A confession to my friends Kathy and Scott: Two Sundays ago, I didn't really want to be at your son's 4th birthday party.
Nothing personal. It's just that, well, Cornell was playing Wisconsin in the second round of the NCAA tournament, and while balloons and slides and thinly sliced pieces of pizza are the stuff of enrapturing weekend activities (if, ahem, you have two kids under the age of 7 and a high threshold for loud, overly excitable Kidsville employees bellowing "Cake time! Cake time!" in your ear), I was truly amped to kick back on the couch, order an eggplant parm sub and watch an Ivy League school take on a goliath from the Big Ten.
Alas, there I was, stuck in the back room of Kidsville, my brain slowly rotting into sludge as the Madagascar soundtrack played at unspeakable decibels. I like to move it, move it! He like to move it, move it! She like to move it, move it!
And there -- amid the madness -- he was.
Because we are both New Rochelle, N.Y., residents, I had seen Kevin Willard before, pacing the sidelines at an Iona men's basketball game, taking his players for a pre-game breakfast at the Mirage Diner. Yet this was a true shocker: On the biggest basketball day of the year (to date), the 34-year-old Gaels coach was chasing his two sons, Colin and Chase, around the small play gym, tossing foam balls into the air, laughing as one tyke after another flew past him on the zip line. At one point I saw him glance down at a Blackberry -- a sure sign, I figured, that he was at least keeping an eye on the action.
"Is Cornell winning?" I asked.
Willard glanced up and smiled. "I don't know," he said. "But it's supposed to be 70 degrees and sunny tomorrow."
I introduced myself, informed Iona's third-year coach that I was sort of surprised to see him here, another blah parent making the blah birthday party rounds. "The season's over," he said. "I love the tournament, but right now all I want to do is spend time with my family."
When I later told my wife of the conversation, she was unimpressed. Channeling her inner Chris Rock, she noted that fathers are supposed to be with their children, and shouldn't be rewarded for fulfilling their obligations. Yet in the high-paced, high-power, high-ego world of Division I coaching, "supposed to" rarely results in actual righteousness.
Louisville coach Rick Pitino is supposed to only eat in a restaurant. Kentucky coach John Calipari is supposed to recruit student-athletes. Baylor coach Scott Drew is supposed to bring in players without first hiring their AAU coaches. Maryland coach Gary Williams is supposed to speak to his minions like actual human beings (Writer's note: To sit behind the Terps' bench during a game is to fulfill all course requirements for Vulgar Cussin': 101).
Kevin Willard was supposed to be with his wife, Julie, and their kids. But 90 percent of men in his position wouldn't have been. Sad but undeniably true.
Hence, it was with great happiness that I learned last week that Willard was hired by Seton Hall to take over a team in dire need of decency rehab. For the last four years, the Pirates once-proud program had been damned by the tyrannical reign of Bobby Gonzalez, a walking, talking, cursing stereotype of the modern madman coach. To say Gonzalez was loathed by his players and associates is an understatement of the Manute Bol-is-mildly-tall variety. The man known as Gonzo alienated high school coaches, high school recruits, opposing teams and a cornucopia of the Garden State's small animals, plants and minerals. He was a bad guy atop a bad team, and he got what he deserved.
Though his stay in New Rochelle was relatively short, Willard scored large points for a low-key demeanor and uncommon decency (as well as leading Iona to a 21-10 mark last season). He seemed genuinely interested in his players' personal development as people, and could be seen on most Saturday mornings during the fall taking his children to youth soccer practices, then sticking around to help out and offer encouragement.
Can he return Seton Hall to Big East dominance? Maybe, maybe not. When Willard was introduced two days ago, he promised nothing, instead merely insisting that his teams would focus on character and hard work. "They're going to have pride," he said, "and they're going to show their pride."
Win or lose, Seton Hall wins.