WICHITA — At first, the father-son relationship that Seton Hall’s seniors and Kevin Willard kept mentioning toward the tail-end of this season sounded more metaphorical than actual. Turns out, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
It seemed like the volume in which Willard would refer to his seniors as his sons and the frequency of how many times they would label him a father-figure escalated quickly over the last month or two.
Not seen as anything but a highly-quotable line at first, the labels “father-figure” and “my sons, my kids” kept surfacing during the homestretch of the season until the reality of how true and pure the bond between coach and player really is, hit home.
Seton Hall’s four seniors — Angel Delgado, Ismael Sanogo, Desi Rodriguez, and Khadeen Carrington — were the first to speak after Saturday night’s losing battle to Kansas, with Willard — their father for over four years — seated right beside them.
All four players, like they’ve done since they set foot on campus what seems like a long way back in the summer of 2014, went to bat for their coach, just like they did on the court, one last time.
First up was Sanogo, who fittingly was also the first of the class to pledge his future to Willard and a shaky program on a humid July day in Newark nearly five years ago.
“I’m sad, but I’m also happy that I got the chance to play with some of the best players in the country and to be coached by the best coach in the country,” reflected Sanogo of his time in South Orange.
Then, it was big man Angel Delgado’s turn to praise his coach.
“I’m just proud of my team, just proud of my coach. He’s not only my coach. He’s like my dad. So it’s kind of hard right now, but I just love my guys.”
While Khadeen Carrington’s bond with Willard has been well-documented in the recent past, it was Desi Rodriguez who opened his heart at the podium, revealing all.
“Early in our careers we faced adversity. We overcame it, and every one of these guys grew as people on the court and off the court. We came from boys to men, and Coach did a great job of doing that and developing each one of us, making each other better people, you know, just not for basketball, (but) off the court and later in life.
“And I want to say thank you to him. He did an unbelievable job with me. A lot of people gave up on me, but Coach didn’t. When times got hard, he stuck by my side. When I went through depressing times, I was able to talk to him. He was able to help me a lot,” continued a candid Rodriguez.
“So I just want to thank him for these past four years and just being a father figure to me and these guys right here, we will never lose touch. We will be brothers for life, talk every day, same relationship.”
Seton Hall’s seniors would then exit the stage, both literally and metaphorically, for the final time, leaving their head coach and father in nearly every way but legally, to speak about them.
In an emotional twist, Willard could hardly describe the love he was feeling.
All it took was the second question, about what the four guys that were sitting to his left meant to him and the program, for Willard to break down just like he did during his pre-game talk during Senior Night.
The outpouring of emotion was an encapsulation of what college sports should be all about and should become a model for future coaches — whether it be in South Orange or elsewhere — to adopt.
“Not right now I can’t because I’ll get emotional,” answered Willard, before his eyes quickly welled up. “You know, it’s going to take me a couple of days, just because they’re like my kids. They really are.”
Although the sincere showing of emotion took place after losing to Kansas, it was something Willard said the day before the game, which really showed how his father-like persona let his group of boys gain independence and learn on their own, just like a blood-related father would.
“I think the biggest thing, you know, I’ve probably mellowed out tremendously,” he began when asked how he’s grown as a coach since this class came aboard.
“I think I’ve come to realize when you have a group and you put a group together and you enjoy being around them and they work hard to kind of let them be them and not so much impose my will, I’ve kind of let these guys — I’ve let these guys’ personalities and their work ethic kind of form their own identity for this team.
“And instead of me trying to be, well, this is how we’re going to be, I think the biggest difference what I’ve learned is I’m going to let them be them, and I need to adapt to how they want to be a little bit. They’re still in my framework. They’re still in what I wanted to do offensively and defensively, but from a standpoint of who we are and what we are, it’s much more their personality than it is mine.
“I’ve kind of sat back and let them grow as men and grow as a team because I think it’s been very important to let them take ownership in this program. And I think that’s something that I’ve really focused on is letting them take ownership in the program and letting them kind of be the ones who are leading.”
Like fatherhood outside of the realm of basketball, a framework, as Willard puts it, is important, while over-controlling and over-policing is a slippery slope.
The less-mellow version of Willard could refer to multiple things, but you will recall his early years of constant suspensions, social media shutdowns, and the like before this class came aboard.
Now, four years removed from past teams that can metaphorically be called broken families in comparison to present day, an unofficial family bond has been formed and will never be fractured.
The most endearing thing about all of this? Several of Seton Hall’s seniors grew up without a true father in their lives.
Even if you can’t empathize with what that void must feel like, you can generally understand being somewhat lost and lacking a degree of structure, something that a high-level coach can bring into your life.
Willard has had to do a lot of managing over the past four years, but ultimately he was able to let up on the gas a bit and release the boys that he recruited into the world as men.
That transition happened tonight on a big stage for all to see and cherish.
Those men proved people wrong on and off the court, and made their father-for-life proud in the end both by achieving the ultimate validation of winning an NCAA Tournament game, and by going down with a fight against Kansas.
“It means a lot, because he’s really our father,” said Delgado in a somber and cleaned out locker room when told about his coach crying at the podium.
“I didn’t grow up with a father so he’s always been there for me. He’s definitely going to be my father forever because he’s been there for the hard times and the good times with me.”
It would be wrong to call everything these seniors said about Willard in the final hour to be parting words.
Because the bond between these seniors and their Coach will never truly be broken.