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FEATURE

Pitt Welcomes New Basketball Coach Ralph Willard.
GAINING THE HIGH POST
WRITTEN BY DENNIS LOY JOHNSON
AT FIRST, RALPH WILLARD SEEMS TO BE Exactly what you would expect a big-time college basketball coach to be. Outside the inner sanctum of his large, not-quite-unpacked office, in the reception area of Pitt's men's basketball offices, the phones ring constantly. and there are several people waiting for a piece of the new coach's time. When the door opens, you can hear the steady thumping of basketballs on the courts below. None of it, however, seems to distract Ralph Willard. Like most successful coaches who can zero in on the minutiae of a basketball game amidst an arena of thousands of screaming fans, television cameras, banks of reporters, and energetic pep squads, he has a gift for attentiveness, a focus that can seem laser-like in one-on-one conversation.

He also has the good humor necessary to be successful in such a high- pressure position. For example, he tells a story involving his friend and former boss, the nearlegendary Kentucky basketball coach Rick Pitino. The occasion was a 55-point loss in Kansas.

"We flew back in," Willard recalls. "Actually, I'm not sure if we flew or just went very fast on the ground. It was a bumpy ride." At two in the morning, they arrived on a desolate college campus. Pitino decided to hold a team meeting. It lasted until 5 a.m., at which point Pitino turned to Willard and asked who was due in for the daily 7 a.m. individual practice session. "I told him I had to go upstairs to get the list," Willard recalls, "and he started screaming, 'You 're supposed to know that,' at the top of his lungs. I didn't even know what day it was.

But that was a big thing to him. I was unprepared."

Never again. He began to tape the schedule on every available surface. Whenever Pitino would ask, in an unlikely place, who was due for individuals, his assistant was apt to drop down on his hands and knees, crawl under a table. and shout out a name. "I busted his chops a bit," Willard grins slightly.

So there is much about Willard--focus, wit, media savviness--that seems typical of big-time coaches. But a few things make him stand out from the pack. For one, his experience at coaching is more varied than most. He's coached high school, several different levels of college ball, and a professional team For another thing he's got a reputation for winning at every level. And more remarkable than any of that, he's made a career of winning with teams that hadn't done so in a long time.

But what's truly unusual about Ralph Willard becomes apparent when he answers the simplest question of them all: How'd you get started?

HIS ANSWER IS NOT A SOUND BITE. IT'S Rambling, searching, a bit uneasy after it's under way. But he presses on, casting beyond what would he, for most jocks, safe territory. He says nothing about childhood playground ball (in Brooklyn, where he was horn). Nothing about the years as a high school star on Long Island (at St. Dominic High School in Oyster Bay), nor about playing at Holy Cross (for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's first coach, Jack Donohue). And there's nothing even close to the standard jock cliches about love of camaraderie/competition/challenge.

Instead, Willard says his career began in the '60s when, immediately out of college, he was drafted into the army and issued orders for Vietnam.

No sooner was he trained, however, than all orders were frozen by the Paris Peace Talks. Reassigned to Fort Benning, Georgia, he abruptly became a basketball player again, albeit in khaki shorts, in high demand on various service teams. He'd been ready to go to war. "I felt I had an obligation to serve my country," he says. But this must have seemed like a dream alternative. And then the war caught up with him.

It came to Georgia in the form of men suffering from war injuries, emergency medical evacuees rushed stateside from Southeast Asia. Willard's job was to sit with these men and help them with the barrage of paperwork the army required.

"It was amazing," he says now, "seeing the suffering...." His memories apparently outrun his words, but Willard doesn't wait long for words to show up. "There wasn't a day went by that I wasn't touched emotionally," he continues, rushing, as if to downplay the tale's drama.

"There were a lot of lessons that I learned," he says, "that I wanted to share with other people, lessons about dealing with adversity. And that's where I determined that I wanted to be a teacher as well as a coach."

It's an abrupt statement, uttered with a certain shyness and no discernible trace of pretension. It's more like he simply wants to keep his reasons for being there--his original, idealistic reasons--in front of him.

