Those were the words Maria Bozzella heard through her phone on Monday, March 25, 2013, while she sat at the bank she worked for in Long Island, N.Y. On the other end of the phone call was her husband, Tony Bozzella.
Emotions rushed through Maria, and she knew what her husband was trying to tell her.
“Oh my god,” she said. “They offered it?”
“Yeah,” Bozzella replied.
What the two were talking about was the dream job Bozzella had long been waiting to accept: a return home to his alma mater, Seton Hall. Bozzella and his wife graduated from the University in 1988. Since leaving the campus and the town of South Orange, Bozzella dreamed of coming back to the place he once called home.
“You never think you’re going to get the job of a lifetime,” Bozzella said. “This is the job I dreamed about. 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.”
Bozzella had spent the previous 11 seasons at Iona College, arriving there in 2002. Iona was on the heels of a streak that involved 20 straight losing seasons, yet Bozzella spearheaded six winning seasons and a WNIT Tournament berth there in the eight seasons prior to accepting his gig with the Pirates.
In three seasons thus far as Seton Hall’s head coach, Bozzella’s success continues to ooze through his program and players. Currently, the Pirates are 13-3 and are coming off a season that saw them secure a berth to the NCAA Tournament, the program’s first since 1995.
When it comes to Bozzella’s consistent success, there is one common theme that people mention – the coach even talks about it himself.
Bozzella believes heavily in creating an open-cultured, family atmosphere within his teams and programs. The effect can be felt by all of those involved.
Women’s assistant coach Lauren DeFalco, who played under Bozzella at Iona before joining him on the sidelines, feels Bozzella’s culture is what makes him so consistent.
“His top priority is to have all his recruits, to have all his staff have the best experience.” DeFalco said. “I think that’s first and foremost. He’s been a head coach for 25 years and he’s had maybe only five kids ever leave. Most programs have five kids leave every year.”
The reason family is so important to Bozzella is because his started on the same campus where he coaches.
“I’m proud to say I met my wife as a freshman,” Bozzella said. “Here we are; we’re married for 23 years. She’s the smartest, brightest person I know.”
Maria remembers when the two met, and what about the future coach attracted her, qualities that continue to be a staple in Bozzella.
“It was really his personality, and he got along well with my parents. He was just very outgoing, which he still is.”
With family being so important to a man who loves his job coaching basketball, the two have to meet somewhere. Bozzella has never shied away from mixing the two worlds together. In fact, throughout his career, he’s encouraged it.
“His career has always been intertwined with our family. Throughout his whole career, we’ve had the team over for dinners and for functions. He likes having the team over and we do, too,” Maria said.
While it has been a goal of Bozzella’s to intertwine his family life and his basketball career, it hasn’t always been an easy road. He found that out the hard way when his daughter, Samantha, enrolled at Seton Hall and walked onto the very team he was coaching last season.
“They had to learn to really differentiate themselves from being a father/daughter and being a coach/player, because they had never had that relationship before,” Samantha’s mother and Tony’s wife said.
The process of differentiating was not an easily-learned one, according to Maria. She was forced to watch from the outside as her child and husband worked and learned a new level of a relationship with two things they both found so important – family and basketball.
“It was tough freshman year for her, and it was kind of tough for him, too,” Maria said. “She’s learned to understand where he’s coming from, and he’s learned that when we’re at the dinner table, he can’t really speak about any players because they’re her teammates. It was hard to work through, but they got through it.”
From biological kids to the family Bozzella adopts on the court, the goal is to make everyone feel accepted and together. The culture is what drives the vehicle for success.
“You have to be real. You can’t think everything is great all the time and everyone’s holding hands and singing Kumbaya,” Bozzella said. “That’s not true. But at the end of the day we all love each other,and we’re all going to be together and we’re all going to fight our way together.”
Calling Bozzella a player’s coach almost feels like an understatement, but there is no other term to describe him, regardless of the injustice it serves to the passion he shows for his players.
That passion is a trait players pick up on easily, and it helps them form loyalty.
Just like DeFalco, senior guard Aleesha Powell played for Bozzella at Iona. And just like DeFalco, Powell followed Bozzella to Seton Hall.
After sitting out last season due to NCAA transfer rules, Powell is back on the court for her coach and is a main contributor and leader on a team trying to find itself back in the Big Dance come March. The senior guard followed Bozzella to South Orange because of the relationship they shared, which Powell believes will continue to grow.
“We have a great relationship; it’s very open,” Powell said. “I can go in his office and talk to him, he can pull me aside and talk to me. It’s definitely grown since I’ve got here because I’ve matured as a player and a lot of that is because of him and how he coached me at Iona. I would say it’s going to keep getting better.”
Powell isn’t the only player on the team to share this same sentiment, either.
Tabatha Richardson-Smith, the team’s star player, doesn’t believe “Coach B” puts his passion into coaching and players for recognition, just for the love of the game.
“People think it’s always about basketball,” the forward said. “Coach B got [Big East] Coach of the Year last year, but that didn’t matter to him. He does it because he loves it. He cares how your school work is going, he cares about what’s going on in your personal life. I just feel like Coach B is a great man.”
What is even more telling about Bozzella’s compassion for others is his ability to accept those from all walks of life. That includes Brooklyn-native Tiffany Jones, who faced various family difficulties early in life.
“He’s a family man,” Jones said. “He knew my story and everything I went through, but didn’t judge at all. He welcomed me into the family.”
Through his short tenure at Seton Hall, Bozzella has built some of the most competitive women’s teams in program history. But the on-court success doesn’t compare to the man Bozzella is when he leaves the gym and the impact he has had on others while in South Orange.
“He has a big heart,” DeFalco said. “He’ll give the shirt off his back to anybody. He has a family, he has two kids and a wife. He knows what it’s like to not make it about the job 24/7.”
But to the coach with a big heart, family is his job – and the man loves working 24/7.
Dennis Chambers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. edu or on Twitter @DennisChambers_.