May 20, 2009
Jason Williford returns to the University of Virginia as an assistant basketball coach with a clear and daunting challenge:
Help assemble recruiting classes as good as his own.
Williford arrived at Virginia in 1991 with Cory Alexander, Junior Burrough, Yuri Barnes and Chris Alexander. Some rankings pegged them the nation's No. 2 freshman group behind Michigan's Fab Five.
Both classes flourished.
Coach Steve Fisher's Wolverines advanced to consecutive national-championship games before NBA defections splintered the team. Jeff Jones' Cavaliers embarked on the program's most successful four-year run before or since the Ralph Sampson Era.
"Who better to sell the program than someone who knows what it's like day-to-day and who experienced some success?" Williford said. "We were pretty good."
Williford is right on both counts.
Virginia's coaching staff has lacked alumni flavor since Jones' forced departure in 1998, a void that certainly contributed to the Cavaliers' subsequent decline — one NCAA tournament victory since — and the failed head-coaching tenures of Pete Gillen and Dave Leitao.
Hired in March from Washington State, Tony Bennett is Virginia's fourth big whistle in 13 years. His appointment of Williford rates as his wisest move to date.
Not that Williford, 35, is a cure-all for a program lately more comatose than Jack Bauer. Five seasons at Boston University and the last four at American University do not necessarily portend the next Roy Williams.
That said, his suburban Washington, D.C., recruiting connections, Richmond roots (John Marshall High Class of '91) and U.Va. degree are ideal.
"I think ultimately it is important," Williford said of alumni presence. "I'm honored that it was me."
It might have been other former Virginia players. Anthony Solomon is a Notre Dame assistant; Richard Morgan has worked at several schools, including Hampton, East Carolina and Appalachian State; Ted Jeffries coached at William and Mary before becoming a fund-raiser.
Most of Virginia's ACC rivals also value pedigree. Georgia Tech, Miami, Maryland, North Carolina, North Carolina State and Duke employ graduates on their men's basketball staffs, while Wake Forest's includes a former Winston-Salem high school coach.
But there is a downside, as Jones, Williford's boss at American, warned.
"He loves the school," Jones said. "He believes in it. He's of the mind-set he wants to be a part of getting things turned around.
"But I told him, 'J, there's a lot of pressure on you. Sure, Tony Bennett is the head coach, and he's on the hot seat. But you're the guy from U.Va., you're the guy with (state) ties. People are going to look at you and say, Who are they signing?' The bottom line is they've got to get better players."
"It scares me a little bit," he said. "I have a lot to live up to. I feel like I'm going to have the weight of the world on my shoulders. …
"You've got to recruit good guys, four-year guys, who understand the academic (element). You've got to play solid defense. People say you have to get in-state guys, and I appreciate that, but you have to win first."
Like Bennett, Williford has paid homage to Boo Williams, whose Hampton Roads-based summer program is among the nation's best. Unlike Bennett, Williford has a history with Williams.
During the late 1980s and early '90s, Williford played for Richmond Metro against Boo teams that included Old Dominion signees Petey Sessoms and Mario Mullen, North Carolina recruit Ed Geth and point-guard extraordinaire Mike Evans — academic issues short-circuited his college career.
A 6-foot-6 forward, Williford started for three seasons at Virginia. He never averaged more than 9.8 points, but during his career, the Cavaliers never had a losing ACC season — the only comparable stretch in program history was a five-year run from 1979-83, the last four of which encompassed Sampson's time.
In Williford's senior year, 1995, Virginia was 25-9 overall, 12-4 in the ACC, and advanced to the NCAA Midwest Regional final — the Cavaliers lost to defending national champion Arkansas. No non-Sampson Virginia team has won more games overall or in conference.
Williford met his wife, Kwamina, during college, and they are expecting their second child. Kwamina is a lawyer, and the family has long hoped for a homecoming.
In 2005, Williford interviewed for a position on Leitao's first Virginia staff. Leitao instead offered an administrative post, director of basketball operations, which Williford declined.
When assistant coach Gene Cross resigned a year later, Williford applied again. Leitao opted for the more established Bill Courtney.
"The first time I was a little disappointed," Williford said. "The second time I wasn't disappointed. I understood. … If I was going to lose to anybody, Bill deserved it. He helped build that George Mason (Final Four) team. I know the business. I understand it's about winning and losing.
"I had a very good thing at AU. Unless it was Virginia, I was never really looking to move anywhere. Ultimately, I'm not in it for the money — my wife does very well. I'm in it for giving something back to the guys. …
"There's a lot of work to be done, but I wouldn't have it any other way. It's great to be home."
David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime.