No decision yet for conflicted Willard

June, 9, 2009
The buzz in the Big East early Monday was that Holy Cross head coach Ralph Willard was moving to Louisville to become Rick Pitino's trusted top assistant.

Throughout the day, names were already popping up as potential successors to Willard -- names such as Notre Dame assistant Sean Kearney and Pitt assistant Tom Herrion.

But by Monday night, the Worcester Telegram had contacted Willard, who said he had not made a decision to leave. He told the paper after meeting with his players on campus that "I'm just trying to weigh everything. I'm trying to make the best decision for Holy Cross, for our kids, for the University of Louisville, and for Rick Pitino. I think that every one of those considerations will provide a very invigorating and challenging outcome for Ralph Willard. I'm trying to weigh all those things."

Louisville's spokesperson said that there was no news on the matter Monday. In a text to's Pat Forde on Monday night, Pitino said that a decision wouldn't come before Wednesday.

So the moving pieces on the college basketball chessboard will wait for a day or so in a story that takes on more life because of the timing (June) and the vacuum of non-draft-related news or Memphis/NCAA updates.

Still, this isn't an easy decision. Willard, 63, is an alumnus of Holy Cross. The Crusaders once again will be one of the favorites in the Patriot League. The programs returns four starters and a recruiting class that is expected to have contributors from Day 1.

Holy Cross, arguably the best job in the Patriot League, has been a hit for Willard. He coached the Crusaders to a 192-117 record in 10 seasons in Worcester, including four conference championships, four NCAA tournaments and an NIT appearance.

If anyone should know how difficult a decision this is for Willard, it is former Holy Cross coach George Blaney, who just completed his eighth season as Jim Calhoun's top assistant at Connecticut. Like Pitino and Willard, Calhoun and Blaney are contemporaries. But like Willard, Blaney had to make concessions that he was not in total control of the program.

While Blaney's situation was different -- he was coming from being an assistant at Rhode Island and had been pushed out at Seton Hall after three seasons -- he can still relate. Blaney won 357 games at Holy Cross, posting seven 20-win seasons, going to five NCAA tournaments and five NITs.

"It would be very hard to leave a head coaching job," Blaney said Tuesday. "That's a really good job, with kids he likes and a pretty good team coming back. One of things I still miss is having my own team. All of the things that make this a great job, and there is no one better than Jim, it's still not my own team."

Willard did coach with Pitino for a season at Kentucky. But for most of his time on the Division I level, Willard has been on his own, as the head coach at Holy Cross, Pitt and Western Kentucky.

Willard told the Telegram that he's not about titles -- and he can't be if he's going to be second in command.

"It all depends on your personality," Blaney said. "He and Rick worked together before so he would know how to do it. The good part is that like me and Jim, Rick would trust him. That's the biggest thing in any of these situations. If the head coach trusts you then it's going to work. He can go in there and do his thing and not be afraid to say anything."

Blaney said he was with Willard a week ago at a function but Willard didn't say anything about it, which indicated to him "that it must have been serious."

Obviously, meeting with the players on a Monday night in June indicates that he is seriously considering the offer. Pitino has said he has offered the job to Willard before and sent out a statement that he fully expected him to turn it down again. But clearly Willard is considering this offer more seriously than previous decisions. This is a post to replace Pitino's son, Richard, who went to Florida to be with Pitino's former player and assistant, Billy Donovan.

Pitino's disturbing offseason has centered on the highly publicized news of alleged extortion by the former wife of his equipment manager. Having someone like Willard by his side may be exactly what Pitino needs to get through what could be an ugly season if the case goes to trial next year, dragging him to court to deal with the issue.

Pitino could rely on Willard to teach the players, handle media obligations and be a trusted aide throughout the season as the Cardinals attempt to compete for a top-seven finish in the Big East.

"Jim always allows me to come in and teach and say whatever I need to say to him," Blaney said of his relationship. "He's great about that. I think Rick has had that same relationship with Ralph. I'm sure it would be seemless. Ralph is a lifer and loves the game. He can help with the hundreds of decisions a head coach has to make on a daily basis, help him to make the correct decisions for the good of the program."

Andy Katz | email

ESPN Senior Writer



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