Back in the years 2000-01, when Reggie Witherspoon was putting together the freshman class that would change the course of basketball history at UB, he tried to sell them on the unique charm of being an athlete in Buffalo.
“We told them, ‘Home will always be home,’” Witherspoon recalled. “‘But this can be a second home for you’. We talked about leaving a legacy, so when you come back and bring your kids to town, people will be able to tell your kids who you are because they remember who you were.”
He landed a terrific class that year, one that came within a last-second basket of reaching the NCAA Tournament in their senior year in 2005. Jason Bird, Danny Gilbert, Mark Bortz and the MAC player of the year, Turner Battle, left a legacy and put UB on the Division I hoop map.
As for Buffalo as a second home, that took some getting used to.
“It’s funny,” Battle said early this week. “When we were seniors, we said we were never coming back. Oh, yeah. All of us.”
But look at them now. All four of those ’05 recruits eventually settled in Buffalo. Bird is a financial advisor, Gilbert an insurance salesman, Bortz a marketing manager at Fisher Price. They all came back after playing professional basketball and raising families in Western New York.
Battle, who served as a UB assistant under Witherspoon from 2007-13, is back in his second home, too. In May, Battle was hired as the athletic director at The Park School, stepping away from the high-stress world of Division I basketball after 15 years as an assistant coach.
Soon after taking the AD job, Battle hired Rod Middleton, who played for UB from 2002-06, as the boys basketball coach at Park. Middleton, a highly regarded local basketball trainer, was another in the list of ex-Bulls — Clement Smith, Tony Watson, to name two more — to settle here.
Battle said it was a difficult decision to leave college coaching. He has been an assistant at Chattanooga, Buffalo, UAB, East Tennessee State and Middle Tennessee. He coached in three places in the last three years. Despite his experience, he had only two head coaching interviews along the way — at UB and Niagara.
He said he and his wife, the former Clare Crowley, had many conversations about a possible move. Crowley, who was a hoop standout at Mount Mercy and Fredonia State and a successful girls’ coach at Williamsville North, understood the pull that college coaching had on her husband.
“I know there will be days when he says, ‘I miss coaching,’” Clare Battle said, “but the impact that he’s still able to have with kids brings purpose, and he’s realizing that now. Even in his short time, he’s been able to make an impact at Park.
“We had three kids,” she said. “A lot of change, different cities, houses, a lot of things to navigate during that time. So, I was always grateful for the community of support I did have in coaches’ wives. But we always talked about what it would be like if we had normal jobs, or if we were able to spend more time with our families and travel and do those kinds of things.”
In the end, Battle decided that the Park job was too good to turn down. Jason Bird, who is president of the Park board of trustees and has children in the school, recommended him for the position and spoke with his often. He knew Battle was frustrated with the modern college game, with the extreme emphasis on winning and the transfers and the tampering by opposing programs.
“I’ve got my masters from Canisius in sports administration,” said Battle, who was an all-MAC academic selection his last three years at UB. “I’ve always joked around and said, ‘I’ll be an AD some day.’ It’s crazy how things worked out.”
Clare said Turner’s eyes were opened during Covid, when circumstances allowed him to be home more often. It was nice spending time around the kids. Maya turned 8 on Thursday, Reena is 6, Turner Jr. (T.J.) 3-and-a-half. He’s a family man, something instilled in him by his parents, Richard and Brenda Battle, when he was growing up in Kernersville, N.C., a suburb of Winston-Salem.
“That’s how I was raised,” Battle said. “Clare was raised the same way. I don’t want them to say, ‘Dad was at this, he wasn’t at this, and Mom had to do everything.’ That’s hard for me. I missed a lot. This will be the first time ever I’ll be at my daughter’s birthday. July 21 is hard.
“My wife and kids have sacrificed enough. Clare is unbelievable, a trooper through it. Honestly, she’s done a lot of it alone, because of my travel schedule and how coaching works. She played and coached, which made it a lot easier.
“I felt like I was away from my family a lot, and this opportunity came about,” he said. “I wanted to explore it. I usually spend three or four days a summer here and it’s always hard to leave. We always said, if we get an opportunity, we’ll come back.”
Lisa Conrad, the Head of School at Park, first spoke with Battle by Zoom last fall. The more they talked, the more excited she became. He had impeccable credentials as a college coach and leader. It was a plus that he three school-age children. Park goes from pre-K through 12th grade.
“He made it very clear, he didn’t want to just come in and work with the upper school or work with basketball,” Conrad said. “He wanted to improve athletics for the entire school, for all grade levels. Now that he’s here in person, I have to tell you: He’s the real deal. He is a doer. He is a communicator. He gets stuff done quickly, which I love.
“And he’s so kind. He’s a very kind man. I’ve enjoyed him being here. I can’t wait until school is actually in session and he’s here with our students and our families.”
Jim Kwitchoff, who was an assistant coach for 14 years at UB under Witherspoon, can relate to Battle’s decision. He left college coaching for good when Witherspoon was fired in 2013, rather than jump on the carousel and uproot his family at a time when his children were settling into their lives.
“If I had wanted to stay at the Division I level, I would have had to make some of the same decisions that Turner made —which is grab the kids, pack the bags and head out of town,” said Kwitchoff, a vice president at Life Storage.
“At that time, my kids were maybe 8, 10 and 13. They were in such a healthy environment with their friends and school and extracurricular activities and the neighborhood — all of those things that factor into a happy home life. I decided that getting out of coaching would only impact one person. Staying in coaching would have impacted five.”
Battle was never ruled by his ego. That’s what made him an ideal point guard and leader in the formative stages of the UB program. He was an assistant on a Middle Tennessee team that won 26 games last season and will be one of the favorites in Conference USA next year..
Still, he was intrigued by the Park job. That told you something. He had been in three jobs in three seasons. He said Clare had become an expert at moving. She would support him whatever he chose, but the next move was back to Buffalo. Turner made the right choice for five people.
“Buffalo’s been great to me and my family,” he said. “My wife’s from here. Jason Bird, Daniel Gilbert, Mark Bortz, they all live here. Clem Smith, too. We’re all really close and our kids are around the same age. I would love my kids to be able to grow up with their kids.
“They’re able to do that now, which is a blessing. This has been a great place for me to grow as a man, and my parents would say the same thing.”
A good man knows when to put his wife first. Many coaches never get there. Clare is thrilled to get back to Buffalo. She’s working toward her doctorate in educational leadership while working with restorative justice in schools — finding alternative to suspensions and other punitive measures through building positive relationships.
“I’ve always wanted to come back to Buffalo and urban education,” said Clare Battle, who coached Will North to the sectional girls’ title in 2011. “My vision is that one day I’ll help in the City of Buffalo.”
Clare was doing research on restorative justice while Turner was coaching in Tennessee. She did some long-distance work with the Erie County Restorative Justice Coalition during that time. When Turner got the job at Park, it seemed natural to bring her on staff.
“It was a great way to transition with that,” she said. “God’s funny sometime. He kind of ordered our path.”
It’s a path that some of Buffalo’s most beloved athletes have traveled. Jim Kelly wanted no part of the place, then settled here and become a ‘Buffalo guy.’ Thurman Thomas, Steve Tasker, Rob Ray and legions of hockey players. The UB players, too. The town grows on you.
“It does,” said Battle, who turns 40 next January. “This has always been a home away from home. From my playing days to when I coached, people were very generous to me and my family. I couldn’t ask for any better in-laws. My brother-in law lives here, two of them.
“My father-in-law (Paul Crowley) is an unbelievable person. Maureen Crowley, too. We call her Mo. They’re very supportive. They’ve allowed me to take their daughter from Buffalo the last 10 years. So, for her to come back, it just seems right.”
Turner and Clare might coach again. They joke about it now and then. Coaching never leaves your blood. For now, they’ll settle into Buffalo, enjoy their friends and family and home. Like Kwitchoff, they’ll likely have the joy of coaching their own kids and watching them grow.
“I just pray that the impact he’s making in another area is enough for him,” Clare said. “The time we get to spend with our families, and our friends, there’s nothing better than that. If we’ve learned something over the last couple of years, it’s that life is short. You’re not going to get those times back, you’re not going to get those holidays back.
“It’s important to spend the time when you have it. And now we have it.”
Witherspoon, now head coach at Canisius College, is pleased to know that the four pillars of his ’05 team are all living in Western New York, making a difference, reminding folks of the old days. More than wins, that’s what matters most for a coach, that his players touch other people.
“That’s been true for Turner and his teammates,” Reggie said. “There’s a definite legacy there. And now he gets to help other people establish their legacy. He’s been able to make this a second home. Not just him, but now it’s literally most of his teammates.
“Most of them have been able to say, ‘This is my second home, and where I live.”
Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.