Tony Skinn and Grant Billmeier shook hands and hugged after the final buzzer sounded to conclude Wednesday’s matchup between George Mason and NJIT in Fairfax, Virginia, ending a rare stint without communication between the two former Maryland and Seton Hall assistants.
The two have texted or called each other weekly since taking on their first Division I head coaching roles over the summer, Skinn said. This week, their first clash as collegiate head coaches, was the lone exception. They’re two of three Terps staffers to get their first jobs this year and six to have taken a Division I head coaching role after being on Kevin Willard’s staff.
Skinn, Billmeier, current Maryland men’s basketball associate head coach David Cox and former director of player personnel Tevon Saddler, who is now head coach at Nicholls State, formed a staff that helped Willard become the first Terps head coach to qualify for the NCAA tournament in his first season at the helm.
Willard’s coaching tree doubled with the departures of Skinn, Billmeier and Saddler this offseason. His former staffers said they’ve leaned on a unique experience under Willard with added responsibilities such as running workouts and film sessions as preparation in their first few months as the heads of their own programs.
“I feel like I’m a father again, to be honest with you,” Willard said. “You have a great sense of pride when you see your assistants who worked hard to help get your program to where they are to now get their own program.”
Willard trusts his assistants to play a crucial role in a variety of Maryland’s day-to-day operations — an amount Skinn and Cox, who boast a combined 25 years of experience as assistant coaches at the Division I level, said is rare.
Skinn, Cox and Billmeier, Willard’s three assistants in his first season with the Terps last year, said the coach expected them to play a part in everything from recruiting and holding individual talks with players to running workouts and film sessions.
Skinn said playing an expanded role as an assistant during practices helped him find confidence in his own voice after previously being more reserved.
Billmeier and Skinn believe the added responsibility and autonomy didn’t just help Willard’s teams, but prepared them to land their first collegiate head coaching opportunity and feel acclimated to the responsibility that comes with running their own programs.
“There’s a lot of assistant coaches, with all due respect, that work for certain head coaches that don’t allow them the same workload and the same opportunities to make those decisions,” Skinn said. “Everybody wants to be a head coach, but not everybody has had the opportunity to be in those situations where you got to make a decision and be comfortable in doing so.”
Skinn and Billmeier both said they’ve taken the lessons learned from those experiences into their first head coaching roles.
The latter, who spent 12 years on Willard’s staff at Seton Hall and Maryland, largely mirrors the way Willard and his teams operate — perhaps best demonstrated in the way he frantically gestured and jolted up and down NJIT’s bench throughout its loss to George Mason on Wednesday.
“I’d say our programs are 90 percent similar, you know, I have my own spin, I have my own ideas, but in terms of player development, in terms of coaching, in terms of X’s and O’s, we don’t look as good as his teams do right now, but it’s very similar in a lot of ways,” Billmeier said.
Skinn noticed Willard’s willingness to participate in drills and “put the time in when most coaches don’t,” something he hopes to emulate at George Mason. His Patriots have thrived since he’s taken over at his alma mater — who he powered to a Final Four in 2006 as a player — with a 6-1 start.
Saddler’s Nicholls State is off to a similar start. It upset LSU in his first game as head coach against a power-conference opponent.
Kevin Willard Coaching 🌲…👀.
— Tony Skinn (@CoachTonySkinn) April 6, 2023
Saddler, the youngest Division I head coach in the nation, will return to College Park for the first time since taking the helm of his alma mater when the Terps take on the Colonels on Dec. 19, the final regular season game pitting Willard protégés against each other.
Before taking on George Mason, Billmeier’s NJIT played Wagner, coached by former Seton Hall assistant Donald Copeland, on Nov. 25. Willard was succeeded at Seton Hall by Shaheen Holloway, perhaps the most high-profile head coach of his former assistants, after he took Saint Peter’s to the Elite Eight in 2022. Seton Hall defeated Copeland’s Wagner on Nov. 18.
“I have become very busy on ESPN+ and Peacock and all that stuff because some of these early games aren’t on TV,” Willard said.
With the December matchup between Maryland and Nicholls State, each of Willard’s five active former staffers turned head coaches will have played against each other or him this season.
Dan McHale, the remaining branch of Willard’s coaching tree, served as an assistant at Iona and Seton Hall and was the head coach of Eastern Kentucky from 2015 to 2018.
While Maryland’s staff last year now spans from Louisiana to New Jersey, Willard’s former assistants still talk to each other and him weekly. The five active Division I head coaches who have previously worked under Willard belong to a growing group who have used their unique experience under him to take charge of their own programs.
“Giving me the flexibility, either to run a practice, run a skill development, run film the night before a game, just having that trust in me, where, in my first year of the program, I don’t feel like I’m doing something for the first time,” Billmeier said. “I feel like he put me in a great position where I feel very comfortable with running the program from day to day.”