Kevin Willard knew exactly what he was doing when he uttered the words that sent shock- waves through the Seton Hall basketball community following the Pirates’ 74-71 loss to Providence two weeks ago.
Visibly frustrated throughout the game, Willard was not happy with his team once the final buzzer sounded. Seton Hall lacked energy in the first half, falling behind by as many as 25 points in the opening minutes. The Pirates put together a spirited second half comeback, but ultimately fell short. Any moral victory that came with Seton Hall’s strong second half was not enough for Willard. He knew that this was a game his team had to win to keep the ball rolling following a tough home loss to a red-hot Creighton squad earlier in the week.
Excruciating losses typically don’t take a toll on Willard. Throughout his tenure at Seton Hall, he has made his name as an even-keeled coach who never gets too high or too low on his team. That’s why nobody could have predicted what was going to happen when he put on his headset to join Gary Cohen and Dave Popkin on the radio for his regular postgame interview spot.
“We have some guys with bad attitudes right now to be perfectly honest with you,” Willard said. “When you have a bad attitude and you’re pouting and complaining that you’re not playing enough time, yet your team is 10-2, you have issues.
“When we lost to Creighton the other day and we played terrible, and I’m sitting in practice and I’m thinking, I’ve got a guy moody that doesn’t want to go through practice that hardly played. I have another guy who played 25 minutes that can’t make a shot and didn’t have a rebound. I have an- other guy that got embarrassed defensively. It’s not what should be happening right now and I will make sure of it, come in 20 minutes there will be a very large correction.”
Willard’s raw comments sparked debates across social media. Was it right for him to call out specific players (albeit without names) in a public setting like that? Would it light a fire under a team that just endured its second consecutive loss?
Considering the way Seton Hall responded with wins over Butler and St. John’s last week, it’s clear that his team got the message. But why did Willard’s words not fall by the wayside? What is it about Willard’s comments that motivated his team to get back on track?
It all comes back to his demeanor and the tight-knit relationships he has with his players.
Everything Willard does is calculated. He’s nothing like Bobby Gonzalez, who spent his time at Seton Hall kicking and screaming about every little thing that happened on and off the court. Willard seldom acts on raw emotion. He might let his team have it every so often in practice and in film sessions, but it’s rare when a blowup occurs.
When a coach like Willard goes off on his team for everyone to hear like he did following the Providence game, it has a profound impact. When a coach gets mad in practice, it’s easy for his players to tune it out and not take much of what is being said to heart. When it’s a coach that spends every practice and every postgame interview berating his players, his words eventually become like nails scratching against a chalkboard – annoying and unlistenable.
When a coach who rarely tears into his team goes on the radio and publicly challenges his players, it’s impossible for everyone in the building not to take notice.
“I think there’s times in a sea- son where you have to get on your team and you have to know your team and when to get on them,” Willard said following the St. John’s game. “Nobody knows them better than me. I wasn’t worried about how they would respond. I saw it in practice on Monday after I got on them.
They responded great. I knew we had a great shot to win today because we practiced for two and a half hours yesterday — much longer than we usually do the day before a game. Individually they’ve all bounced back, but as a team, they’ve understood what their mentality has to be at this time of year.”
Willard’s players, past and present, have a deep admiration and love for him. Even when they weren’t seeing eye-to-eye, Desi Rodriguez never failed to acknowledge the bond he had with Willard and the role he played on his development as a basketball player and a man. Angel Delgado once said he would rather play for Willard than any coach in the country. Myles Powell could probably write a book about how much Willard means to him.
With this admiration comes the desire to make Willard proud on the court. When a performance like the one against Providence takes place, the players know it is unacceptable and unworthy of a coach that puts his everything into ensuring their success.
“After we lost to Providence a lot of players were frustrated and coach was upset,” Sandro Mamukelashvili said. “We knew we needed to get back on track and show everyone we can do it. We came every day and worked hard.
“It sucked [losing to Provi- dence]. We love to win and coach loves to win. It was tough to take that loss, but we just refocused and got back on track.”
Willard catches heat for certain things, but one thing that should never be criticized is his ability to build relationships with his players. Some coaches don’t make much of an effort to really get to know their guys and what makes them tick. Willard is the complete opposite. He knows his players inside and out. He knows which tactics work on certain players.
That’s why his calculated, tough-love approach to motivating his players paid off in spades.
Tyler Calvaruso can be reached at email@example.com. Find him on Twitter @tyler_calvaruso.