Flanked by Seton Hall president Dr. Gabriel Esteban to his right and athletic director Pat Lyons on his left, Tony Bozzella made confident and impactful splash upon returning to his alma mater following successful 11-year run at Iona. (Photo courtesy of Seton Hall University)
Seton Hall University hired just its fourth women's basketball coach in the history of the program earlier this morning, going with a man who has not only won wherever else he has been, but left a reputation for winning and cultivating skill sets in his players that were previously untapped.
The Pirates did not just get it right by hiring Tony Bozzella, they hit a grand slam.
This hire by Seton Hall athletic director Pat Lyons, Bozzella's former boss at Iona before the two officially reunited about five hours ago, is not about nepotism or getting the band back together as some may suggest by the fact that fellow Gaels expatriate Kevin Willard is in charge of the men's program in South Orange. Rather, it is about truly finding the right fit for a program in desperate need of fresh blood, a new leader who can breathe a unique fire into a team that has gone six seasons without a postseason appearance. In the 47-year-old Bozzella, a proud family man above all else, the Seton Hall community gets a native son in some regards; one who is a Class of 1988 alumnus, even meeting his eventual wife, Maria, while a student nearly three decades ago, and now someone who will raise the players he inherits just as well as he has raised his own two children.
Despite only once reaching the NCAA Tournament in his thirteen years at the Division I level, Bozzella's record speaks for itself. He leaves Iona College after a strong eleven-year tenure in which he became the Gaels' winningest mentor this past season, and also departs with the satisfaction of leaving his former program in good hands, as all five starters from a MAAC runner-up squad that ended a 20-13 campaign with wins in ten of its final thirteen games return next year. He also, arguably, leaves for a better opportunity in a suddenly more competitive Big East, one free of the perennial crowding of the top spots by Connecticut, Notre Dame and Louisville. If anything, Bozzella's experience in battling Brian Giorgis and Marist for MAAC supremacy over the last decade will only enhance his credibility as he enters the high-major world for the first time.
If you had the opportunity to listen to Bozzella's introductory press conference this morning, it was easy to pick up on the fact that he wants to be at Seton Hall, even relishes the opportunity of being able to return to his alma mater a conquering hero. When a coach's passion pours out so strongly that it instantly resonates with a fan base that is just as eager to embrace a winner as the coach himself is, it creates a certain brand of magic; one that is unstoppable when firing on all cylinders, as evidenced by Steve Lavin's first season at St. John's two years ago.
For those who have followed Bozzella's career, no explanation is necessary. You will know how he coached his teams at Iona, leaving nothing on the court, how he brought unheralded recruits into New Rochelle and developed them into greater successes than half the coaches in the nation have been able to turn out. How he built a foundation with players the likes of Martina Weber and Suzi Fregosi among others, eventually laying one brick at a time and carefully placing it atop the other until he had talent the likes of Damika Martinez, Joy Adams and Aleesha Powell, the first two of whom are the reigning MAAC Player and Rookie of the Year, respectively.
Bozzella's new team at Seton Hall may be losing two starters, but he is not walking into a house without a door or a roof. Dynamic combo guard Ka-Deidre Simmons will be back for her junior season, and will likely anchor the Pirate offense yet again, giving her new coach a player who is equal parts scorer and facilitator. As far as the rest of the roster, expect increased productivity across the board from a coach and staff who will stop at nothing to get the most out of their players, starting with Bozzella and going down to associate head coach and former UMBC boss Phil Stern, even further down to assistant Lauren DeFalco, who herself played for Bozzella once upon a time at Iona.
Winning the press conference truly does take you only so far in college basketball, but Tony Bozzella is a winner where it matters. Not only is he a winner on the court, he is a winner in life, a man who the parents of a 17-year-old daughter about to make the jump from high school to college can trust to guide their child down the right road in life and be there for a beacon of everlasting support. He is a fighter, someone who jumped into coaching at the age of 21, taking a job coaching the girls' basketball team at St. Mary's High School in South Amboy, and slowly landing jab after jab until he finally scored the right cross that is the Seton Hall job he just filled today. He is a confident man, one who will not willingly concede defeat. When Bozzella emphatically declared that he and his staff were "going to make this work," you didn't have to be a lip reader or psychologist to know he meant every word he said. This man will embody the concept of a hard-working man who wants the best not just for himself, but more importantly for those around him; his players, his fans, his alumni supporters, and most of all, his family. Bozzella stressed the family environment fostered within the Seton Hall community several times, each increasingly stronger than the last. It is extremely hard to generate appreciation from apathy no matter what field you represent, but Tony Bozzella is well on his way to producing something from what several have described as nothing.
"I can assure you," the coach said as he culminated his inaugural address, "that Seton Hall basketball, men and women, will be extremely successful." I can assure you that Tony Bozzella will make this happen sooner rather than later. His infectious spirit and passion are simply too strong to suggest otherwise. Not only will he better his own program, but his positive nature and desire to get the job done will breed winning across the board in South Orange, inspiring his other colleagues to unleash their own passion to succeed.
After being mired in a slump that has gone on longer than most would like to admit, Seton Hall, and the world around it, finally has its savior. Now he gets to introduce himself to a new legion of fans, who will give him the same warm embrace he has received everywhere else. The embrace of a winner.