When they set out on their search for Seton Hall's new men's basketball coach, Pat Hobbs and Joe Quinlan had mixed thoughts of who the team's new leading man should be.
They knew their direction and their purpose, but there were just too many names. In the days following Bobby Gonzalez's less than peaceful ousting, several prominent coaching names rose to the surface. There was Fran McCaffery, the older, wiser coach from Siena; the fiery Mike Rice, whose Robert Morris squad nearly toppled Villanova in overtime during the first round of the NCAA Tournament that year; Cornell's Steve Donahue whose 12 seeded Big Red reached the Sweet Sixteen before losing to Kentucky; Joe Dooley, an assistant coach under Bill Self at Kansas who lived in West Orange, NJ; and dark horses, Ed Cooley from Fairfield, Chris Mooney from Richmond, Mike Lonergan from Vermont, and former Pirate star Adrien Griffin.
The list, which now appeared longer than the seemingly unending sheet of criminal charges racked up by Pirate players and coaches in 2010, was finished off by another unusual dark horse in Kevin Willard.
Willard served as an assistant coach under Rick Pitino at Louisville and is the son of Ralph Willard, a current assistant coach and long time friend of Pitino and former head coach of Pittsburgh, Holy Cross, and Western Kentucky. Though Kevin was on the list, he was more a peripheral candidate to many in the media at this point and as a result, fiery, more popular coaches such as McCaffery and Rice were in the forefront of Seton Hall's search.
It wasn't until Pat Hobbs and Joe Quinlan sat down with Willard one particular night in Newark's Maize Restaurant that they knew they had their man.
As legend has it, after all interviews had taken place and McCaffery had accepted the job at Iowa, Seton Hall was down to two choices: Kevin Willard and Steve Donahue. After a late night phone call to Hobbs during which Willard confidently told the Dean of Seton Hall's Law School he wanted to accept the position, Seton Hall had their man.
Fast forward to this year's basketball season.
The Pirates begin the year 2-1 before losing Jeremy Hazell to injury, and that is where a majority of the Pirates' problems begin to occur. For the stretch of 13 games without the star Senior, the team looked abysmal, failing to close out games and put the ball through the rim. Defense, which Willard said before the season began would be a focus, looked good but not good enough to finish out games.
Fast forward, again, to the present day.
Fans are, as expected, upset with the 13-17 regular season record accumulated by the Pirates. The team finishes the season with an 1-4 record against ranked opponents at home, four of which were were games lost by a margin of five points or less and where the Pirates had a lead of seven points or more with under five minutes to play. Seton Hall's calling card this year was simple: they could not close out games.
As a broadcaster and staff member of WSOU, I have had to deal with angry fans all year long. The majority of our angry callers were focused on complaining about Kevin Willard which is both understandable and completely ludicrous. For fans in every sport, a new coach is the easiest scapegoat. He's new to the program, the team is still losing, and nothing seems to be getting better, right? So it must be his fault. The number of "why don't we have Steve Lavin or Mike Rice" rants from callers makes my head spin like a top, and more times than not they hang up still heated and ready to complain following the next game anyway. My job as the Pirates' unofficial therapist doesn't seem to suit me too well.
My belief is simple and my opinion is heartfelt: be patient, Pirate fans.
Stop for a moment and think the situation through. The team finished four games below .500, and on the surface this will go down as just another losing season. In the grand scheme of things, however, this season was more positive than I think I had ever imagined.
On a team where loyalty was everything, Kevin Willard has never once backed down from any of his proposals. When the fans hated switching to a halfcourt offense from Bobby Gonzalez's run-and-gun style, Willard ignored the masses. When Keon Lawrence and Jamel Jackson had created enough of a ripple to disturb the team morale with a simple curfew breaking, Willard sent them packing. While Bobby Gonzalez never showed his sour face on the beautiful South Orange campus in his entire tenure, Kevin Willard attended volleyball games and women's basketball games regularly. Kevin Willard's car is the first one in the parking lot behind Walsh Gym and one of the last to leave, and I can say that from seeing it first hand. His smile is sincere and his purpose is driven.
When Kevin Willard stood up on the mini platform in front of the Boosters Club during their annual dinner this past Saturday to take questions, his voice was steady.
"What do you think of this year's performance overall," asked one booster from the back of the room.
Willard looked down at the floor and then confidently looked back at the crowd.
"I like to call our society today the 'Microwave Society'," said Willard with a half smile. "Everybody wants instant results. When you throw something in the microwave, it comes out a lot quicker than when you cook it on a barbecue or in an oven. But if you've ever eaten a steak after putting it in the microwave for ten minutes, you know it's not as good as when you cook it on the barbecue."
The reaction from the crowd was mostly upbeat laughter, however his point resonated throughout the room.
"We know that the record isn't where we want to be right now," Willard continued, "but success doesn't happen overnight. With time, I know that we can bring this program to the top of the Big East where it belongs."
As I canvased the room, which was now overcome by an eruption of applause, I saw nothing but hopeful smiles from tables of fans who all wanted one thing: to see this program succeed.
It wasn't until Jeremy Hazell's mother, Debbie, stepped up to the microphone that I realized the real impact Kevin Willard had on this team. After sharing a rather humorous anecdote from Jeremy's childhood when, according to her, he was a terrible basketball player and a great baseball player, she closed her speech with a few very touching words.
"I had never been on a plane before, never, and here I am on a plane to St. Thomas [Virgin Islands] looking out the window at all the clouds about to go see my son play basketball," she said before glancing over to Kevin Willard, her right index finger extended towards him. "And for you, I don't know how much I can thank you for all you did for Jeremy and for the team. I thank you so much. And I'm proud of my Jeremy."
As she ended her speech, her voice cracking slightly, Kevin Willard pursed his lips and nodded a bit as if trying to hold back his emotions.
Looking back on a season marred by issues both on and off the court, it is important to take into account the truly difficult mess that Kevin Willard was hired to clean up. Let's not forget that it took P.J. Carlesimo seven years to take his Pirate team to the NCAA Finals after inheriting the broken pieces in 1982, and he too had to dodge criticism from loyal, overbearing fans.
Many people have underestimated the task he was given last March and some have even ridiculously suggested his job may be in jeopardy, however no matter what criticism falls upon the shoulders of the Huntington, N.Y. native, one thing is for sure: it's time to unplug the microwave and throw it in the garbage, because Kevin Willard is ready to take this program to new heights.
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