In becoming the basketball coach at Seton Hall, Kevin Willard has taken on two jobs.
The first is to guide the Pirates to the next level in the Big East and land an NCAA tournament berth.
The second might be even more important: Willard must restore peace to the program after a number of controversies led to the firing of Bobby Gonzalez. The 34-year-old Willard was officially announced as Seton Hall’s new basketball coach on Monday, a little less than two weeks after Gonzalez was dismissed.
Contract terms were not disclosed.
The university also confirmed on Monday that Anne Donovan would be leaving the New York Liberty of the WNBA after this season to take over the Pirates’ women’s basketball program. She will replace Phyllis Mangina, who resigned after 25 years.
Patrick Hobbs, the law school dean who has overseeing the schools athletics department since July, said that Willard was the school’s top choice even though there were indications that Fran McCaffrey of Siena was the frontrunner until accepting a job at Iowa.
"This is a historic moment for Seton Hall University,” Hobbs said. "Kevin Willard was our first choice and he is the right man to lead our men’s program. On the same day to welcome Hall of Fame legend Anne Donovan to lead our women makes this one of the great days in Seton Hall athletics history.”
Willard spent the past three years at Iona, rebuilding a program that won just two games in 2006-07. His team won 12 games in his first season and the 21 wins this past season earned him Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference coach of the year honors.
"I’m really excited about this opportunity,” Willard said. "It has been a goal of mine for a long time to have the opportunity to coach in the Big East. It’s an honor, considering the caliber of coaches in this conference. There is a great challenge ahead of us, but my staff and I are really looking forward to hitting the ground running and integrating ourselves into the Seton Hall University community.”
Willard may face another rebuilding project, even though the Pirates are coming off a 19-win season.
Power forward Jeff Robinson announced last week that he will leave early to enter the NBA draft and espn.com reported Monday that Herb Pope, one of the conference’s top rebounders, has told a close family adviser that he also will declare for the NBA draft.
Robinson has not hired an agent, so there is an outside chance he might return.
Seton Hall spokesman Matt Sweeney said that Pope, who started all 32 games, has not informed the university of his intentions.
Pope, who averaged 11.5 points and 10.7 rebounds, was ejected from the Pirates’ first-round NIT game for hitting a Texas Tech player below the belt.
The following day, the fiery Gonzalez was fired.
Willard’s style of play is similar to Gonzalez in that he favors up tempo, aggressive play with an emphasis on having fun playing the game.
Gonzalez’s last year was beset by seven technical fouls on the court and by player problems off it.
Forward Robert Mitchell was kicked off the team days before the NIT game, the only postseason game that the Pirates played under Gonzalez.
Mitchell was charged the same week with robbing eight people at gunpoint in South Orange. He pleaded not guilty.
A week before this season started, transfer guard Keon Lawrence was involved in a traffic accident on the Garden State Parkway in which he was driving in the wrong direction, seriously injuring the driver of the other vehicle.
Lawrence was charged with assault by auto and driving with a suspended license, and was suspended for the first eight games of the season.
Athletic director Joe Quinlan said Willard’s arrival marks a new beginning for the program.
"He is a man of great character and integrity and one who will provide exemplary leadership to our student-athletes,” Quinlan said.
Prior to Iona, Willard served the previous six seasons as an assistant at Louisville under Rick Pitino. He also worked four years with Pitino with the Boston Celtics.
Willard played his freshman year at Western Kentucky before transferring to Pittsburgh for his final three years.
Monsignor Robert Sheeran, the university’s president, called Willard and Donovan remarkable head coaches.
"Our men’s and women’s basketball programs are entering a new era, which will bring great student-athletes and renewed winning traditions to the university,” he said. "In hiring these outstanding coaches, the university has demonstrated our commitment to competing with the best of the best in the toughest conference in the country, the Big East.”