Just as revealing as his manner, however, is the substance of the event itself. It's a safe bet that there are few basketball coaches who can say they heard their muse calling while working with wounded soldiers. But, sanctified somehow by those terribly injured men, one of the key decisions of Ralph Willard's life was to be more than just coach-as-motivator. He wanted to teach, to give something back.

The story also offers some insight into two other aspects of Willard's personality. He is prone, on significant occasions, to dramatic, unequivocal decision making. And once he makes a decision, he sticks with it through hell, high water, or ants. He went on to teach immediately after the army.

"RALPH WILLARD'S A teacher as much as he's anything," claims his assistant coach Bobby Jones.

Willard's first job out of the army-- teaching phys ed at his alma mater, St. Dominic--looked like it was going to be his last job. He loved the place. He settled in with his wife, Dorothy, and they began to raise a family. Meanwhile, Willard became the school's varsity basketball coach, as well as the athletic director, and his teams began to be regularly ranked among the state's top 10. They even won the Class B New York State Championship in 1980.

Coaching, though, was always something Willard did after school. Still, he began to get offers to coach elsewhere. First, he took an assistant spot at the nearby Merchant Marine Academy; then one at Hofstra University. He was a hot ticket, climbing the ranks, but through it all he held onto his fulltime teaching job at St. Dominic.

Then, in 1985, he made one of those dramatic decisions he would become famous for: He quit coaching at St. Dominic.

Willard had just capped off what was, for a cash-strapped Catholic school system, an amazing effort. He'd helped spearhead a fund-raising drive that had

netted more than $800,000 and helped finance the construction of a state- ofthe-art sports facility at St. Dominic.

But it felt like the completion of something else for Willard. As far as coaching went, he felt he'd done all he could at St. Dominic. It was time for a new challenge. What's more, he'd come to see the basketball court as a classroom. He wanted to try coaching full time at the college level; it had come to seem like the ultimate teaching assignment to him. But leaving St. Dominic would be hard. "I thought the only way I could leave was if I stopped coaching," he recalls. "If I kept on coaching, I would have coached there forever."

So, for a full year, Willard was just a teacher and athletic director. However, late in the year he went off in his role as AD to the 1986 Five- Star Basketball Camp, a showcase for high school all-stars held annually in Pittsburgh. There, he ran into Jim Boeheim, head coach of the Syracuse University Orangemen, who had recruited several of Willard's St. Dominic players. Hearing that Willard wasn't coaching, Boeheim promptly offered him a one-year assistant coaching position on his staff. It turned out to be the opportunity of a lifetime. Syracuse, though unranked in the pre-season, would end the year considered by many to be the best team in the country. The job would provide experience and connections in the very top echelons of Division I, the insider's scoop on job openings, and other benefits. There was, however, a hitch. The position was unsalaried.

At the time, Division I schools were allowed to have volunteer coaches, many of whom drew paychecks from conveniently arranged endorsements of sneakers and the like (a practice since stopped). The offer to Willard, however, included no such hidden wages, and, as such, it constituted yet another momentous decision. If he took the offer, they would have to rely on Dorothy's income; the family would have to stay in the house on Long Island, and Willard would live alone in Syracuse for the year. But it was too good an opportunity to pass up.

"It would have been unbearable if I didn't have a goal," he says now. "I told myself I had five years to become a college head coach. People said I was

absolutely crazy, because I was 40 years old. People said, you can't get into the game at this stage of your life and expect to be a head coach. It takes guys 10 years to become head coaches." It took Ralph Willard four.

SYRACUSE WENT ALL THE way to the national championship game (which they lost), but at the tournament, Willard ran into an old friend from Brooklyn--Rick Pitino. Pitino had just been named head coach for the NBA's New York Knicks, and he wanted Willard to come along. The Syracuse gamble had paid off. What's more, the Knicks job involved a paycheck, and Willard got to move home.

Two years later, when Pitino quit the Knicks to take over the program at the University of Kentucky, Willard followed. This time, he took the entire family. A year later, Willard was offered the head coach position at Western Kentucky University.

Willard had achieved his goal at age 44, a year ahead of schedule. But it looked like his hardest work was yet to come. The squad he inherited was picked to finish dead last in the Sun Belt Conference. It appeared that it would be a long time before Willard got to go back to college basketball's big show--the NCAA tournament.

