The whirling dervish of a basketball program is no more. The Tasmanian Devil of a coach is gone. The storm has passed and the calm has set at Seton Hall. At least, so it seems.
Yet, the debris still remains. Rome wasn't built in a day and four years of Gonzo's reign can't be fixed in seven months. Seton Hall has an image problem, that much is certain. Whether its a team of knuckleheads or guys getting bad raps, it doesn't matter. Perception begets reality and the game becomes all about optics.
Kevin Willard recognizes that. The first-year Pirates coach has a mission statement to change the perception of his new team. A task that may be harder than taking them to the NCAA Tournament. Getting to the Dance is a tangible effort, keep winning and you get in. Changing what people see isn't as simple.
"It's kind of hard not to look at [the team] in a negative light," said Herb Pope. "Especially leading off with Stix. Since then, me hitting a guy, coach getting fired. You kind of have to be a realist at times and look at it like that."
In a week-long maelstrom of bad publicity last March, Seton Hall went from middling bubble-team to an easy stereotype.
Pope was one of the culprits. In a Tuesday night blowout loss in the first round of the NIT he was caught on national television twice hitting a Texas Tech player below the belt and subsequently being ejected. The next morning head coach Bobby Gonzalez was surprisingly and unceremoniously fired, in essence, for conduct unbecoming of his position. A few hours later news broke that Robert "Stix" Mitchell had been arrested and charged with kidnapping, robbery, burglary and possession of a weapon. All only two days after Gonzalez had kicked him off of the team.
Pope, Mitchell, and Keon Lawrence — who started the season with a month-long suspension for a DUI — were all transfers and some already carried baggage as second-chance, character risks. It wasn't a far leap to cement theirs and the school's reputations.
Seton Hall made its way into plenty of national headlines, the word ‘turmoil' not many spaces away. Much of the blame was put at the feet of Gonzalez. The capricious and sometimes petulant ex-coach, by many accounts, created an unsavory atmosphere that had a noxious trickle-down effect onto his program. He earned himself, and his former employer, no favors by being arrested for satchel-theft in July from the Short Hills Mall.
That is what Willard inherited. In return, what the program received was a coach who may just be the guiding voice it needs. If his predecessor put a stink on the program from the inside-out, then Willard is trying to turn things around the same way.
Willard portends to be a coach who speaks softly but carries a big stick. He is not a screamer — for the most part — running practice in relative quiet with the usual basketball sounds amplifying as white noise. Nor is he abrasive or outspoken, handling interviews plainly but with a wry wit.
He has already had an effect, keeping Jeremy Hazell and Jordan Theodore, among others, from leaving the program following the regime change. Just as importantly, his demeanor has made things easier for everyone.
"It's a steady mindset," said Pope of how Willard operates. "It's not jumping around from place to place and up and down, and then craziness and calmness. The way that he is, the way this team is, you don't have to be walking around on ice and feel like it's about to break. No, everything is out in the open. He leaves doors open and there's nothing to hide."
Whereas Gonzalez was accused of playing favorites and having a short rope along with his short fuse, the operative word for Willard is calm. It's not hard to glean that the players appreciate an even-handed approach.
"I run a tight ship," said Willard. "It's not prison. I like kids to have fun on the basketball court. I like kids to have fun in college."
Off to the right start, Willard acknowledges there will be bumps in the road to the total makeover he's looking for. He says that on the recruiting trail, coaches and players have been receptive to what he's trying to do. The need for change in how Seton Hall is viewed has also sunk in with the players, who have sometimes been the culprits as much as the victims.
"We gotta change the perspective, the way that people think about Seton Hall," said Hazell. "That we are tough, not so good kids. I think all of us are great kids. We are all gonna be alright. We're just going to play as hard as we can, better than we did last year. And keep all the nonsense that we had, in the past."
Change is a gradual process and it may take time for old biases to die down. But at least Willard has Seton Hall on the right path, and it's no longer a question of if but when.
"Nothing happens overnight, unfortunately," he said. "As much as I'd like it to happen."
For more Seton Hall and Rutgers coverage, follow Mike Vorkunov on Twitter at @Mike_Vorkunov