"I wanted him to get out and be his own man because I've taught him all I can about a certain style," Pitino said. "That was the (reason) for the Billy Donovan situation. He did an incredible job recruiting and was the best young recruiter I've been around. We're going to miss him."
That ultimately opened the door for Willard to reunite with Pitino. The two last coached together during Pitino's first season at Kentucky in 1990-91.
"I was going to hire Mark Lieberman because he was one of the best teachers I've witnessed when I went to recruit one of his players (Rakeem Buckles)," Pitino said. "But before I did that I called up my best friend and offered him the job."
Willard's decision surprised some people considering he left a head coaching position at Holy Cross – a position he held for 10 years – to become an assistant to Pitino at Louisville. Willard also served as the head coach at Western Kentucky, where he led the Hilltoppers to the NCAA Sweet 16, and Pittsburgh.
"We've been inseparable now for 25 years," Pitino said. "We spend a lot of time together and we started talking about it."
It was a tough decision for Willard, who walked out on a team that is expected to compete for the Patriot league title and an NCAA bid next season.
"We talked about it, talked about it, and kept talking about it," Pitno said. "The more we talked the more we both realized that…we want to finish it together. We sort of both want to ride off into the sunset together."
Willard, 63, doesn't exactly sound ready to hang it up just yet.
"First off, I didn't come here to retire and ride off into the sunset," Willard said. "I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for our relationship and the knowledge of what we can accomplish together. We're going to try to accomplish something special. I relish the challenge."
Willard has battled some health problems in recent years, including prostate cancer and open heart surgery but says he's feeling great these days and those issues didn't factor into his decision.
"It came down to the right time, the right opportunity and the right situation for both of us," Willard said. "This really invigorates me and I just knew it in my gut. And my gut told me this was the right time and this was an opportunity that may never happen again."
After 10 years and five trips to the NCAA Tournament at Holy Cross, Willard felt he took that program as far as he could.
"Holy Cross was a great school and we had a great program but you can only take it so far," Willard said. "After 10 years I'd done what I could."
For Willard, the transition from head coach to associate coach will require a role reversal. After 19 years as a collegiate head coach, Willard no longer will be the one calling the shots. Neither Willard or Pitino thinks it will be a difficult transition.
"It's not about head coach, assistant coach, associate coach for us," Pitino said. "It's about team ego. It's about the University of Louisville and what we can do to keep this program where it's at right now."
"I live to coach and I live to teach," said Willard. "To me coaching is about three things: teaching, winning and it's about relationships. But I was not tired of being a head coach. I know Rick is going to have the final say but I know he trusts me enough that I'll have a tremendous amount of input in decisions. I look at this as a partnership."
Louisville certainly ranks among the nation's top programs. The Cardinals are coming off a great season that ended with a loss to Michigan State in the NCAA Elite Eight. Louisville finished 31-6 and ranked No. 1 nationally in the final regular-season poll and has been to back-to-back Elite Eight's. Now, Pitino is looking to make another run at the Final Four.
"We are back," Pitino said. "The University of Louisville is where it needs to be. What it needs to be now is nurtured because we're very young. I'm very lucky to have Ralph join us because he's one of the best teachers I've ever been around."
Pitino believes Willard is the perfect choice to help foster the development of Louisville's young talent – like sophomore frontcourt stars Samardo Samuels and Terrence Jennings and incoming freshman point guard Peyton Siva.
"We have a very young team that needs to be nurtured and developed and these guys are very, very lucky to have a coach as gifted as Ralph," said Pitino. "It's a great treat for me. It's brightened up a great season and added to it. Ralph adds another dimension to our program that is much needed with these young players right now."
Pitino also thinks Willard can help on the recruiting front. With a shortened period to evaluate prospects, Pitino believes Willard's eye for talent will be beneficial to the UofL program.
"The key is evaluating talent correctly," said Pitino. "One of the great things about (Willard) is he's a terrific evaluator of talent. He's on the money with evaluating. You've got to evaluate properly. Ralph's got to get on the road and we have some decisions to make in that area."