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Swagger and confidence: Maryland men’s basketball head coach Kevin Willard plans to use the Gary Williams era as a model

Willard hopes to find success by bringing what he referred to as “swagger” back into the program.

Courtesy of Maryland Athletics

In 1999, newly hired Maryland men’s basketball head coach Kevin Willard was working as an assistant in the NBA for the Boston Celtics.

One Thursday night while working with the Celtics, Willard turned on the television and saw Maryland players dunking the ball and throwing alley-oops. Willard described seeing former head coach Gary Williams going up and down the sideline, sweating lifting his coat jacket throughout the game.

“I remember watching Maryland basketball and I remember thinking to myself, I want to play for that man, I want to play for that school,” Willard said at his introductory press conference on Tuesday. “Because they had such swagger, they had such confidence.”

When Willard referenced Williams, the Maryland men’s basketball head coach who led his team to the 2002 National Championship, he seemed to have hit a high note with Maryland fans in the Xfinity Center that are yearning to see a team get back to that place.

On Feb. 27, Maryland men's basketball honored the 2002 National Championship team and promoted it heavily on social media before the event. The game had the highest attendance of a home game while interim head coach Danny Manning was at the helm of the team and the second-highest of a home game all season.

When the team was brought out onto the court, fans erupted into cheers and the current team even honored the champions in their own way— pulling off a 15-point upset over then-No. 22 Ohio State.

There was a feeling in that building of nostalgia while also a sense of desire to have another men’s basketball team within the program win a national title and celebrate them as well 20 years later.

Willard has his sights on being the person that brings Maryland men’s basketball back to that place.

“Kevin and I share high — I mean, high — expectations,” Maryland athletic director Damon Evans while speaking during the introductory press conference.

Willard spent the last 12 seasons as the head coach of Seton Hall. He led the Pirates to become the Big East tournament champions in 2016 as well as the conference regular season champions in 2020. In 2016, Willard earned the title of Big East Coach of the Year.

The 46-year-old head coach also led Seton Hall to the NCAA Tournament five times in that stretch, all coming in 2016 and more recently. Willard’s team advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament in 2018 where Seton Hall lost by just four points to No. 1-seed Kansas.

Despite having success and creating a Seton Hall family, alongside his wife and two sons, Willard knew it was time to leave a place he got emotional talking about when the job opened at a place he’s wanted to be a part of since he saw Williams pace down that sideline in 1999.

“This is a top-10 job in college basketball,” Willard said. “I would not be here, I would not have moved my family and left a place I love very dearly if I didn’t think this was a place we should be winning national championships.”

After an undoubtingly challenging season filled with twists and turns, Maryland missed the NCAA Tournament and finished the season with a record below .500 for the first time since since 1992-93. Willard is in a stretch of his teams finishing with a winning record for nine consecutive seasons.

“Just about every other sentence,” Willard said when talking about how often Evans brought up NCAA Tournament expectations in their conversations. “I think that’s something that, you know, being here that’s our expectation.”

This will be the head coach’s first time coaching in the Big Ten, however since the University of Maryland joined the Big Ten ahead of the 2014-15 basketball season, Willard has seen a lot of success against the conference. He leads head coaches in the nation with the most nonconference wins against the Big Ten since the Terps joined it.

Willard has picked up 11 wins, five of those on the road. The head coach defeated Maryland, who was No. 7 in the AP top-25 at the time in 2019, 52-48 at the Prudential Center and also picked up a win over then-No. 4 Michigan earlier this season in the Gavitt Tipoff Games.

When playing in the Big Ten, 22 games are locked into the schedule with the 20 conference games plus the Big Ten/ACC Challenge as well as the Gavitt Tipoff Games. However, the point of interest has been nonconference scheduling ahead of some of those matchups.

There has been an emphasis placed on creating a challenging nonconference schedule. Something that Willard has experience with as exhibited by some of his victories over Big Ten teams when he coached outside the conference.

“We’re looking at adding to our schedule,” Willard said on Tuesday. “You also have to be very strategic that you don’t bury your team early on.”

Before scheduling, the challenge that stands before Willard is to get the team together in person after spring break — he mentioned he’s met with them over Zoom and junior forward Donta Scott in person since he was on campus — and start creating the culture he aspires to reach.

The University of Maryland president Darryll Pines believes the culture Willard plans to create will, in turn, benefit the university.

Pines explained, when the athletics are doing well at Maryland, when Williams brought home the national title to the university, it did not just help the athletic department but the University of Maryland as a whole.

Pines said after the win in 2002, the university saw its trajectory as one of the premier research institutions in the country rise along with both the number and quality of applications sent in by prospective students.

By connecting the NCAA Tournament championship to the boost in interest in the university academically, Pines highlighted the point that athletic success links to academic success at an institution such as the University of Maryland.

“May he and his fellow coaches chart a new course of opportunity and excellence for our entire excellence,” Pines said closing out his introduction.

When Willard took to the stage shortly after Pines spoke and told his story of turning on the television back in 1999, it was clear that he too saw the value of athletics and that bridge between the success of the entire university and sports teams.

For Willard, the way he announced he was going to do that is by taking bits of inspiration from Williams and the 2002 National Championship team.

“We are going to bring back that passion and energy that Coach Williams coached with, that his players played with,” Willard said during his introductory press conference. “And that the swagger was something that a kid that grew up in Huntington, Long Island, turning on ESPN and watching a Maryland game all of a sudden wants to go play at the University of Maryland and play for a guy because that’s how his teams played.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story implied that Joe Smith and Steve Francis were on a roster together, this story has been updated.