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It’s that time on the college basketball calendar when power conference schools that have fallen on hard times like to make big, splashy hires by bringing in coaches that have just led mid-major programs to an upset or something greater on national television during March Madness. This is a highly likely scenario for Seton Hall, sometime in the next week or two, as the Pirates seem a virtual lock to land St. Peter’s men’s basketball head coach (and former Seton Hall point guard) Shaheen Holloway, who was endorsed for the job by outgoing head coach Kevin Willard.
Of course, that vacancy only exists because Willard left a job in which he’d been entrenched for 12 years to become the new head men’s basketball coach at the University of Maryland, where he was introduced Tuesday night. And Maryland’s selection of Willard means the Terrapins made a quieter and less spectacular decision, opting for neither the latest, hottest name, nor for Rick Pitino, but for a disciple from Pitino’s coaching tree and for the kind of slow and steady program builder who took Seton Hall to the NCAA tournament in five of the last six seasons.
For a school with Maryland’s pedigree, and, perhaps more importantly, its expectations, this line from Maryland athletic director Damon Evans on Tuesday night at Xfinity Center stood out: “From the very beginning of our search for a new men’s head basketball coach, Kevin Willard was at the top of our list.”
There are more obvious reasons for this, the most glaring in the media packet of Willard’s accomplishments being his 11 wins (five on the road) against Big Ten opponents since the 2014-15 season, the year Maryland migrated from the ACC. That’s the most for any coach outside the conference.
But why else?
“When we made the change, the great thing about that was it gave me a long runway,” Evans tells City Paper. “I went back and looked at my notes and I had Willard at the top. And I was going through and scouring the country, but everything brought me back to him. I probably watched him play at least 10 to 12 times, then I had someone in our department run the data analytics on a whole group of coaches for them … When I peeled back that onion, it was just so obvious to me that he was the right guy. And I’m excited that we were able to zero in on the guy that we wanted and not have to go below that.”
The other surprising revelation from Tuesday’s introductory press conference came from Willard himself, who said he was offered four other jobs this year, but chose Maryland.
“I’m not gonna say you don’t have a cause for pause, because I knew that those other jobs were coming after him,” Evans says.
It doesn’t require high-level detective work, perusing the landscape of job vacancies over the last couple weeks, to imagine where those offers were coming from. While there are only so many opportunities that would have been a step up from Seton Hall, the SEC alone has seen turnover at Florida, Georgia, LSU, Mississippi State, and Missouri all in the last two weeks.
“But that was a testament,” Evans says. “I wasn’t surprised. They should. The reason they were coming after him, everyone would like to get that proven commodity at this level. That doesn’t happen a majority of the time.”
Several of those schools went the mid-major route, with LSU poaching Mike White from Murray State, Mississippi State pulling Chris Jans from New Mexico State, and Missouri getting Dennis Gates from Cleveland State.
As for Willard’s own timing in coming to Maryland, with one son entering 9th grade and the other entering 10th, this was the only year he said he felt comfortable uprooting his family. Willard will also benefit from the $40 million Barry P. Gossett Performance Center, which was announced Tuesday night and has an expected completion date in the summer of 2024. And he got a hefty raise.
Willard’s $4.4 million annual salary not only makes him the highest-paid public employee in the state, it’s a notable bump from the less-than-$3 million he was reported to be making at Seton Hall, as well as from the just-over-$3 million that former Terps head coach Mark Turgeon was making. But the job also comes with an elevated prestige.
“This is a top 10 job in college basketball, hands down,” he said. “I would not have moved my family and left a place that I loved very dearly if this was not a place that I thought we should be winning national championships.”
While that line drew applause from the VIPs on hand courtside at Xfinity Center, including head football coach Mike Locksley and Under Armour founder Kevin Plank, Willard’s attempts at pandering to the fan base may have come up a little short. He recalled having watched Joe Smith and Steve Francis play together for the Terps in 1999 while working for the Boston Celtics. The problem with that is that Smith was drafted into the NBA in 1995, four years earlier, and two years before Willard even worked for the Celtics. Willard also called 2002 national championship-leading guard Juan Dixon, “Juwan,” which will earn him no favor among the die-hards.
While Willard’s regular season success in Newark has been impressive, he’s won just one game in five trips to the Big Dance, a 94-83 victory over No. 9 N.C. State before a four-point loss to top-seeded Kansas in 2018. His Pirates were drubbed, 69-42, by Texas Christian University last Friday in another matchup between the eighth and ninth seeds, to end their season. Needless to say, the expectations in College Park extend beyond simply hearing your name called on Selection Sunday.
Willard was visibly emotional when thanking Seton Hall, his voice cracking multiple times. In the kind of news that often goes overlooked at these types of events, Willard noted that he had graduated all his players in his time at Seton Hall. His teams also consistently posted high APR scores among the top in the conference.
After entering this season ranked, Maryland stumbled out of the gate and Turgeon stepped down on Dec. 3 after just eight games, following back-to-back losses. The Terps scuffled to a 15-17 finish, Maryland’s first losing season since 1992-93. That down year doesn’t mean the pressure to win won’t be on pretty much immediately, though.
“My biggest focus right now is just to see where everybody’s heads are at, get behind that, and then just kind of react to that,” Willard said.
That is, after they all come back from spring break. So, what does it take to build a culture of winning? What’s step one, when the team takes the floor for its first practice next Tuesday?
“I’ll take some advice, if you want it,” Willard joked. “I need to get them here and start working with them. They have to see that I’m buying into them as much as I need them to buy into me. That’s kind of what I’m all about.”