NEW YORK—On the brink of pissing away a million-dollar opportunity at Seton Hall, Kevin Willard choreographed the Pirates’ first Big Dance appearance in a decade by dancing with NCAA hiring policies.
“The former bottom feeding schools have taken great advantage of the conferences realignment,” said an ex-Big East coach on the heels of Seton Hall’s Big East title win over Villanova.
After Seton Hall beat Villanova in Saturday’s Big East Championship, the Pirates nabbed just their fourth NCAA tournament birth since coach P.J Carlesimo left South Orange for the Portland Trailblazers in 1994. Suggesting that Seton Hall’s first league title in 23 years stems from conference realignment alone reads as an overstatement.
Few schools with a rich hoops tradition give the head coach a six-year NCAA tourney timetable. But when Seton Hall waited this long for P.J. Carlesimo, the school reached six dances over the next seven seasons, including a one-point national title loss in 1989. Perhaps this trajectory influenced Seton Hall’s decision to retain head coach Kevin Willard for a sixth season. His head rested on a guillotine after losing twelve of his final sixteen games one year ago.
Although Seton Hall athletic director Pat Lyons gave his coach what looked like one final vote of confidence last spring, Kevin Willard really saved his job during the summer of 2014, when he hired a high school coach.
Dwayne “Tiny” Morton built a PSAL dynasty at Abe Lincoln High School before “officially” joining the Seton Hall staff in September 2014. After delivering Lincoln stars Isaiah Whitehead and Desi Rodriguez, Morton spent one season as an assistant coach on Willard’s staff. While some may find the hiring practice shady, “delivering players” outlines the job description of every assistant coach in the country. Moreover, one year with “Tiny” hit big.
Whitehead finished second in the conference in scoring and third in assists, while Rodriguez added 13.2 points and 5.5 rebounds per game. While not as glaringly obvious that the high school coach recruited the Lincoln duo, according to Seton Hall beat writers, Morton “mentored” the Pirates’ second leading scorer, Khadeen Carrington (Bishop Loughlin).
That execution and ball movement (13 of the top 20 team assist leaders in NCAA are low and mid majors schools) deteriorates when one watches power conference basketball refutes any perception that seven-figure salaried head coaches alone hold the magic wand for winning. But sports media personalities often hide winning narratives behind templates the public willingly accepts.
“Willard has a special bond with this team, mainly because the five starting sophomores — Isaiah Whitehead, Khadeen Carrington, Ismael Sanogo, Desi Rodriguez and Angel Delgado — many of them highly rated prospects, chose him and Seton Hall at a time few would. They had growing pains last year, plenty of them, but spent the entire summer working together, starting to do so three days after the season concluded,” the New York Post opined on March 10th.
Bonds, growth, hard work—all of it matters. But everyone looks like Wooden when Alcindor jumps center. Nobody wins without players. Three dynamic wings elevated Seton Hall from Big East cellar dweller to league champion. In college hoops the kids rarely receive credit deserved. Praise almost always fixates on the adults. In Willard’s case, some of it should.
When Seton Hall secured their first automatic NCAA berth in 22 years, Kevin Willard shed a perceived image that he cut the line in Division 1 coaching for being Ralph Willard’s son. The younger Willard now sits comfortably in an elite tax bracket that fathers hope for their sons because he beat the system at its own game. Kevin Willard exploited the NCAA’s rule permitting high school coaches in Division 1 road spots in exchange for stud players.
Struggling head coaches should take note on how the rich stayed rich at Seton Hall.