That's how it looked, anyway. "We had a rough start," recalls Tom Crean, who was then, as now, one of Willard's assistant coaches. "We had only seven players on scholarship. Our second game was the worst loss in school history. It looked like the season was going to be very, very bleak. But Coach Willard never wavered from what he wanted to do--instill an up- tempo game, with multiple, pressing defenses and a wideopen offense. And he never allowed the players to get off course. He made them feel like winners. They weren't winning yet, but they felt like winners."

A technique Willard brought with him from Kentucky contributed greatly to this--the early morning individual instructions that Rick Pitino had once shouted about. By having players work privately on their skills, it was easier to bring about noticeable improvement in particular weak areas. Team practices, then, could be spent not on dribbling or foul shooting, but on simulated games. And, as any player will testify, playing games is why they're all there.

As assistant Bobby Jones is quick to point out, however, Willard has more going for him than just technique. "He has a very unique ability to make the players feel at ease," he says. "Practices are tough, but they're always very upbeat, very positive."

That first year at Western Kentucky, Willard's methods began to have some results. "Midway through the year, we started winning," says Crean. "We won 10 out of our last 14 games and finished third, not last."

The next year Willard took the Hilltoppers to a 21-11 mark and a berth in the 1992 National Invitation Tournament. His third season, though--1992- 93--was the capper. The team won 26 games and lost only six. They took home their conference championship and beat nationally ranked, cross-state rival Louisville. They went to the NCAAs, where they upset powerhouses Memphis State and Seton Hall, and made it all the way to the Sweet Sixteen- -two games shy of the finals--before losing to Florida State.

Willard was now on the national map and in demand. During the 199394 season, while posting a 20-11 record and taking the Hilltoppers back to the NCAAs, offers started coming in from top-ranked programs, most particularly Providence College, where Rick Pitino had once coached. Willard was all but in the bag. The night before he was to fly off to visit the Providence campus, his son, Kevin, remembers that Willard talked mostly about Providence, barely mentioning he was stopping off at Pitt.

Once again, however, it was time for one of Ralph Willard's sudden, decisive flashes of insight. Something clicked in Pittsburgh. The chancellor talked to him about the way athletics brings together students, alumni, and the community, and he liked that. He liked the rich cultural life of the urban campus. Most of all, he saw a special potential for Pitt's basketball program. "Basketball is going to be fun at the University of Pittsburgh," he says.

WHEN HE ANNOUNCED his resignation from Western Kentucky, Willard had to stop in mid-press conference when his emotions got the best of him as he described saying good-bye to his players.

Now, with the first season at his new job stretching out before him, his emotions seem to run high again, toward excitement, when he talks about the next group of players.

"When they come in, they're like colts," he says. "They're gangly physically. They lack confidence mentally and emotionally. And when they leave, hopefully, if you've done a good job helping them along the path, they're confident, success-oriented, mentally tough, good people."

Willard arrives at Pitt with his techniques and coaching staff intact, although both Bobby Jones and Tom Crean say there have been some adaptations along the way.

For example, there's the recent innovation they call "effort stats," statistics on not how well a player is doing, but how hard he is trying. "He's developed these statistics," explains Crean, "not on how many points you scored, not how many assists you had, but how many times you went for a rebound, how many times you tried to challenge somebody when he went for a shot."

Willard uses these stats, say both Crean and Jones, in a very pedagogic fashion to give a precise listing of what a player can do to improve, taking a negative situation and turning it into a positive one.

That, after all, is Willard's record in a nutshell. Not just turning losing teams into winners, but turning the whole affair of playing basketball into a positive, learning experience.

To the former high school teacher, it is, simply, what he promised to do so long ago in Georgia. "I consider myself an educator," he says. "I believe that there's more to my job than Xs and Os. I think of the Xs and Os as tools to use in helping people to realize what it takes to be successful, and also what it takes to be a good person. Take care of those things, and winning and losing take care of themselves."

The door of Ralph Willard's office is open. Sneakers squeak in the distance, and the basketballs still thump like heartbeats. When a peal of laughter echoes out in the gym, it's hard not to think that the winning hasn't already started.


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