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Kevin Willard has ridden grit and tradition to early success at Maryland

Willard will coach his first NCAA Tournament game with Maryland on Thursday.

Maryland v Ohio State Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Kevin Willard inherited a mess at his first head coaching job. He had to completely rebuild Iona’s roster after it took a chance on an up-and-coming candidate with no prior experience as the leader of a college basketball program.

And just as irritating — the walls in the locker room were maroon.

They were too dark. Too much of a reminder of the team that had won just two games the season prior. It needed to change.

“I want to repaint the locker room,” assistant coach Dan McHale recalls Willard telling him one night.

McHale, in his early twenties and hoping to impress in his first assistant coaching role, was quick to agree.

“OK Coach, you know, we can call a maintenance person or somebody —”

“No, no,” Willard cut him off. “I’m going to the store.”

Off he went and back he came, returning with two cans of cream-colored paint. It was a brighter, more positive hue that promised to open the locker room up and usher in a new era of Iona basketball.

Willard rolled up his sleeves and got to work, rolling paint onto the walls through the wee hours of the night. He refused to stop until enough coats had been applied to guarantee none of that dull, bleak maroon would bleed through. This was his team now, and no job was going to be too small for him. He would take no shortcuts to prove himself. He would do it the right way — his way.

“He wanted his imprints on this program from the ground up — literally,” McHale said.

Fifteen years after getting his head coaching start, Willard’s hard work paid off when he accepted the Maryland job in 2022, a position he called a “top-10 job in college basketball, hands down” when he was introduced.

He was the replacement for Mark Turgeon, who coached seven full seasons in the Big Ten and never finished below eighth place. But after earning just one regular-season title — a three-way tie — it became clear a change was inevitable. Just eight games into the 2021-22 season, Turgeon and Maryland split ways.

Even in a world where other schools are waiting in line to join the Big Ten or SEC, there’s still a sense of estrangement for Terps fans in a primarily Midwestern league. Maryland was a founding member of the ACC. Of course it’s going to feel like a misfit in the Big Ten for a while.

There’s a natural chip that Maryland fans proudly wear on their shoulder. And if you want a coach with a chip on their shoulder, Willard’s your guy.

That’s the identity his first team at Maryland has embraced. The Terps were full of question marks entering the season, but they answered enough to play an NCAA Tournament game on Thursday.

This year’s Terps are physical, frequently press after made baskets and rely on the pick-and-roll. Nothing flashy, but they get the job done. A classic Kevin Willard team.

Concerns about guard play were quelled by the explosion of Jahmir Young, who transferred from Charlotte and earned second-team All-Big Ten honors. Julian Reese quickly became one of the Big Ten’s most promising young forwards. Even Patrick Emilien, a fifth-year journeyman who made previous stops at Western Michigan and St. Francis (NY), blossomed into one of the team’s most important players.

Maryland v Indiana
Jahmir Young (#1) rips the ball loose from Indiana’s Jordan Geronimo (#22) in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament at United Center on March 10, 2023 in Chicago, Illinois.
Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Willard’s reputation is a coach that gets the absolute most out of his players. Compared to their competition, his Seton Hall teams were never chock-full of elite prospects. But Willard made the NCAA Tournament five of his last six seasons there, not including the tournament-less 2020 season in which he had his best squad. Considering what he inherited, the consistency he coached with was remarkable.

Pair that with the resources and recruiting base that Maryland possesses, and the sky’s the limit. That’s the vision athletic director Damon Evans must’ve had when he hired him last April.

“I think I made Damon Evans look pretty smart,” Willard joked after hearing his team’s name called on Selection Sunday.

Willard’s made it clear that he took the Maryland job to compete for conference and national championships. “No other expectation is allowed in this program,” he once said. There are plenty of rungs on the ladder left to climb past an NCAA Tournament berth and highly-regarded recruiting class, but those are some promising first steps.

“I feel like this is all just a reflection of the work we put in as a team and the new culture, with the coaches,” Reese said. “And I feel like we all bought into the new system and it paid off.”

Willard’s unparalleled work ethic — and equally intense love for the game of basketball — was instilled in him from the day he was born. That comes with the territory of being Ralph Willard’s son.

Ralph coached at St. Dominic High School on Long Island, New York, where Kevin was born. Kevin would hang around his father’s practices as a young child, absorbing what he could. He saw firsthand what it took to be successful in the game of basketball. You can’t settle for anything less than the best.

That lesson clearly stuck with him. When Willard was a guard for Bowling Green High School — his father was by then the head coach at nearby Western Kentucky — he earned an opportunity to try out for the state’s all-star team. When he wasn’t selected, he angrily scribbled “NOT GOOD ENOUGH” on a piece of tape and slapped it on his bathroom mirror. By the time Ralph came across it, his son was already at the park working on his jump shot.

Even once he was playing in college for his father, Willard made a habit out of reading recruiting letters from schools that didn’t follow up with him whenever he needed some extra motivation. After games, he could be spotted running the stairs and shooting on the court of the arena. When he couldn’t sleep after a loss, he dribbled up and down the court as fast as possible.

Willard, the same young man who self-depricatingly proclaimed that “it would be stupid” for his father to “waste a scholarship” on him, eventually joined the family business by making the switch to the coaching realm. Instead of playing his senior season at Pittsburgh, he graduated and took a role with the Boston Celtics. The head coach there was Rick Pitino, one of his father’s foremost mentors and soon to be one of his as well.

It was while working in Boston, on a Thursday night in 1999, that Willard fell in love with the University of Maryland basketball program. He turned on his television to see Steve Francis throwing down dunks as Gary Williams bolted up and down the court, dripping with sweat as he commanded the sideline with unmatched intensity.

