to have to infiltrate to be successful. UB shot 7 for 30 (23 percent) from inside the three-point line.
McCrea, the newly named MAC Player of the Year, was ordinary. He went out with a whimper, finishing with a lowly seven points on 2-of-13 shooting from the field. His tentativeness against the overwhelming EMU defense quickly turned to frustration, and it consumed the Bulls.
Maybe Witherspoon's experience could have helped the senior remain focused and push forward. After all, Witherspoon recruited him and coached him the past three seasons.
Witherspoon got the most out of his players. This was his team, and White not only robbed this team of its chance to make a run at the tournament, but he also saddled Hurley with an impossible challenge: winning an ultra-competitive MAC title with another coach's players.
The past is the past. It's time to move on. Bobby Hurley is the basketball coach at UB.
But now the real test begins. There won't be a Javon McCrea next year, or even an offensive sharpshooter like Josh Freelove, who made eight 3-pointers against Eastern Michigan. Next year, it will really be Hurley's team, and Danny White's true evaluation will begin to be written.
I wish Hurley luck, if he sticks around. His name has been mentioned in connection to vacant head coaching jobs at Boston College and Virginia Tech.
If he stays, he'll get more comfortable in the MAC, one of the toughest mid-major conferences in college basketball. Before Western Michigan punched its ticket to the dance this season, the only two teams to win the league tournament the past five years were Ohio or Akron.
On Monday, White re-tweeted a quote that read, "We cannot become what we want to be by remaining what we are."
That's an interesting idea. Let me offer a variation.
You can't become what you want to be without knowing what you're doing. For the sake of UB Athletics, here is hoping White has learned some lessons these past two years.
Follow sports editor @MattParrino on Twitter for complete area sports coverage.