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Tuesday, August 24, 2010
The Hall takes a 180 with Kevin Willard

By Dana O'Neil
ESPN.com

Throughout the course of a 30-minute interview, Seton Hall athletic director Joe Quinlan kept returning to the same word to describe his new basketball coach, Kevin Willard.

Thoughtful.

Not thoughtful as in the kind of guy who welcomes neighbors with a basket of hot-out-of-the-oven muffins (though he might do that and we just don't know it).

Thoughtful as in deliberate, conscientious, efficient. He gives a lot of thought to something before he acts.

Kevin Willard
Willard, seen here with his son Colin, has been around the game of basketball his entire life.

Which is to say he doesn't act rashly or fly off the handle.

Which is to say what no one at Seton Hall will flat-out say: Kevin Willard is not the combustible Bobby Gonzalez.

"Kevin knows what he wants to do and he knows what needs to be done,'' Quinlan said. "He's kind of an old-school guy in that he believes in the notion that students need to go to school and that people need to conduct themselves in ways that represent their university appropriately.''

For certain, the 2009-10 season made alums feel like sweatshirt-wearing Hester Prynnes. From start to finish -- from Keon Lawrence's arrest for driving the wrong way on the Garden State Parkway four days before the Pirates' first game to Herb Pope's ejection after a below-the-belt elbow in the Hall's finale in the NIT -- Seton Hall's season was pockmarked with embarrassment.

But those publicized problems -- as well as former player Robert Mitchell's indictment after robbing eight fellow students at gunpoint one day after he was kicked off the team in March -- turned the job search into a tricky tightrope for those doing the hiring, as well as for the hired.

Seton Hall could ill-afford to hire another fire-cracking hothead, but neither could the school bring in a milquetoast who would be chewed up and spit out by his Big East competitors.

Willard comes with a coaching pedigree and a reputation as a fierce but composed competitor. He grew up traveling the college basketball circuit with his father, Ralph, from the high school circuit on Long Island to the New York Knicks' bench, and spent six years at Louisville as an assistant before landing as head coach at Iona.

In only three years at the New Rochelle school, he turned the Gaels from putrid to player. Before he arrived, Iona won two games. Last season, the Gaels won 21.

"When I met with Seton Hall, we talked a lot about behavior, but we also talked about winning and losing,'' Willard said. "I think you can have both. You can have a program you can be proud of and also have success. That's what our goal is.''

But the need for due diligence was as critical for Willard as it was for Seton Hall. Had he continued to turn things around at Iona, he would have become that most desirable commodity in college basketball -- the hot, young coach on the rise.

He's only 34. The opportunity train hadn't exactly passed him by, people reminded him.

"More people told me not to take this job than to take it,'' Willard admitted.

Even his father -- who from his perch as associate head coach at fellow Big East member Louisville had a bird's eye view of the Pirates' implosion -- worried.

"Of course you do, when you see a lot of things happening and a lot of negatives in terms of publicity,'' Ralph Willard said. "But I also know the reality of this profession is, you either get an opportunity because someone has done a great job or because someone hasn't done a good job.''

Frankly, Ralph Willard never wanted his son to be a coach. In his own 30-plus years on the job, he's seen the changes in the profession -- changes not for the better -- and wished his youngest son had found a different path.

He also knew that dream had no chance.

"When I was at Western Kentucky and Kevin was a freshman, he wasn't playing much,'' Ralph Willard said. "We'd have a game coming up and I'd go looking for the films and they'd be gone. I'd ask everyone, 'Where the heck are they?' And they'd all tell me, 'Go check with Kevin.' I'd go to the dorms and he'd be there watching them, telling me what we needed to do.''

And so when there was a call from Seton Hall, a mess of a program but still a program in the Big East, the storybook conference from Willard's Long Island-based youth, there was no way he could say no.

Kevin Willard
Iona was coming off a 2-28 season when Willard arrived. Last season, the Gaels were 21-10 and finished third (12-6) in the MAAC.

He knew what he was getting into. Iona is just 37 miles from South Orange and the coaching profession is nothing if not a gossip-fest to rival that of the best hen party. He heard all the rumors about the Hall's players, how much trouble they were -- even the ones that were coming back.

Once Willard agreed to come to the Hall, however, he also made a vow to himself.

"I wanted to meet these kids and not prejudge them whatsoever,'' he said. "I wanted to form my own opinions.''

Willard said he has been pleasantly surprised. He has found players who are not suspicious or distrusting, but rather eager to prove people wrong. The Pirates, Willard said, were more shell-shocked by the past year than anyone (a year that keeps on giving with the bizarre news that Gonzalez had been arrested and charged with shoplifting a man purse) and welcomed the clean slate.

But neither is Willard na´ve. He has not handed over his trust on a silver platter, nor does he expect his players to.

"I told them that I didn't expect them to jump right into me, that I had to show who I was to them and gain their trust,'' he said. "It didn't happen in the first week or the first month, but it's happening. And it's a two-way street. They know that. So far they've earned my trust and I think I've earned them, but we have to keep working on that."

The fact is, Gonzalez might have left behind an emotional tempest, but he didn't exactly leave behind a bare cupboard. Seton Hall has players. The Pirates return their top four leading scorers, including Jeremy Hazell. And if Pope can return to full strength after an undisclosed offseason illness, they also will have one of the fiercest rebounders in the country on the floor. Plus they add Ole Miss guard Eniel Polynice, who thanks to an NCAA waiver will enroll in graduate school and be eligible to play immediately.

But no one ever wondered if the Pirates could play. They finished a more than respectable 19-13 and 9-9 in the Big East last season and might have been in the NCAA tournament conversation were it not for a loss to Notre Dame in the second round of the Big East tourney.

People wondered if the Pirates, under the stewardship of an emotional coach who attracted trouble better than Lindsay Lohan, could behave.

And Willard knows the skeptics still will wonder this year. They'll interpret every hard foul and scowl through the prism of last season.

"We're going to have a couple of hiccups; every team does,'' he said. "Will it be blown out of proportion for us? Maybe so. Our mentality right now is to understand what people are saying and thinking about us and prove as a team and as individuals that they're wrong about us.''

Asked if he intends to use that as his team's motto -- a sort of us against the world -- the thoughtful coach gave the notion a thought.

"No. For starters, I'm not a rah-rah guy,'' he said. "But we also want to play well and we want to win. We're playing hoops. That's it.''

A simple thought for a program in need of simplicity.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.