LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Ralph Willard, an assistant coach for the University of Louisville basketball team, is taking an indefinite medical leave of absence because of a cardiac issue.
Willard, a close, longtime friend of Cardinals coach Rick Pitino, re-joined U of L in April of this year and has been instrumental in working with the team while Pitino was away coaching the Puerto Rico National Team.
Willard spent 19 seasons as a head coach at various stops. He was head coach for four seasons at Western Kentucky (1990-94), five years at Pittsburgh (1994-99) and 10 at Holy Cross (1999-2009). He and Rick Pitino have coached together previously: Willard was an assistant under Pitino with the NBA New York Knicks (1987-89), at the University of Kentucky (1989-90) and at Louisville (2009-10), where he also served a year with the Cardinals as Director of Basketball Operations (2010-11).
Willard said Pitino asked him to take the leave of absence. With stressful times ahead for the program in the wake of a book alleging former U of L director of basketball operations Andre McGee had hired escorts for potential recruits, the head coach didn't want his friend to have to deal with that, and his health issues. He began to experience some problems shortly after the allegations came to the attention of the staff.
Willard said of Pitino: "He's making me do this. He said if anything happened to me he wouldn't be able to live with it."
Willard left a head coaching job at Holy Cross to join Pitino at Louisville after the 2009 season, while Pitino was going through an extortion attempt and subsequent trial.
In his book The One-Day Contract, Pitino said of Willard's willingness to join him in Louisville during that time, "It was the greatest gift of friendship I'd ever witnessed, and certainly ever received. Ralph went through every difficult moment with me. he supported me, worked long hours, did a phenomenal coaching job with our guys, and was with me for every step. . . . It was an act of friendship vast enough for a lifetime."
Willard, 69, says he is taking time off for health reasons.
Check back for more on this developing story, including a conversation between Rick Bozich and Ralph Willard.
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