“I remember watching Maryland basketball and I remember thinking to myself, ‘I want to play for that man.’ … The swagger was something that a kid that grew up in Huntington, Long Island, turning on ESPN and watching a Maryland game all of the sudden wants to go play at the University of Maryland,” Willard recollected at his introductory press conference.

Willard followed Pitino from the Celtics to Louisville in 2001, where he became a full-time assistant coach. He ended up working for him for seven years, something that Willard once joked took “49 years off [his] life.” Perhaps his father’s attempts to convince him to take a job selling natural gas instead of coaching may have been the right move lifestyle-wise.

Despite its demanding nature, Willard excelled in his new position. He quickly rose in the program’s ranks; when Pitino took a brief leave of absence in 2004, Willard became the team’s interim head coach.

McHale, who held three other assistant jobs and was a Division I head coach for three years since working for Iona, claims to this day he has never seen anyone dissect an opponent better than Willard. Willard’s competitive nature took no games off, not even when he devised a game plan that led to his Cardinals taking down his father’s Holy Cross Crusaders just days after they bonded at Christmas dinner.

DePaul v Louisville
Brandon Jenkins (#11) listens to Kevin Willard during on Feburary 22, 2006 at Freedom Hall in Louisville, Kentucky.
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

It was clear Willard was a budding star in the basketball world, and it was only a matter of time before he would be heading his own program. When Iona athletic director Patrick Lyons gave him an interview for the school’s opening, everyone at Louisville knew it was a done deal before he even landed.

That night, Willard called up McHale, a graduate assistant on the Louisville staff, and provided him a chance to become an assistant at Iona with one condition.

“He offered me a job and said ‘Start scouring every available senior in the New York metropolitan area right now because we’ve got to build a roster,’” McHale recalls.

Within a day, Willard was setting up shop in New Rochelle before he even had time to get a place to stay. For the first few weeks and months, the staff was nomadic. Willard’s wife and first child were still in Kentucky, so he alternated between sleeping in his office and his brother’s conveniently located couch in Manhattan.

Most coaches display their acumen with pictures and trophies hanging on their walls and sitting on their desks. Willard had travel bags and dry-cleaned shirts. His walls were barren. Time spent meticulously placing memorabilia on his desk could be spent recruiting or working out with players. You don’t win basketball games for having the best-decorated office, do you?

After three years at Iona and a MAAC Coach of the Year award, Willard jumped to Seton Hall in 2010. It was there where he really made his name in the industry. At a Big East program that had befallen hard times, it was an uphill battle from the start.

“It was sort of a house on fire,” said Jerry Carino, a staple in the New Jersey basketball media and firsthand witness to Willard’s Seton Hall tenure. “There’s not many high-major places where you can go five years without making the NCAA Tournament and come back for a sixth year.”

Eventually, Willard got the hang of coaching in one of college basketball’s top conferences. He’s a modern coach, one that isn’t afraid to get on his players but is even more committed to treating them with respect. At Seton Hall, he figured out how to expertly toe the line between basketball coach and parental figure.

When forward Michael Nzei got an internship at Goldman Sachs that would require 40 to 50 hours of work per week, Willard let him miss summer workouts. He let forward Braeden Anderson enroll in law school while on the team. He put guard Shavar Reynolds Jr. on scholarship when Reynolds Jr. told him he was going to have to quit the team because he couldn’t afford tuition. By the time he was a senior, Reynolds Jr. had become a key member of the rotation.

Willard also accepted Derrick Gordon, the first openly gay Division I men’s basketball player, as a transfer from UMass after most considered him a locker room distraction. Gordon quickly turned into a leader on a team that won the 2016 Big East Tournament title.

“He wasn’t just trying to win games. He was trying to help young people develop at the end of their formative years. … By the end of his time at Seton Hall, he really struck the balance between knowing his role as a mentor and being successful. And I think if he does that in Maryland, people are going to be really proud of him,” Carino said.

Pride is the word that best describes the culture surrounding the Maryland men’s basketball program. Every game, the scoreboard suspended above the court plays a montage of former players expressing their “Maryland pride,” to the fans’ delight.

Tapping into that immense connection people feel toward the program became one of Willard’s highest priorities once he arrived in College Park. He made an effort to connect with Gary Williams and a litany of former players, whether it be a simple chat or running scrimmages between his current players and former Terps playing professionally.

Outside Maryland’s locker room hangs a matte black silhouette of the state, signed in bold silver marker by a deluge of Terrapin legends whose jerseys hang in the rafters. Above it in simple, blocky and powerful lettering reads “A Lasting Legacy.”

It’s a reconnection with the past, installed by Willard as a symbolic attempt to display his intent to return Maryland to its glory days. Len Elmore, Lonny Baxter and Greivis Vásquez are just a few of the ever-growing number of autographs that can be found on the installation.

“Our guys know who built this program every time they walk past that wall,” Willard said in a September tweet.

Kevin Willard and Walt Williams stand in front of the alumni wall after Williams added his signature.
Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics.

One signature at a time, Willard is realizing the vision he had for Maryland when he took over. Thursday marks a big step in that development. When he takes the court at Legacy Arena in Birmingham, Alabama, it’ll be his first chance as the face of Maryland’s program to make his mark on college basketball’s biggest stage.

Win or lose, Willard is laying the foundation for his vision of the future.

That vision includes frequent locker-room celebrations and hoisting trophies. Nobody can say for sure if or when that’ll happen. But if it does, you can be confident the walls in that room won’t be maroon. Not if Willard has a say in it.

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