Kevin Willard was firmly on hot seat after a tumultuous fifth year at Seton Hall. Three years and a Big East championship later, an upward rise has changed not only his job security, but his approach as well. (Photo by Seton Hall University Athletics)
NEW YORK -- Kevin Willard remembers when it almost came crashing down.
A second-half swoon to conclude the 2014-15 season turned a Top 25 ranking and promise of postseason play into what could have been, losses in nine of Seton Hall's last ten games and alleged locker room friction that led to then-sophomore guard Jaren Sina departing the program serving as a bitter memento of what was initially heralded as a new era in South Orange, as a five-pronged freshman class led by Brooklyn's Isaiah Whitehead was supposed to take the Pirates to greater heights. Instead, it placed Willard; who at that point had only one postseason appearance on his ledger since replacing Bobby Gonzalez in 2010, squarely on the hot seat in regard to his future on the sidelines.
"Going into my fifth year, I pretty much knew I was getting fired if I didn't win," he revealed at Wednesday's Big East Conference media day, held on the Madison Square Garden floor in which his career-defining triumph; Seton Hall's 2016 conference championship victory, took place. "Going into year five, I had sat down with my AD (Pat Lyons), and I agreed with him. I told him, 'you've given me enough time. It's either we get it done or you get rid of me,' and I agreed with him."
The determination to succeed at the highest level in college basketball is a slippery slope to navigate, no matter your credentials as a coach. For Willard, who learned from a Hall of Fame mentor in Rick Pitino before setting out on his own a decade ago at Iona, which led him to Seton Hall, the trademark intensity displayed by his former boss was on full display, exponentially manifesting itself in how he approached both his players and even menial decisions not related to the hardwood.
"It goes to your practice plan, it goes to if I don't shave, if I wear a red tie and not a blue tie," he divulged, sharing the lengths to which his drive to win would go. "You get to that point where -- my kids were nine and seven at the time, and you tell your kids, 'hey, we're moving' -- you get to that point and it's kind of weird. Once you realize, 'hey, life goes on, you're going be somewhere else next year, you're going to be doing something different,' it's a weird feeling."
Willard's players made sure their coach would not be done in by his own demons. A non-conference season highlighted by a thrilling overtime win over Wichita State was the precursor to a Big East slate that saw a resurgent Pirate squad win nine of its last eleven regular season contests to enter the Garden and the Big East tournament as a legitimate threat to league favorite Villanova. Authoritative and businesslike takedowns of Creighton and Xavier in the first two rounds, followed by an epic title win over Villanova, all paced by Whitehead running the offense from the point guard spot while Khadeen Carrington broke out in the backcourt and Angel Delgado dominated down low. And despite a crushing NCAA Tournament loss to Gonzaga, the deep drive into March changed the narrative of not only the recent fortunes of the program, but also of its embattled head coach, who gained vindication in a vow he made to Lyons before the season even began.
"I had confidence in that group, and that's what I told him more than anything," said Willard. "I said, 'Pat, we came real close this year, and obviously it was a debacle the way it ended. I'm not gonna deny that.' But I said this group is going to do something special if you stick with us, and to his credit, he saw it too where I think a lot of athletic directors might not have seen it. I'm not sure if he believed in me or he believed in this group, but he saw the same thing I saw, and that doesn't always happen."
"When you don't have that pressure on you, and you can just coach your team and have fun coaching your team, it's amazing, the difference in how much a better coach you are," Willard; now a seasoned veteran entering his eighth year at the helm of the Pirates, albeit still only 42 years of age, cheerfully proclaimed. "As my wife said, she enjoyed that year more than anything because she thought I was a better husband, a better father and a better coach because I didn't have the pressure of saying, 'well, I have to get this done someway, somehow.' I just went out there and I just concentrated on coaching my team the best I could and having fun with this team. When you do that as a coach, your players don't feel the pressure. They don't really worry about all the stuff that you're going through, and I think you become a better coach."
The weight of the world seemingly lifted after breaking through and reaching the NCAA Tournament, then following up with a second consecutive berth in the field of 68 this past March, Willard has undergone an evolution in not only the way he approaches a game, but also his demeanor as well. Gone is the tense scowl, for the most part, replaced by a much steadier outlook and more placid sense of direction that can be traced back to the revelatory moment he had in the summer of 2015.
"I think my guys will say that too," he said when asked if he coaches differently than he did at the start of his tenure at Seton Hall. "I haven't yelled at this group since their sophomore year. Practices are fun. I enjoy it so much more now that I've taken the pressure of 'I'm gonna get fired' -- when you have that on you, I just don't think you coach -- I don't think you do anything good."
"When you win a championship on this floor and you're walking off, the pressure is still there," he cautioned, "but you look at it differently. I look at coaching much differently now. I said to myself, 'why was I able to be a better coach?' And I realized that the pressure I put on myself, I was putting on my players, so I don't put that pressure on myself anymore because I don't want them to have that pressure. I want them to enjoy playing for me and I want to enjoy coaching them."