SOUTH ORANGE, N.J. – The signs in the parking garage announced the “Dawn of a New era”. The sun, after days of rain, slightly broke through on the campus of Seton Hall University. It was probably the “basketball Gods” smiling down on Walsh Gymnasium as two new coaches were being introduced. Anne Donovan and Kevin Willard would assume the respective positions of women’s and men’s basketball coach at the Big East school.
Donovan first thanked Phyllis Magina (seated near Donovan), who resigned after 25 years at the helm to take another position in the athletic department, for her years of outstanding service. A member of a number of halls of fame, including the one in Springfield, Donovan asked, “Who is watching the NCAA women’s tournament?” Hands raised. “are you tired of UConn blowing everyone out? I am.” Applause followed.
Donovan later said she wasn’t looking for bulletin board material in Storrs. “I have the utmost respect for UConn and what Geno Auriemma has done,“ she said. “But they give us all something to shoot for. Not every great player can go to UConn. We are going to try to get a few of those here to build something special.”
Willard will turn 35 on April 6th. In coaching experience he has a resume the envy of some mentors ten years older. Willard was an assistant with the Boston Celtics and Louisville before taking the reins at Iona three years ago. He came in to a program that won two games the year before and left it a 21-game winner with talent to make a run at a MAAC title next winter. Willard comes from solid coaching lines, as his dad Ralph is now an assistant at Louisville and the Cardinal mentor Rick Pitino was Kevin’s boss in Boston and Louisville. Pitino called Seton Hall Law School Dean Patrick Hobbs (who headed the search) and AD Joe Quinlan with a resounding endorsement.
Hobbs and Quinlan both spoke of passion and character. The latter quality is most important after the turbulent days of Bobby Gonzalez. In Willard they have both and a great work ethic.
Willard spoke of playing an “attractive high-energy style of basketball” – one that should be entertaining for fans and enticing to recruits. While the offense will entertain, defense is the priority. “It all starts with defense,” Willard said, “and we will defend hard every possession.” He is bringing his Iona staff, which includes former Hall star Shaheen Holloway, very popular with Hall faithful and well-respected and knowledgeable in area recruiting circles. Willard looks to bring on former players Marcus Toney-El and Grant Billmeier (both were in attendance) in an assisting capacity.
On the possibility of losing Herb Pope, Jeff Robinson and Jeremy Hazell, who all recently cited an intention to enter the NBA Draft , Willard brought the house down saying, “this might be the first program that didn’t win the national title but loses three players to the draft.” On a serious note, Willard said he and his staff will assist the three who intend to go pro but welcome them back into the program should they have a change of heart.
Willard knows there is a great deal of work ahead but is excited. “Growing up in Long Island I followed Syracuse, St. John’s and Seton Hall,” he said. “When the offer came, I called my wife and said ‘looks like we are going to New Jersey.’ ” He toured the Prudential Center with Quinlan and Hobbs and had to hide his excitement. “I felt like a kid in a toy store looking at that facility,” he said. School President Monsignor Sheeran, Hobbs and Quinlan all felt a similar emotion regarding their two hires. “We are in it to win championships,” Hobbs said. To which Willard said, “See those (championship) banners hanging in the rafters? We are out to add some more.”
The press conference in Walsh was open to the public. Besides media, alums and notables in the Hall community, students were encouraged to come. Even five members of the Seton Hall cheer squad showed up in uniform to pledge support.
Willard and Donovan , both personable and media friendly, not only enthusiastically greeted media members they knew but took the time to learn the names and affiliation of members of the press they were meeting for the initial time. In all, it was a day that left those in attendance impressed and certain better days are ahead in South Orange.
At Seton Hall, how could the sun not shine brightly on a day like that ?