. — Rick Pitino,
perhaps more than anyone else, may be the one man who understands the daunting task Kevin Willard
and the Seton Hall basketball program face over the next several years.
Pitino was Willard’s boss with the Boston Celtics for four years and his boss at Louisville for six. He has a longstanding friendship and professional relationship with Kevin’s father, Ralph, now the Director of Operations at Louisville. And Pitino advised both Kevin and the Seton Hall administration last spring when the school sought to do a 180 in the wake of firing Bobby Gonzalez
after four tumultuous seasons.
“Actually, I wanted Kevin just to stay put,” Pitino said by phone Friday, the day before Rutgers beat Seton Hall, 66-60, at The Prudential Center.
“When Kevin first approached me on it, I said to Kevin, ‘I’d rather not make that call. I’d rather you stay put. I think you have a great team at Iona and I’d rather you stay put and wait.’ My first conversation with him was discouraging.”
It was only after Pitino spoke with Patrick Hobbs
, the Seton Hall Law School dean who has been overseeing the athletic department, that Pitino came to believe his former protege would have the necessary backing if he left Iona for the Big East.
“We didn’t speak about Gonzo, we spoke about what they needed. And Kevin just fit the bill for them in every regard.”
After speaking with Hobbs, Pitino felt that “he was the right guy behind [Willard],” much in the same way Pitino had Lou Lamoriello
‘s support during his time at Providence College.
“I felt if you have the right backing, then any job’s a good job,” Pitino added.
Hobbs went ahead and followed Pitino’s advice and hired Willard last spring.
“We wanted to find somebody who we felt could take the program forward and represent the university well and bring in a new era in Seton Hall basketball,” Hobbs, who is now leading the search for a full-time athletic director to replace him, said Friday.
Yet earlier this season, Pitino told Willard it was going to take several years to dig out from the mess he inherited. He compared Willard’s situation to those at Cincinnati and Indiana, where the new coaches had to pick up the pieces from their embattled predecessors, Bob Huggins
(who was replaced on an interim
basis by Andy Kennedy
) and Kelvin Sampson
“We had a long talk when he came in here,” Pitino said, referring to Seton Hall’s Dec. 8 game against Arkansas in Louisville. “And I said Kevin, ‘Here’s what you need to do. You’re going to get your tail kicked, and you’re going to get it kicked next year. And the following year you’re going to go through the same thing that [Cincinnati head coach] Mick Cronin
went through, the same thing that Tom Crean
is going through at IU. There’s no way around it.’
“‘So you better put your blueprint together and say what you’re building is not going to come to fruition until four or five years from now and you’ve got to be ready to take it. And you’ve got to be ready to take the people who are upset about it, the alumni, the press, whatever it may be. But you’ve got to take it. There’s no shortcuts to turning this thing around.’
“There’s no way around it unless you recruit a [Jamal] Mashburn
. I got lucky, I recruited a Mashburn right away [to Kentucky] but I don’t know if they can get a Mashburn right away.”
At that point, Seton Hall was without star shooting guard Jeremy Hazell,
who broke his wrist Nov. 19 against Alabama, and junior forward Herb Pope
was just coming back after collapsing and undergoing heart surgery last spring. Then on Christmas, Hazell was the victim of a shooting during an armed robbery gone bad in Harlem.
“Then the problem Kevin had is, the players returning, one had a broken hand and has been shot,” Pitino said. “The other player was in a coma for a long period of time and the other guy [Keon Lawrence
] has had some off-the-court instances. So even the players coming back had to be straightened out.”
He added: “I’m not throwing Bobby under the bus. I just mean they had a lot of off-the-court incidents which may or may not be anybody’s fault except kids getting into trouble.”
With as many as six integral players, possibly including Pope, set to depart after this season, Willard has his hands full going forward, too.
The Pirates have three players signed for next fall, and as many as five scholarships still to give.
On top of rebuilding the program, Willard must also fulfill Hobbs’s mandate of restoring its image.
A Long Island native who’s familiar with the situations at St. John’s and Rutgers as well, Pitino said Seton Hall needs to follow the path
has taken in recruiting at St. John’s.
“It’s very similar to what St. John’s is doing because the greater metropolitan is not interested in those schools right now so they’ve got to do exactly what St. John’s is doing,” he said.
“The thing that’s so attractive about St. John’s is that you can get a kid from California, you can get a kid from a junior college in Kansas to come to New York and play at Madison Square Garden. But you can’t necessarily get the great young player to stay at home. So Lavin went out and did that.
“And the Rutgers coach [
] is doing it [recruiting successfully] because Rutgers has a very attractive situation. But Seton Hall’s a different animal. Like St. John’s, it’s different than Rutgers. It’s totally different. So Seton Hall has got to go out elsewhere and attract. And then when they turn it around, then they can probably recruit locally. So I think they gotta go outside before they go inside.”
Left unsaid, of course, is that Pitino and other Big East coaches (to say nothing of Kentucky’s
) have long benefitted from the lack of success of the New York-area teams.
can swoop in and take the top players from New York and New Jersey and have been doing so for years.
Still, even though he’s in the unique position of being a rival of, as well as advisor to, Seton Hall, Pitino sounds like he genuinely wants to see things go well for Willard, Rice and Lavin so that New York-area college basketball — now enjoying something of a revival with
and the Knicks — can turn around, too.
Another great irony here is that Iona is now benefitting from the stellar play of
, a former Gonzalez recruit who never suited up at Seton Hall because of NCAA Clearinghouse issues.
Asked if he thinks Willard regrets leaving Iona for Seton Hall, Pitino said, “I think anybody would regret it. It’s almost like, when I took over a 15-win team with the Celtics and you’re leaving a national championship behind [at Kentucky], every tough day you have and you see Iona having a great season, you feel that you don’t regret it.
“But you say, ‘Boy, this is a pretty tough road.'”
A road that stretches out several years ahead.