One night in 1999, a young assistant for the Boston Celtics, Kevin Willard, turned on the television for one of the few college games he could watch. What he saw was Joe Smith and Steve Francis in Terrapin colors, exuding energy on the floor, throwing down ally-oops while head coach Gary Williams shot up and down the sidelines as his jacket flowed like a cape.
Unbeknownst to him, he would be in the same spot as Williams just over two decades later.
“I remember watching Maryland basketball, and I remember thinking to myself, ‘I want to play for that man,’” Willard said. “Because they had such swagger. They had such confidence.”
The Tuesday introduction of Willard marked only the ninth exchange of coaching power in Maryland’s near 100-year history.
The former Seton Hall coach couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
“This is a top 10 job in college basketball, hands down,” Willard said before an applause. “I would not have moved my family and left a place that I loved very dearly if I did not think that this was a place that we should be winning national championships.”
Willard, now a college basketball head coach of 15 years, joins an esteemed group of Maryland coaches which includes two members of the Basketball Hall of Fame. One of whom was the national champion that Willard idolized — Gary Williams, who was a strong supporter of the new hire.
“Kevin Willard was a proven winner in the Big East while at Seton Hall,” Williams said. “The intensity level of his teams reflect the passion that Kevin will bring to our team and the University.”
After 2011, Williams stepped down and Mark Turgeon took over. While Maryland still enjoyed an abundance of winning seasons, the Terps never reached the same heights that they had reached the decade before. Following their first losing season in 28 years, the Terps look to be in need of a culture shift.
“We are going to bring back that passion – that energy – that Coach Williams coached with,” Willard said.
In his twelve years coaching for Seton Hall, Willard produced a 225-161 (.583) record. He inherited a program in 2010 that didn’t have back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances since 1994 and led it to six appearances in seven years.
Willard received additional offers, but saw Maryland as his best fit. Maryland athletic director Damon Evans was impressed by his resume and, in discussions with Willard, only grew more fond of bringing him in as the newest Maryland head coach.
“As we talked about each facet of our program, I became absolutely convinced that Kevin was the right coach for our team,” Evans said. “He has the right vision, philosophy, and leadership style.”
Now, three hours down Interstate 95 from his former home, a new challenge awaits. Willard has a similar opportunity to bring another school to former glory.
“We are going to have fun,” Willard said. “We are going to bring the swag back to Maryland basketball, and we are going to win at a high level. I promise you that.”
One major point of emphasis that was brought up regarded recruiting around the area. While the DMV area has no shortage of high school talent, Maryland has recently struggled with getting the talent to sign with its program.
Willard has experience with recruiting in the area, and along with his hire comes a new $36 million basketball facility in the works. Still, only time will tell if the team finds newfound recruiting success.
With high prestige comes high pressure. To emulate the national champions is no easy task. But Willard seems up for the challenge.
“This is one of the most unbelievable opportunities for me and my family,” Willard said. “We are going to work everyday. No one’s going to outwork us.”
At the honeymoon stage of the newest addition to the Maryland basketball family, the sky seems to be the limit.
“Coach Williams told me, ‘Why shouldn’t we reach for the moon and the stars when we’re trying to build our program?’” Evans said. “That’s what we will do.”