In the Big East, basketball rules.
At Seton Hall, the same theme is followed. Basketball is the main draw, and the men’s and women’s coaches are at the center of the Hall’s biggest attraction.
Women’s coach Tony Bozzella – 2014 Big East Coach of the Year – and men’s coach Kevin Willard understand their importance to the school. When basketball season rolls around in South Orange, all eyes turn toward these two gentlemen. And for them, being in their positions is a dream come true.
“You never think you’re going to get the job of a lifetime; this is the job I dreamed about,” Bozzella, who graduated from SHU in 1989, said at Big East Media Day. “Some people dream to be the head coach of Notre Dame, some people dream of being the head coach at UConn – I dreamed of being the head coach at Seton Hall.”
Willard shares a similar sentiment as his coaching counterpart.
“It’s an honor and privilege to be the head coach at Seton Hall,” Willard said. “We have a tremendous institution, and we feel we’re on a good uptick, and that makes it that much better.”
When it comes to personality, Willard and Bozzella might as well be night and day.
Bozzella is full of energy, jumping around on the sidelines at games, yelling until he is red in the face.
Willard is conservative, calm and stoic, never tipping his hand one way or another.
Even with their different personalities and varying ways of handling their teams, Willard and Bozzella hold a strong working relationship and friendship. Willard noted that plenty of times “men’s and women’s coaches don’t get along very well for different reasons” but with him and Bozzella it is different.
“I’m very lucky to not only have a great coach as the women’s coach, but to have a great friend,” Willard said.
When it came down to learning the ropes his first year at the Hall, Bozzella mentioned Willard as a big help to his success, along with the same feeling of friendship Willard expressed.
“I had a lot of struggles my first year, especially at Seton Hall,” Bozzella said. “And he (Willard) did a great job with helping me get through it, talking to me about a lot of things. He’s just a really smart, dedicated basketball coach, who I’m proud to call a friend.”
The main goal for both basketball teams each season is to make the NCAA Tournament. Last season, Bozzella and the women did just that – the program’s first appearance since 1995.
Willard and the men’s squad was a different story. After getting off to a 12-3 start and beating two of the nation’s top-15 teams by Jan. 10 of last season, the team floundered and the Pirates lost 11 of their last 14 games to dismiss any notion of an invitation to the Big Dance.
To correct his team’s woes, Willard knows what his group of players – led by sophomore Isaiah Whitehead – needs to do to get be able to lace up their dancing shoes in March.
“Stay focused and play with the same energy that they did up until the middle of January last year.” Willard said.
Whitehead mentioned a difference in Willard toward him this year as opposed to last season.
“He doesn’t take anything for granted; he’s on you,” Whitehead said. “If you turn the ball over, he’s on you. Don’t run back on defense? He’s on you. It’s been tough, but it’s going to pay off.”
For Bozzella’s women, he knows they have to work harder than ever to return to March for some dancing. And he believes they have.
“You know last year we could get away with having a couple bad practices here and there,” Bozzella said. “In fact, our first three practices last year were terrible. This year’s team has really exceeded that team’s work ethic, it’s much better.”
As Seton Hall basketball gets ready to bounce into the 2015 season, all eyes will be on the focus and intensity of Willard and Bozzella as they look to deliver a few more NCAA Tournament appearances to their fans.
Dennis Chambers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @DennisChambers_.