Shaheen Holloway and Seton Hall were an easy match. Now comes the hard work.
Seton Hall made the right choice by bringing Holloway home. But now, expectations will rise higher than ever.
SOUTH ORANGE – You’d lose count Thursday if you tried to track how many times Seton Hall president Joseph Nyre, Board of Regents chair Kevin Marino and athletic director Bryan Felt used some version of the phrase, “Welcome home.”
The Pirates’ hiring of Shaheen Holloway as their next men’s basketball head coach was the ultimate homecoming, even if he wasn’t away for very long. There was ovation upon ovation from a crowd that witnessed what Holloway had just achieved with tiny mid-major Saint Peter’s, students brimming with pride that this coach was one of their own – with belief that it could be done at Seton Hall too.
Holloway joined Richie Regan as the only Seton Hall alumni to take up the post at their alma mater. He spoke at the dais in Walsh Gymnasium for less than eight minutes, a portrait of a man who was thrilled to be back but serious about the task at hand. That was evident in how he ended his remarks to the crowd.
“Just know, I’m not going to mess this up,” he said. “I can’t mess it up. It’s way too important to me.”
Leading your alma mater in any capacity, in athletics especially, is both an honor and a burden. Seton Hall made the obvious choice – and the right choice – by bringing Holloway home. But now, expectations will rise higher than ever.
Felt acknowledged this, telling reporters “it might not be fair” to train sights on the 2023 Final Four. The AD also hired Holloway in 2018 at Saint Peter’s; he knows as well as anyone that the Peacocks didn’t come out of nowhere, that it took four years to prepare that program for its stunning Elite Eight run.
Was it a slam-dunk “yes” for Holloway? He says it wasn’t, not with almost all of his Saint Peter’s players returning to school for another season after all they just accomplished. But he wouldn’t say no to home, and the Peacocks gave him a proper goodbye.
“They made it easy for me,” Holloway said. “We were in there for three hours (Wednesday) talking about everything. They were making fun of me, the way I coach, the way I talk, the drills and this and that. It was just a great time.”
The Peacocks loved Holloway so much that they made the trip from Jersey City to South Orange to support him, something you don’t get to see every day. (This, of course, led to Doug Edert being asked for dozens of photos, including with the Seton Hall mascot.) Holloway wouldn’t go several minutes without reminding the crowd or reporters that “these 15 players” deserve the credit for how far he’s risen in the coaching ranks.
Felt said that Seton Hall knew Kevin Willard would be departing on the Sunday night after the Pirates’ first-round loss to TCU. Even then, Holloway was the main target, and Felt appeared to answer in the negative when asked if the school talked with any other candidate.
He said he would have made the same decision if Saint Peter’s had lost in the MAAC tourney final and missed the NCAA Tournament altogether.
“He certainly made it easier,” he added, grinning.
If anything, Holloway might have driven up his own value. He signed a six-year contract this week, mere days after Saint Peter’s magical run in the NCAA Tournament ended in the Elite Eight with a loss to North Carolina.
Holloway thanked Kevin Willard in his remarks to fans, and if Seton Hall faithful might be a bit tired of the name right now, it’s worth remembering that Willard first brought Holloway into the collegiate coaching ranks as an assistant at Iona, then to South Orange for most of the 2010s.
“I want to give Kevin Willard his flowers,” Holloway told reporters. “What he did here was unbelievable. I mean, unbelievable. But I want to take it to the next level, right? You always want to take it to the next level. That’s going to be hard work, it’s going to be hard. What he’s done here, as an alumni, I’m proud. Not to just have coached with him, but just being an alum, I was proud of what he did and what he stood for at the university. I just want to take it to another level.”
In reality, that means winning NCAA Tournament games. The Pirates became regular dancers by the end of Willard’s tenure, but they’ve won a grand total of one game in the past 19 years.
Secondarily, it might also mean convincing more local talent to stay home and play for Seton Hall. Rest assured, that’s about to be a much cooler thing to do after Holloway became New Jersey’s best new ambassador on national television.
Coach, remind us again, how did your guys manage to box out Murray State?
“I’m going to say this. It’s going to come off a little crazy,” Holloway said on March 19. “I got guys from New Jersey and New York City. You think we’re scared of anything? You think we’re worried about guys trying to muscle us and tough us out?”
Felt concurred when I asked him if that particular declaration might be a boon on the local recruiting trail.
“I think so, absolutely,” Felt said. “I mean listen, Shaheen Holloway, we all know, he’s a name nationwide now, but this area, he’s deeply rooted in New York and New Jersey basketball. So I think it absolutely would be a tremendous asset to him, his mentality that he has, to this area and those quotes – I mean he had so many great remarks during that run, but I think that that one specifically will absolutely help him.”
Holloway said Thursday that he wanted to get down to business, hit the recruiting trail and start working with his new players. But the man was physically and emotionally drained from the tornado that had come through North Jersey in recent weeks.
Flanked by his family – one of his two sons, Xavier, was named after the building on Seton Hall’s campus where he met his wife, Kim – the work could wait for one day while the program celebrated its new era. But the expectations won’t wait.
“When you’re home and you’re here, it’s a difference. It’s a big difference,” he said. “You put more time, more effort, more sweat, more tears. This is everything to me. Getting the opportunity to coach at my alma mater? I’m not gonna mess this opportunity up. It’s too important.”
As always, thanks for reading. Thursday’s introduction is the last event I foresee myself attending as this wild college basketball season draws to a close. Like I mentioned Monday, I counted 28 games I made it to in person during the season, but adding the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight for Field Level, it was 31. I headed to Newark, Piscataway, Princeton, West Long Branch, Lawrenceville, Boston, Philadelphia and finally South Orange all on my own dime. It’s a far cry from, say, 12-15 months ago, when nobody was going anywhere smack in the middle of the pandemic. It’s so encouraging to see live sports coverage get (mostly) back to normal.
I plan to be back on Thursday each of the next three weeks, winding things down with some season-review type of stories. For now, let’s clean the glass with a few important notes:
Seton Hall has reached the final of the Women’s NIT by going on the road and defeating Middle Tennessee on Thursday, 74-73. Sidney Cooks is the Pirates’ MVP: 28 points on 10-of-13 shooting, seven rebounds and this well-designed, game-winning layup in the final two seconds.Here's the game winning layup by Seton Hall's Sidney Cooks. Beautifully designed. After Lauren Park-Lane draws two defenders off a screen by Cooks, Cooks rolls to the low post with a mismatch. Andra Espinoza-Hunter see it and delivers a perfect pass
The Pirates, who beat Fairleigh Dickinson in the first round and Ivy titan Columbia later in the quarterfinals, will head up to South Dakota State on Saturday afternoon for the WNIT final.
My Final Four picks, based on little more than a gut feeling: Duke and Villanova meet in the title game, and Villanova denies Coach K a career-ending championship. It would be the Wildcats’ third national title in the past six tournaments. We’ll see. Don’t trust me to make picks for you. I was eliminated in my survivor pool on Day 3.