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June 12, 2010

Interview with Dan McHale

by Matt McCue

Usually this time of year is a chance for college basketball coaching staffs to catch their breath and recharge their batteries. But after being brought on in April, the new staff at Seton Hall University will have to wait until next year for a breather…something assistant coach Dan McHale says is just fine with them.

"We really do work harder than anybody," he says.

McHale said he is very familiar with Seton Hall, having grown up around the corner in Chatham, N.J. and attending basketball camps at the school run by then-coach P.J. Carlesimo, and more recently, working in the camps run by former coach Tommy Amaker. "For me, I've always been very familiar with Seton Hall and everything the school has to offer."

McHale said he sees a great opportunity at Seton Hall for head coach Kevin Willard, whom he worked with for the past three years at Iona College.

Having worked at schools ranging from smaller environments like Iona to large schools in a basketball-crazed Kentucky like Louisville and the University of Kentucky, McHale believes Seton Hall offers the best of both worlds, providing a blend of the small family-like atmosphere with a big sports mentality.

"You realize that Seton Hall basketball is special and everybody is starving for Seton Hall to get back to where it was in the late '80s, the early 90s and early 2000s."

The success in 2000 can be attributed to the star point guard at the time, Shaheen Holloway, who also followed Willard from Iona to Seton Hall and will now serve as the associate head coach at his alma mater.

While the staff is young?few of the coaches, including Willard, are over 35?McHale said his experience as a student manager at the University of Kentucky and on the staff at Louisville under Rick Pitino, as well as Holloway's on-court success is underrated.

"If you don't know us, from the outside, people can say, 'you only have a couple year's experience'…that is nonsense," McHale said, pointing out that Holloway is perhaps the best Seton Hall basketball player of the past 20 years. "For me, personally I worked for coach Pitino for four years… I feel like the four years I learned under coach Pitino was double what I would have learned anywhere else."

He added, "I think people are just looking to knock us or looking to say that from an outside standpoint. I think that is the biggest advantage that we have recruiting. We are selling to kids that you want to play with the youngest staff in the Big East."


McHale said that from early on in his career he has focused on analyzing and studying the game. "What I'm kind of known for is being a jack of all trades. "For me, I am more of an old school basketball junkie. I have been studying the game my whole life."

McHale views himself in the same light as other coaches who have established themselves among the best in the business that didn't play college basketball. Such as Bruce Pearl, Tom Crean and Lawrence Frank. "I am just a student of the game. "I think I work harder than everybody else because I have to."

From a recruitment standpoint, McHale said he and Holloway have a strength in the New York and New Jersey area, however it doesn't stop there.

"Where I've extended it is my years in Kentucky. I have Kentucky connections that I feel will pay off very quickly," he said, adding that he also has developed strong relationships with various prep schools, particularly in New England.

McHale said that coming from Iona, the staff had the benefit of working with many of the major local programs, having brought in players from schools like St. Patrick's and St. Benedict's. "You have to work harder to get your foot in the door at the mid-major level," he explained.

McHale notes that aside from recruiting, one of his major roles will be scouting. "The majority of the scouting is probably my strength because of my extensive background working for coach Pitino as his video coordinator. "That was an intense job. My job was to make sure they were ready. I was kind of like an advanced scout."


McHale speaks glowingly of Willard, who he said he has a little brother/big brother relationship with. "We complement each other well because I am the eternal optimist and the way he goes about things, he downplays how good he is."

He said the key to Willard is "he still thinks he is an assistant coach…he is in the office at 6:30 every morning ready to go."

Another key aspect to Willard is his ability to leave his emotions on the court. "A lot of coaches are very one-tracked, where their personality is the same way on and off the court," (but) McHale added, "off the court he is such a great person. He is easy going just one of the guys. A lot of coaches aren't able to do that."


Anytime there is a coaching change, the newly-hired staff must not only pick up recruiting for future classes, but often must re-recruit players already on the roster. That was no different at Seton Hall.

"Anytime you have change and abrupt change, it is difficult. I don't think any of the players saw it coming…I think after coach Gonzalez and his staff were fired, there was some resentment, but I think we quickly won them over."

McHale said the biggest key to keeping the current roster intact was meeting the players halfway instead of coming in and trying to change everything in one fell swoop. That along with taking the players out to dinner after workouts and creating an atmosphere of honesty and openness was important.

He believes that players like Jordan Theodore and Ferrakohn Hall will benefit from the new staff. For Theodore, he will have the opportunity to learn under Holloway, while McHale compared Hall to former Kentucky star Tayshaun Prince, who he saw up close and personal while working on the Kentucky staff. "He has that type of upside," he said.


McHale said everything is very regimented under Willard. The day begins at 6:30 a.m. when the staff arrives on campus. At 7 a.m. there is a staff meeting that typically lasts an hour and varies from discussing the Yankee game the night before to watching film on an opponent or talking about recruiting. Beginning at 8 a.m., the staff starts the individual workout sessions, which are broken up into three groups of four and are staggered to begin at 8 a.m., 9 a.m. and 10 a.m.

