The news is in. The new men’s basketball coach at the University of Maryland will be Kevin Willard, who had been at Seton Hall for the past 12 years.
I can almost hear the collective yawn in College Park, Md., from what’s left of the once-rabid fan base for men’s basketball at the state university.
And why shouldn’t it have been rabid? From the time Lefty Driesell came in for the 1969 season and proclaimed that Maryland would become “the UCLA of the East,” Maryland men’s basketball has been an iconic and relevant program in college hoops — just a notch below Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, Louisville, Syracuse, Michigan State and Arizona.
With the exception of the three almost nightmarish seasons under Bob Wade (1986-1989), the Terps’ program was headed by two eventual Hall of Famers from 1969-2011.
It really wasn’t until former athletic director Kevin Anderson made the decision to bring in Mark Turgeon that the Terps’ basketball program was in the hands of a coach who didn’t prove in some way, shape or form to be a difference maker.
But the time to throw blame at Turgeon has passed. I’ll leave it to the “numbers” column by Matt Bonesteel of The Washington Post on Dec. 3, just after Mark Turgeon walked out on his team.
Rather, this is the time to try to assess what will most likely be athletic director Damon Evans’ signature hire.
Willard, whose dad Ralph was a big-time coach for 40 years at Pitt, Western Kentucky and Holy Cross, is a basketball lifer who was a young assistant coach for Rick Pitino with both the Boston Celtics and Louisville.
After his seven-season tenure at Louisville, Willard got his first head coaching gig at Iona. After two so-so 12-win seasons, Willard parlayed a 21-win season during the 2009-10 season to take the next step up as Seton Hall’s coach.
In his 12 seasons at Seton Hall, Willard amassed a winning percentage of .583, better than P.J. Carlesimo (1982-1994) and longtime TV analyst Bill Raftery (1970-1981). It was also good enough to get to five NCAA Tournaments. He was well on his way to another appearance the season the tournament was canceled due to the pandemic.
What will be the toughest sell for Evans is Willard’s 1-5 record in NCAA Tournament games and the fact he never got a team into the Sweet 16.
But frankly, Evans was more than a little bit between a rock and the proverbial hard place. The two names that would have excited the fan base were Rick Pittino (ironically at Iona) and Sean Miller (back for a second run at Xavier). The two of them have more baggage than the American Tourister Co.
The next two Evans may have had some genuine interest in were Auburn’s Bruce Pearl and USC’s Andy Enfield, who starred at Johns Hopkins and actually earned an MBA at College Park. That both ended up using the rumors of the Terps’ interest to feather their own nests with extensions should be more proof to Maryland fans that the job as presently constituted isn’t as attractive as before the Turgeon era.
There were two puzzling things for me with this search. The school apparently did not have Gary Williams play a role in creating its list of candidates, and it apparently never had a conversation with former Michigan head coach John Beilein, who holds a consulting position with the Detroit Pistons.
So, the Mark Turgeon era is officially over. Now after this lengthy search, the heat is on Damon Evans and Kevin Willard to restore the program to honest to God relevance. If championships are won, that would be fantastic.
Right now, I’d like to see fans care enough to show up to games. In the end, in these bottom-line times in which we live, that’s probably how Willard will be judged. Because if the meat is in the seats, we’ll know the record must be pretty good, too.
Photo Credit: Seton Hall Athletics