American University was Jason Williford’s first head-coaching interview. Bet it won’t be his last.
An assistant the past four seasons at Virginia, Williford was among two finalists for the position that Tuesday went to Georgetown assistant Mike Brennan.
Williford and Brennan were co-workers at American under Jeff Jones, who last month left to become Old Dominion’s head coach. Both have Washington D.C., recruiting connections and were accomplished players, Williford at Virginia for Jones, Brennan at Princeton for Pete Carril.
Brennan and Williford were on Jones’ staff in 2008 and ’09 when the Eagles won the Patriot League tournament to earn the program’s first Division I NCAA tournament bids.
In short, both were naturals to replace Jones.
That Williford, 39, was a finalist as a first-time candidate speaks to not only his credentials but also his poise. Interviewing for a big-whistle gig, complete with search committee of varying agendas, can be daunting, especially for a rookie. But clearly Williford impressed athletic director Billy Walker and others.
In Hampton recruiting last weekend, Williford told me he thought the American interview went well. He appreciated others’ qualifications and viewed the experience as invaluable career development.
That’s the perfect approach, one Williford is able to take because of his current job. He’s working for a boss he admires and respects, Tony Bennett, at a program on the apparent rise – Virginia reached the NCAA tournament in 2012, the NIT this past season and has top-25 potential for next season.
When Bennett moved from Washington State to Virginia, he, like most head coaches, surrounded himself with assistants he knows. He brought Ron Sanchez with him from Washington State and hired Liberty coach Ritchie McKay, a long-time friend.
Williford was the wild card but came with sterling recommendations from Jones, a former Virginia point guard, and Dennis Wolff, a former assistant under Jones at U.Va. As Boston University’s head coach, Wolff gave Williford his first college position.
Bennett wisely listened, giving his staff a link to the past at a time when many former players were estranged from the program. Such outreach is important, and it’s been effective.
A Richmond native, 1995 Virginia graduate (degree in psychology) and starter on the Cavaliers’ ’95 Elite Eight team, Williford has distinguished himself working with the program’s big men. Mike Scott, Akil Mitchell, Darion Atkins and Mike Tobey have thrived, in part, thanks to Williford’s coaching.
Most assistant coaches aspire to run their own program. Most don’t get the chance, and there’s no explaining the fates that lead some to the corner office and deny others.
So there are no guarantees for Williford. But he’s connected and qualified, and, perhaps as important, has that presence you associate with the boss, right down to the professorial glasses.
Call that shallow if you will, but as athletic directors and university presidents sift through scores of candidates, presence can be critical.
No, Williford’s not on the short list of “hot assistants” that Dick Vitale and other national media annually tout. But the American interview and Virginia’s expected success should make him an even better candidate when the next opportunity arises.
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