The focus on individual instruction is another area where McHale believes the Seton Hall staff separates itself from others. While admitting the staff is not reinventing the wheel, he said that the focus on each individual player's needs is important not only in the off season, but also during the heart of the schedule.

Once the workouts are completed, McHale and Willard go on a run, something they have done for the past nine years. Then, from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., the team holds practice, working on defense, various presses and other dummy situations. "We have already accomplished the individual skill work in the morning," he explained.


McHale said the staff is a behind the 8-Ball a bit, as over half of the 2011 class has already committed somewhere. Additionally, the staff must overcome other obstacles.

"The Seton Hall name right now has been tarnished a little bit and I think people are using that against us…it is just the Wild, Wild West, the Big East. It is very competitive."

McHale said he always thinks back to something now-Cincinnati Head Coach Mick Cronin once told him.

"You have to find the guy that even when you are sleeping at night is telling the recruit why they should go to Seton Hall."

McHale added that the staff is turning over all stones, including Europe, Africa and prep school to identify talent. "We want to get the kid that might not be a top 50 kid but he is 50 to 100, he is a gym rat, he has a super family and he wants to be great."

The team's 2010 class includes Fuquan Edwin, a holdover from Gonzalez's tenure, along with Anali Okoloji and Patrick Auda.

McHale said the staff was very fortunate to be able to retain Edwin after the coaching change, calling him a "great get" for Gonzalez and the prior staff.

Regarding Okoloji, "He is exactly the type of kid that we want to bring in and that we WILL bring in going forward. Talent wise, he can play in the Big East and character wise, we wanted him to be the first guy."

McHale said he doesn't know Auda very well but he is a young man that fits the program from a style of play standpoint. "Coach Willard developed the relationship with him."

McHale said he expects to add one more piece to this year's recruiting class, an addition that would have his finger prints on it. Though he couldn't discuss specifics he said the addition could happen in the next couple of weeks.


McHale said finishing in the top 8 in the Big East conference is a realistic goal next year.

"I think we have the makings of a senior-laden team that has a chip on their shoulder. I want to make the tournament for these guys, for Jeremy, for Jeff, for Jordan, for Jamal Jackson."

He said everyone is aware of the offensive firepower the team possesses.

Speaking of Willard, "from an offense standpoint he is just going to let them go. However he stressed it all starts with defense. "If you don't play defense, you don't play," he explained.

McHale said there is a reason there have been different reports on Willard's preferred style of play and what should be expected at Seton Hall.

"He is going to adapt. He loves the three point ball if you can shoot it and this year's team will be predicated on the long range game."

McHale noted the team will play mostly man-to-man defense, with a mix of match-up zone?likely a 70/30 mix and will also mix both defenses into single possessions. "We like to keep opposing offenses off balance."


McHale called Hazel an "absolute special talent" and said he has a gift.

"Our expectations is to help him to reach the ultimate goal, which is to play in the NBA. And that will pay dividends for the success of our team."

"We want to teach him shot selection," explaining that "after reviewing the tapes from last season (we) believe that if Hazel can take just three or four fewer contested shots each game, his shooting percentage will increase about 10 percentage points. Teaching him shot selection is going to be huge."


"He's got all the tools & Obviously he is a tremendous athlete…but I thik he will benefit the most from individual instruction" no|ed McHale explaening that he expects to focus ob Robinson's ball handling and hes jump shot. "I,think he has the biggest upside this year to improve his game tc what he wants end what we want" He's got the intangibles."


McHale said the stabf isn't able to say much about Pope but did note he is out of the hospital and doing better which "has to be the focal point."

"Obviously, we want him to come back for his future, but we just want him to get better ncw."

"You could tell how much these guys care about Herb and what they thought about him," noted the coach. "It allows everyone to grow up a lot quicker."


McHale said having all three local schools hiring new staffs at the same time is fun. He said he doesn't know St. John's head coach Steve Lavin and his staff that well but knows Rutgers head coach Mike Rice and his staff, saying, "I have the utmost respect for them."

McHale noted he will be rooting for those programs to succeed.

"As long as we beat them in the regular season and we go further in the tournament, I want St. Johns to beat Louisville, no offense to my old boss."

He said having the other metro schools be successful is an important step in keeping the top local players home.

"I think the area is starving for a good team and we want to make sure we are that team."


McHale said the atmosphere at the Prudential Center is tremendous. "I think it is great. I think we can make it even better by getting students involved."

He noted the staff already in its first couple days at Seton Hall made a point to have lunch in the cafeteria to be visible and approachable for students, adding that having a staff mostly aged 35 and under can certainly help.

"Having a big time home court advantage, it all starts with the students."


McHale said the staff will also reach out to former Seton Hall players and has already talked to Jerry Walker, Terry Dehere, Artūras Karnisovas and Andrew Gaze, whom McHale had a previous relationship with.

"That is something that Coach Willard is big into."


McHale has been married for five years and has a 17 month-old daughter Lilly. He is currently commuting to Seton Hall for work but hopes to move into a home close by in August.

Dan plays golf whenever he gets a chance but really, "I'm just a basketball junkie."

"I don't think you can really judge my love for the game until you spend time with me or you get to see me in action. I'm a very down to earth guy who is very appreciate of everything I've gotten."

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