Former Kansas walk-on and national champion guard Brad Witherspoon has been making his mark at the junior college level over the last three years. His most recent success comes from his work at Dodge City Community College, who he’s led to the Elite Eight of the national tournament taking place in Hutchinson this week.
Witherspoon grew up in Humboldt, Kansas, and joined the Kansas basketball team as a walk-on during the 2006-2007 season. As a walk-on, his experience wasn't always as sweet as winning a national championship. In fact, he had a close call with his spot on the team.
The Jayhawks were getting ready for the Big 12 Championship against the Kevin Durant-led Texas Longhorns in Oklahoma City. However, Witherspoon and soon-to-be NBA lottery pick Julian Wright went to 7-eleven right before curfew at 11 p.m. the night before the big game.
Wright and Witherspoon arrived just two minutes late to the hotel, where Witherspoon was met with an earful.
“I'll never forget, [head coach Bill Self] busts in the door and goes off on us for being late to curfew,” Witherspoon said. “Even though it was only a couple of minutes, and he says, ‘Spoon, if we lose tomorrow, your ass is done.’”
As the Longhorns built a huge lead, Witherspoon began to get nervous about his fate.
“We were down 32-10, and so I was sweating bullets, man,” Witherspoon said. “I thought that was it. Luckily, you know, those guys, they came back and won the game.”
Witherspoon spent his time on the red team or scout team at Kansas. The red team consisted of some prominent names that ended up having big roles in the future, and guys like current assistant coach Jeremy Case, who starred in their role at practice. Case was known for his shooting ability in practice on the red team.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Witherspoon said of Case in practice. “We were good. You look at the guys who we had on that scout team, you know, Cole Aldrich, Roderick Stewart, Jeremy Case, Brady Morningstar, Tyrell Reed… We had some dudes.”
Spending time around Self-played an instrumental role as Witherspoon went ahead with his coaching career.
“Playing for Coach Self, I knew I wanted to be a coach and being able to be around all those guys, “ Witherspoon said. “Every day for three years, I really tried to soak it in and take in as much as I possibly could. Whether it be practice, whether it be off the floor, the weight room, travel, like literally everything that happened there.”
After stops at various levels and positions throughout his coaching career, Witherspoon eventually settled into Barton Community College in Great Bend, Kansas as an assistant coach. The Cougars had a successful four years while he was there, going 93-33 throughout his time there.
The Kansas Jayhawk Community College Conference (KJCCC) is widely regarded as the top conference in Junior College basketball, and Witherspoon played a key role in helping the Cougars finish near the top.
“The [KJCCC]’s a lot like the Big 12,” Witherspoon said. “There’s no off nights.”
Witherspoon was an assistant under head coach Craig Fletchall, who spent 16 years as the head coach at Barton.
“He was a great coach, a great person who helped me a lot grow as a coach, gave me a lot of freedom to do a lot of stuff that a lot of assistant coaches don't get the chance to do,” Witherspoon said.
In the 2021 Region VI quarterfinals, Barton found themselves down by two with under one second to go in what was their season if they couldn’t make a miracle happen. However, Witherspoon saw something in the way Garden City Community College was lined up to defend the play that they could exploit.
“When they came out, and I saw they had a guy on the ball, and I told Fletchall to call another timeout,” said Witherspoon. The timeout paid off, as Witherspoon drew up a play that had their inbounder run the baseline and their best free throw shooter screen the Garden City player guarding the ball, who ran him over, sending Barton to the line for two.
They made both and won in overtime, advancing them to the semifinals, which ended up being Fletchall’s last game at Barton.
When Fletchall retired, many within the Junior College community thought Witherspoon would secure the role of head coach at Barton. In the end, it didn't work out, as they took a different route.
“I wouldn't say there was expectations to get the job because I've been in this business long enough to know a lot can happen, but I felt like I had done enough to get the job,” Witherspoon said.
Luckily for Witherspoon, there was a giant coaching carousel taking place in junior college ahead of the 2021-2022 season. Witherspoon accepted one of the best jobs outside of Kansas at Northern Oklahoma College-Tonkawa.
“In hindsight, looking back, I think it all kind of worked out the way it was supposed to, honestly so I got no hard feelings to Barton.”
The Mavericks had a great season under Witherspoon, winning a regular season conference title and advancing many players to Division one schools. One of those players, Federiko Federiko, played a major role for Pittsburg as they made their first NCAA Tournament since 2016.
“I told him I didn't know if he was high major, but I guess he proved me wrong,” Witherspoon said
After another season came and went, so did another opportunity to return to the KJCCC for a head coaching job. After head coach of Dodge City Community College, Jake Williams took a Division one assistant job at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, Witherspoon came after the new opportunity.
It wasn’t going to be easy for Witherspoon, as Dodge City had just put together a historic year that included a trip to the Elite Eight and the most wins in school history. All of those wins were spearheaded by some players that made their mark at the next level during the most recent season of college basketball.
Themus Fulks point guarded Louisiana to an undefeated home record, the Sun Belt Conference championship, and a near upset of Tennessee in the NCAA Tournament.
BJ Freeman averaged 18.2 points per game for Milwaukee as they competed for the Horizon league title throughout the year.
Nick Pringle is playing a role off the bench for Alabama, who is a title contender. He scored 19 points and nabbed 15 rebounds for the Crimson Tide in their first-round win over Texas A&M Corpus Christi.
With all of that talent getting the heck out of Dodge, it made it hard for Witherspoon to rebuild quickly. However, he has his team into the Elite Eight after an exceptional regular season.
“Our expectation was to maintain what [Williams] did,” Witherspoon said. “Our guys have done a good job.”
“I did the same thing at Tonkawa,” Witherspoon said. “I took over that program from [former head coach at NOC-Tonkawa and current Cowley College head coach] Donnie Jackson, who won back-to-back conference titles and back-to-back region titles, and so I kind of walked into a team had been successful.”
Witherspoon has seen it all throughout his playing and coaching career and continues to make his mark wherever he goes. He looks to continue to do that as Dodge City gets ready for their Elite Eight matchup with Tallahassee Community College at 6 p.m. on Thursday in Hutchinson.