Some interesting thoughts by Coach Willard as to the challenges he faced at The Cross…..
For the past decade I have had the privilege to teach and coach, year after year, teams of good players and, most importantly, outstanding young men at my alma mater. I am so proud of the way they played with pride, passion, dignity, and humility in victory or defeat. They represented themselves, their families and our school on and off the court in a manner that we all take pride in. They have achieved a continuity of success, which brought about five post season appearances (4 NCAA, 1 NIT) and seven conference final appearances, in the last nine years. They accomplished this while getting a great education in a very challenging academic environment, with everyone of them graduating in four years. They accomplished this from a starting point of the program having an RPI in the 300’s.
With this continuity of success has come challenges in scheduling all successful mid-majors face. Two factors have magnified this problem for us. We are in what is considered a low major conference, with only 14 conference games, that requires us to go out and schedule 15 non conference games. We also play a so-called match-up defense, that requires a special preparation, that teams would rather not play against in the non conference schedule. I say so-called match-up, because for the last four years it has basically been a 2-3 zone, that varies slightly with each opponent, and a switching man to man. However the fact that in our four NCAA and one NIT appearance we have been able to largely negate any opponents physical superiority, by causing them to think on offense, the defense has taken on a life of its own. This spring we called 131 BCS and mid major schools for games that said no. To be fair, some just didn’t have matching open dates, but the vast majority simply did not want to play against the match-up. When George Blaney, a Holy Cross alum and head coach for 22 years, told me at a charity golf tournament we were both at, that "we (UCONN) will never schedule you", I guess that crystallizes the problem. It is a perception that creates a reality that I don’t see an answer for. It is untenable going forward.
All of this is kind of ironic, because for really the first time in my tenure, we have the depth and athleticism, to play a pressing style, like I did during my tenure at Western Kentucky. Which brings me to my next reality. We have four starters, and eight players returning, from a team that after injuries, went to the conference finals. We also have an excellent recruiting class coming in, that as I said will, with the returnees, constitute (barring injuries) our deepest and potentially most talented team in the last decade. However, I have reached the chronological age of 63 (despite the fact that my wife says I often think and act like a 17 year old), that as a head coach puts you in a box. In my first two recruiting phone calls this spring, it was the first thing brought up by the parents. I now realize it will be a recurring tactic in people recruiting against us. This will be more difficult to overcome with each passing year. It is untenable going forward.
It is difficult to come to terms with the realization that your time at a particular place, where you have shared success with great people you really care about, has come to an end. Challenge and competition in my life is what I live for. The fire to teach, coach, and compete burn inside me, as strong as ever. I have come to the realization that I have an opportunity at Louisville, with my best friend, to take on another challenge, without the artificial limitation of chronological age. That realization and the new challenges I will experience there excite me greatly. I realize that another chronologically younger coach, can come to Holy Cross and continue the growth of the program now, better than I can. A better schedule, a new style of play, and a fresh set of new eyes and lips to address some critical procedural issues at the school, will help open up new opportunities for the players and the program. It is not a conclusion I even contemplated two months ago, but one I now know as true. I have always told Dick Regan, that my goal was to leave the program in the best shape possible, and I realize now is the time to do that.
I have been blessed throughout my life with a great family that I love and am very proud of. Holy Cross represents another family I am very proud of, and in particular the young men I have been fortunate to coach here, and the dedicated coaches I have worked with on our staff. I want to thank Dick Regan and the administration for the opportunity, and I am confident they will make a choice that will be great for our guys and great for the school. Finally I want to thank everyone for the emails and calls. The sentiments are truly appreciated and very humbling. Go Cross Go!