To anyone else, the scene was bleak. The Bowling Green High School basketball team arrived at the dilapidated visitor’s locker room, walked down the steps into a dingy basement and saw the few nails in the wall that served as hangers and the standing water covering part of the floor.
Yet Kevin Willard was unflappable. It was a far cry from the state-of-the-art facilities he’d one day play and coach in, a stop in rural Kentucky on the way to bigger opportunities. But there was still basketball to be played. So the standing water and stray nails in the wall did little to dampen Willard’s resolve.
“‘Oh, this is great! This reminds me of Hoosiers,’” Ernie Simpson, Willard’s high school coach, recalled Willard yelling all those years ago. “He was ready to play.”
Willard’s attitude hasn’t changed, even as the scenery around him has. It led him to the University of Maryland, where he was introduced Tuesday as the Terps’ new head men’s basketball coach, having signed a seven-year, $24.9 million contract.
To those closest to Willard, that rise is hardly surprising.
It took Dan McHale all of 10 minutes to realize how special an opportunity he received in 2002, when he landed a position as a graduate assistant at Louisville and received his marching orders from Willard, a rising star in college basketball. Willard outlined McHale’s role with the efficient nature adopted by coaches who must maximize their time: There would be 18-hour days ahead, studying opponents and going over practice plans. An extensive onboarding process would have cut into what they were all at Louisville to focus on — basketball.
“I knew it right away,” said McHale, who’s now a special assistant with New Mexico.
It’s the air of authority Willard gives off. And it’s more than that — from a young age, Willard convinced those around him to buy in completely, giving their trust to a relatively unknown commodity.
At Bowling Green High, it took two practices for Simpson to notice Willard already had won over the older players on his varsity roster. On a team of hard-nosed players, Willard immediately challenged the hardest nosed of them. He proved up to the task. And it took one start for Matt Simpson, one of the coach’s sons and a teammate of Willard’s, to realize increased minutes would only prod Willard further.
That was just the beginning for Willard, who subsequently played for Western Kentucky and Pittsburgh, became an assistant for Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino at the Boston Celtics and Louisville, and coached at Bowling Green, Iona and Seton Hall, before the Terps recruited him to College Park.
He’s proved along the way that those who trust in him will receive the same trust back.
“You’d love to go to war with him any time,” Matt Simpson said. “He’s that guy that you’re like, ‘I’ll stand up for you. I’ll do whatever as a teammate. I’ll run through a brick wall for you, because I know you’ll do the same thing for me.’”
There is more uncertainty around the hire from the outside, as boosters and fans point to his 1-5 NCAA Tournament record and inexperience landing top talent from Maryland’s high school recruiting hotbeds. The 46-year-old is charged with resurrecting a Maryland program that is nearing the 20-year anniversary of its only national title but hasn’t made it past the Sweet 16 in 10 NCAA Tournament appearances since. It’s no easy task.
But to those who have known Willard longest, he’s a logical choice to rebuild trust. He doesn’t sugarcoat a situation. Still, he gives his players — and by extension, the fans — belief, just as he did when he was a player.
In high school, for instance, when Bowling Green played a team from Tennessee that boasted three future Division I players, Willard willed his team back into the game, bloody knees and elbows and all as he dove for loose balls, Ernie Simpson said. During running drills, he’d lead by example, calling back encouragement to those trailing.
“Kevin would puke running and just never break stride and keep going,” Simpson said. “He’s just that dude.”
Simpson could tell Willard was “a coach on the floor from an early age.” Willard could digest the input Simpson offered, but he’d return to his coach with suggestions of his own — a side effect of learning from his father, Ralph, who coached at Western Kentucky, Pittsburgh and Holy Cross.
Ralph Willard always knew his son would be a coach. When Ralph coached Kevin in middle school, he noticed his son looking at things through a coach’s lens while questioning everything that happened on the court.
“He loved to analyze the game,” Ralph Willard said. “He would question me all the time. He wanted to know why you do it this way or that way. And so when he told me that he wanted to go into coaching, it didn’t shock me at all.”
Ralph coached his son for one season at Western Kentucky, and Kevin followed his dad to Pittsburgh, his next coaching destination. There’s often a spotlight on the coach’s son, Ralph said, but he thought Kevin handled it well.
“It was difficult,” he said. “[Former coach] Al McGuire told me something that stuck with me. He said, ‘if your son is the best player on the team, coach him. If your son is the worst player on the team, coach him. But if he’s anywhere in between, don’t coach him.’ I think that’s true.”
Ralph called Kevin a sponge. Working under Pitino as an assistant was an ideal situation, allowing the younger Willard to pick Pitino’s brain about certain decisions. Those conversations extended as former Louisville assistants Scott Davenport, Willard and Mick Cronin gathered each morning, picking up a newspaper and talking strategy.
Davenport, then in his mid-40s, marveled at how experienced and detail-oriented the 26-year-old Willard was, which Davenport chalked up to the fact that Willard already had spent three seasons coaching with Pitino in the NBA.
“That’s also why I’m bald at 26 years old,” Davenport remembers Willard quipping at the time, “because I age so much faster working for him.”
When Davenport’s Bellarmine program won the Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament two weeks ago — but was not eligible for the NCAA Tournament due to a recent jump from Division II to Division I — he received a congratulatory text from Willard. Davenport said his own son got into coaching, in large part because of Willard, and that “caring” is the first word he’d use to describe Maryland’s new headman.
“He’s a shining star in putting players first,” Davenport said.
Ralph echoed that sentiment about his son.
”I mean, that’s his thing,” he said. “He loves to help players get better. And what he built the program at Seton Hall on ... getting good players, who aren’t great, but getting them to reach the next level of development.”
Because Willard expects his players to give him the same commitment in return, mirroring the work ethic he showed as a high school player. In Ernie Simpson’s 30 seasons as a coach, he can remember only one player like Willard.
While others trudged out of the locker room, Willard ran every single day — right to the basketball rack, ready for another practice. He’s never changed, even if he’s not the one dribbling that ball any longer.
Baltimore Sun reporters Ryan McFadden and Hayes Gardner contributed to this article.