Kevin Willard is Maryland’s new men’s basketball coach.
And if you’re surprised by the hire, it’s merely because you haven’t been paying attention. The Seton Hall coach has been at the forefront of the search since it got underway. While there were others that seemed like logical options at times, Willard very much stood out as the most reasonable and likely candidate for the gig all along.
So here we are. If you’re, say, 30 years old, this is only the second time Maryland basketball has hired a new head coach in your lifetime. It’s a pretty remarkable moment. And the energy surrounding the hire is … impalpable.
There’s about as much energy surrounding this particular hire as you felt peeling yourself off the couch on Sunday night after at least 42 hours worth of watching basketball and cleaning your house out of junk food to the point that you honestly don’t know what the last thing was that you dipped in the queso. (Don’t worry. Yes, it was a permanent marker, but the cap was on!)
And there are two extremely important things that must be said. Neither is truer than the other. They are of completely equal significance when it comes to how we immediately gauge Maryland’s hire.
The first is that it is totally understandable that you aren’t exactly fired up about the hire.
It bears repeating. Do not let anyone bully you into thinking you’re somehow a bad fan because you’re not in a rush to make a ticket deposit next season because Kevin Willard is the new coach. You might not know a ton about Willard, but enough has been said that you may have wondered, “How exactly is he any different than Mark Turgeon?”
And the answer is … he’s won a postseason tournament?
Look, Willard’s profile is not dissimilar to Turgeon’s at the time of his hire. Someone might point out that Turgeon actually had 500 percent more NCAA Tournament wins (5) prior to his arrival in College Park than Willard has (1) and that would be totally and completely fair! Willard has done a nice job of revitalizing the Seton Hall program since his 2010 arrival but his 2016 Big East tournament title stands out as an anomaly in terms of postseason success.
And frankly, we’re trying to cheat. This is the “guarantee fairy” thing from the American classic “Tommy Boy” all over again. We want to feel all warm and toasty inside. We want a coach that is guaranteed to be able to win a national championship. But that’s not how this works!
Before Jay Wright arrived at Villanova, he hadn’t won a single NCAA Tournament game. Before Tony Bennett reached Virginia, he was 3-2 in the NCAA Tournament. Before Scott Drew arrived at Baylor, he hadn’t reached an NCAA Tournament as a head coach.
And yes, it is fair to say that Willard had a better opportunity in 15 years at Iona and Seton Hall than the others did in seven years at Hofstra, three years at Washington State and one year at Valparaiso, respectively, but the point remains. I can’t guarantee that Willard can win significantly at Maryland. But I couldn’t guarantee that anyone else would, either.
Which brings me to Point No. 2. This is as good as Maryland was going to do in their coaching search! This was how this was going to go!
I’m sure Arkansas coach Eric Musselman would have been a more appealing hire to most fans. But as he heads to a second straight Sweet 16, there is simply no reason for him to think that Maryland is definitely a better job than Arkansas. That’s the reality of Maryland basketball. No matter how many times we’ve repeated Lefty Driesell’s “UCLA of the East” in our minds, Maryland has been a middle-of-the-road basketball program for the better part of two decades. Yes, there is a good recruiting base but that is no truer today than it has been for 20 years.
Maryland is a decent job. It’s a job worthy of taking if you’re a fairly successful coach at Seton Hall. With no football program to prop up the athletic department financially and no campus arena for home games, there is almost certainly a limit to what can be accomplished in South Orange, N.J.
You can make the argument that you would have been more excited about an even younger hire like new Florida coach Todd Golden and, OK, maybe so. But we can’t pretend as though being 36 years old and getting San Francisco one at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament is some sort of guaranteed recipe for long-term success. Murray State’s Matt McMahon (who may well end up at LSU) certainly seems intriguing, but he’s only a few years younger than Willard (46 to 43).
And I know St. Peter’s coach Shaheen Holloway (who will almost certainly succeed Willard at Seton Hall) is the hot name at the moment, but we’re literally only a year removed from Oral Roberts making a run to the Sweet 16 as a No. 15 seed and just one year later, I haven’t heard a single person campaign for Paul Mills to get the Maryland job.
I get it. Willard comes off as milquetoast on paper. And his final act with the Pirates (a 69-42 loss to TCU in the NCAA Tournament) put the “SH” in “DIDN’T SHOW UP.” But he’s a deserving, sensible hire. He’s not an overbearing personality, but he’s far more familiar with the East Coast than his predecessor and should be more capable of acclimating because of it. While he had talent at Seton Hall (Myles Powell and Angel Delgado stand out), he’ll need to prove that the upgrade in resources can mean an upgrade in recruiting results.
This is a fine hire. It is sensible. Maryland landed a qualified power conference head coach to lead a program despite having not reached a Final Four for 20 seasons. That’s saying something!
I can’t promise that it will translate to great success (and given the nature of the transfer portal these days the leash should probably be a bit shorter if it doesn’t). I’m not telling you that you should be incredibly excited. But this was practically as good as Maryland was doing and now it’s time to see if they found the ascending coach they needed to.
Photo Credit: Seton Hall Athletics