AMHERST, N.Y. (WIVB) — Villanova visited Buffalo for NCAA tournament sub-regionals twice during George Halcovage’s time on the Wildcats’ coaching staff. In between national championship seasons, Villanova lost as the No. 1 overall seed here in 2017. That upset allowed Halcovage to be a spectator at the Final Four in Glendale, Arizona, where he met his wife Lizzie.
“So Buffalo holds a special place in my heart,” George Halcovage mused on Monday. “I didn’t know it at the time.”
With the Halcovages expecting their first child in the coming months, that serendipity was celebrated at another major life event for the couple when the longtime Villanova assistant was introduced as the new University at Buffalo men’s basketball coach at Alumni Arena.
“I knew this was a special place,” Halcovage said. “I knew this was a place where Lizzie and I can make a home, and I can do special things on the basketball court.”
The 37-year-old Halcovage begins his first head coaching job after 15 seasons at Villanova. He started as a graduate assistant, apprenticing alongside Joe Mihalich Jr., son of the former Niagara University coach. Halcovage eventually rose to the position of associate head coach under Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame inductee Jay Wright.
Following Wright’s retirement, Halcovage worked this past season under Kyle Neptune, a former Niagara assistant who advised Halcovage on making the move from Philadelphia to Western New York.
“It’s going to be a little colder,” Halcovage recalled Neptune telling him. “Bring the heavier jacket. It’s a great community. People love basketball here and they know their sports. You are going to feel like home.”
Halcovage said he felt comfort with UB from his first conversations with athletic director Mark Alnutt. He was not concerned that UB’s search had initially focused on a number of other candidates who ultimately chose to stay in their current positions before coming around to Halcovage.
“You learn in this business going through these processes, you never know how you are going to get the job that you love and want to be at,” Halcovage said. “I’m just so happy the process went the way it did for me to have the opportunity.
“When I got the call to say would you be interested in UB, I looked at my wife, and she was like — yes!”
Alnutt declared the UB job “was highly sought after” in his introductory comments and later asserted that “we weren’t turned down by multiple people.” But the AD acknowledged the 18-day coaching search had “pivots and turns.” In contrast to Halcovage, one candidate passed on the opportunity because his wife did not want to move to Buffalo.
“I think we ended up in a very good spot,” said Alnutt, praising Halcovage as “overly prepared, ready to take that next step,” and “someone who has been associated with a program that has a history and rich tradition of winning.”
Halcovage replaces Jim Whitesell, who went 70-49 in four seasons, but couldn’t get the Bulls back to the Mid-American Conference championship standard established by previous coaches Nate Oats and Bobby Hurley.
UB went to four NCAA tournaments in five years under Hurley and Oats, reaching the second round in each of Oats’ last two seasons and achieving a national top 25 ranking in 2019. UB finished 15-17 this year, the program’s first losing campaign since 2013, the last season before Hurley got hired.
“Obviously there is going to be pressure to put a basketball team on the floor that competes to win championships in the MAC and has the opportunity to make the NCAA tournament,” Halcovage said. “I’m used to that pressure, year in and year out. That’s the expectation to make it to that level. We got to the point,” at Villanova, “where people were expecting us to get to the Final Four every year.”
Halcovage’s first order of business will be “building a dynamic staff to really help me take this to the next level.” The Bulls will be involved on the transfer market, with several of UB’s current players already in the portal, including top guards Curtis Jones and Zid Powell.
“We have a lot of great players and talent here that really fit UB and I just want them to fully understand our vision as a program moving forward and also understand a little bit about their individual one as well,” Halcovage said.
“I want to have an opportunity for everyone to be here,” added Halcovage, while also indicating that finding experienced players in the transfer portal will be a priority in “making sure we have a team that can go out and compete.”
Taking advantage of recent changes to NCAA rules allowing athletes to be paid for their name, image and likeness will factor into UB’s success in recruiting and retaining talent.
“You got to know the rules and work within the context of the rules,” Halcovage said. “But there is a level of understanding that it’s important as a coach and being for it and telling everybody who wants to do it at the school you are at that you really appreciate that they are so proud to support the student-athletes. I think Buffalo’s infrastructure is set up to do that at a high level.
“We are going to embrace it. We obviously are not going to make our whole program about NIL. I don’t want to do that either. We want to get people who want to be here for what UB has to offer.”
Halcovage’s happy arrival at UB prompted him to note how his mentor started his coaching career as an assistant at nearby University of Rochester from 1984-86. Wright then moved to Philadelphia to coach at Drexel before joining the Villanova staff in 1987.
“I think we flipped stories,” Halcovage joked.
“Words can’t express everything that Coach Wright has meant to me,” Halcovage continued. “What I learned most from him is that if you work hard and you earn it, you are going to be ready for anything. I think that’s the part that he took, and I’m really thankful that’s the path I took to get here today.”
Wright’s wisdom, Halcovage concluded, “also taught me to marry the right woman.”