Coach’s Chair: Tony Bozzella, Seton Hall University

Tony Bozzella has been coaching for over two decades, and enters his fifth season at his alma mater, Seton Hall. Photo courtesy of Seton Hall Athletics.
Tony Bozzella has been coaching for over two decades, and enters his fifth season at his alma mater, Seton Hall. Photo courtesy of Seton Hall Athletics.

Tony Bozzella returned to coach the program at his alma mater, Seton Hall, in 2013. In his second season the Pirates notched a program-best 28 wins, and they advanced to the NCAA Tournament both that year and the next.

Prior to his return, Bozzella spent 11 years as the head coach at Iona College, where he turned an under-achieving program into a winner. He did the same at LIU Brooklyn before that, and as head coach of his first program, at Southhampton College of Long Island University.

Bozzella shares a unique relationship with Seton Hall athletic director Pat Lyons and men’s basketball coach Kevin Willard in that all three held the same positions together at Iona before taking jobs with the Pirates.

The longtime coach and his wife, Maria, met at Seton Hall. They have two teenage children.

How happy are you to get the season going?

Really excited. This is a great bunch of kids, and I’m excited to coach this team. Our entire team is talented and can match up with any of the Big East players. We’ve done a good job of reloading the team, and the younger kids who have stayed have matured. We’ve brought in a great influx of newcomers.

You’ve made it your trademark to turn programs around. When you’ve taken jobs at new teams, what is your approach going in? What are the keys to rebuilding?

When you take over a program, each is different and unique in its own way. You have to look at kids and identify their talent and adjust your system accordingly, or put them in a better situation to let their talents come out better. Each place I’ve coached has been different. Different talent levels mean different situations. Sometimes I’ve had a good amount of talent and put them in different places to have a different system. In some cases there has been not enough talent, so I had to add to what wasn’t there. At Iona it took until my fourth year to get things going. At SHU I was able to do it right away by moving pieces around. Have to take a look and get a fresh look.

What are the most important founding principles for a team?

Certain principles can be adjusted as you move along, and they should be, but certain ones can’t. Number one is you need to be respectful, and that goes both ways. Not just the kids, but coach and staff needs to be respectful towards them. We call it a marriage nowadays. They know you care, and we hope they care. In the old days it was “my way or the highway,” but if you still think that way you’re going to struggle. It has to go both ways. The athletes need to respect that they have a job to do and they need to put the time in on and off the court. On our end, our understanding of our student athletes is that they have to have a life. Sometimes it’s a very difficult environment on their end with Twitter and social media. In our recruiting process we’re looking for that understanding in kids that play. Another clear understanding is trying hard; nowadays that’s a skill. Nowadays you go to tournaments with other coaches and armed with scholarships and you see it. If they’re not going to try hard there, they won’t try once they get to college. The days of thinking that you can change a kid once they get to school are gone.

What is your philosophy on team culture?

Everyone wants to have team culture and get along. Once again, Twitter, Instagram and social media are factors in that. It’s a delicate balance, but we want to be team-oriented. We are not one of those teams that do 400 things together and eat dinner together every night. I want to give them their independence and let them have a life. We work on team chemistry on the court, like making that extra pass. We’ll point out who slapped someone’s hands the most.

Some have asked us why we don’t get many transfers. We’re not trying to get them to be best friends. The last thing a kid wants is to be best friends with 14 new kids when she gets to school. She wants to get a degree and play basketball. At end of the day, I want them to be effective on the court. We’ve been the most successful with fifth-year kids.

When did you know you wanted to coach, and why?

When I was in high school, I wasn’t a good player. We had a great high school team, and my coaches told me they weren’t going to be able to me much playing time. So I became the team manager, and I sat in on team meetings with the coaches. I learned a lot of  strategy and how to deal with people. It was an inner-city team with all kinds of economic variation. I learned to look at what they do, like in scouting, and really targeting certain things in opponents.

My staff does a great job, and we all have an input. One of the things we do is to try to find the weaknesses in our opponents. In college I got lucky and saw an advertisement for a boy’s varsity basketball job. The athletic director told me I didn’t have enough experience, but he said he’d give me the girls team to coach. I didn’t want to do it at first, but we went 21-4. I had no idea what I was doing, but they liked me and I liked them. That year was one of my favorite years of coaching. If I could go back in time to coach that year again, I would. I was also dating my future wife at the time.

Since I wasn’t a good player, I got how kids couldn’t make a pass. Great players don’t always get that.

What is the best thing about coaching?

I enjoy the relationships I’ve developed over the years. I have three former players on staff. It’s Lauren DeFalco’s eighth year as assistant coach. I have had a lot of former players on staff.

What did it mean to you to return to your alma mater and take the helm?

When Pat Lyons was on the committee to hire me at Iona, after my third year we were 14-70 and I went to a meeting with him thinking I would get fired. He said Tony, you’re doing a good job. The culture has changed and we have lot of new players; you’ll be fine. He was not only great at financially supporting us, but we were well-taken care of. I knew I could win here because I know what it was like to be a student here. This is my dream job. They interviewed lots of candidates, but they still chose me. Here, they respect how hard we work at Seton Hall and how much we love Seton Hall.

What are your goals for the program? What is your approach to goal-setting?

We want to win conference championships. Our goal is to build stability in the program. When I took over I knew I had to do it one way: I had to make it a better look. Now our goal is to have stability, and to try to keep as many kids as possible each year. You do that by building the right way. In this day and age, it’s all about transfers. We’re also a good destination for transfers, but it has to be the right fit.

What has basketball taught you about life?

The ups and downs have taught me to enjoy life a little more. It’s easy to get caught up in thinking about the next game, the next win, the next opponent. It’s better to just enjoy the game and the moment, but try to have fun with it.

What have your athletes taught you about life?

These kids live in the moment so much now. As parents and adults we worry about tomorrow, but they’re living in the moment. The days of, after you lose everyone’s crying on the bus is not the case anymore. It doesn’t mean they don’t care, but they put a lot of things in better perspective nowadays, and that taught me.

No one has more respect for Geno Auriemma than me. After last year’s Final Four, his players were out shopping in the mall because they put their loss in perspective and vowed to start a new streak.

If you had three wishes to make, what would they be?

I would wish good health for my family, my wife and two kids. I think that’s really important. I’d like the world to be more aware of each individual and each person’s differences and respect that. Why can’t we, in this world, respect someone’s opinion and their beliefs? Just because we disagree doesn’t necessarily mean the other person is wrong, and we’ve lost sight of that.

I wish each day someone could say something nice to someone. The world would be in a much better place. Something as simple as telling a player their hair looks nice, holding the door for the marketing person, saying something nice to someone because maybe they’ve had a bad day. You don’t know what everybody’s life is about.