One of Red Tornadoes’ all-time best
athletes leaving The Citadel basketball staff
By CHRIS HOBBS
HICKORY – As Hickory High’s next varsity boys’ basketball head coach, Daniel Willis is excited about impacting the program by stressing the things that got him where he is.
While playing multiple sports for the Red Tornadoes, Willis said he was taught discipline, a work ethic, team work and how to treat others by his HHS coaches.
He is leaving college basketball – he was currently associate head coach at The Citadel – to return home as the 10th Red Tornadoes boys’ head coach since the late 1970s.
“It’s the only high school job I would think about taking at this point and time,” Willis said Wednesday. “It’s one of the best jobs in the state …
“I am excited to be back in the Hickory community, and I want to rally people, especially those who have (previously) been supporters.”
Willis said COVID-19 played a role in his decision, as it provided him more time to spend with his family. And then the HHS job opened.
When Andy Poplin announced he was leaving HHS after seven seasons to become head coach at A.L. Brown High, Willis began to think about coaching at his alma mater.
“The timing of it was just perfect,” said Willis, who noted the program’s tradition – “They had a ‘down’ year last year – 22-6,” Willis said.
That consistency – six straight seasons of 20 or more wins, 16 straight winning years and 17 seasons of 20 or more wins since 1995-96 (when Willis starred) – helped Willis decide to take the job.
After a sterling career at Lenoir-Rhyne University (1,980 career points, still No. 2 on the Bear’ all-time list), Willis was an assistant coach at Western Carolina, Tusculum and Virginia Military Institute before coaching at The Citadel.
At Western Carolina, he worked with Mike Craft, and he will now again work with David Craft, the sons of the late David Craft Sr. (who retired as HHS boys’ head coach after the 1984-85 season).
Willis and Mike Craft, now head coach at Ardrey Kell High in Charlotte, were assistant coaches at the same time at Western Carolina.
“It’s gonna be awesome,” Willis said of working with David Craft, HHS’ athletic director. “The Craft ties run deep.”
Willis said another appeal about the HHS job is it’s a city school with solid feeders in its middle schools (Northview and Grandview). Northview was 17-0 last season.
He’s ready to focus on adding his fingerprint to a storied program by teaching a lot of what he learned at HHS and LRU.
“You gotta hold kids accountable,” Willis said. “We’re gonna play up-tempo and we’re gonna play defense because your offense comes from your defense.”
He said learning and discipline are two traits he will focus on.
“Today something you have to do is continue to learn,” Willis said. “Like how hard you have to work to get to the next level.
“There has to be a continual work ethic and the classroom matters and that (when playing) you’re just not representing (yourself)… your representing your high school.”
Discipline is a key reason Willis feels he had been successful in sports.
“I think discipline is very key,” he said. “All of my high school coaches taught that to me. With discipline it’s show up every day to do your job, be ready to go to work.”
Willis said he’s learned as a player and coach that the stars matter but so do all the other players because they all have to do the work and contribute.
“You build a team,” he said.
Willis said he is putting his home in Charleston (S.C.) on the market this week. His start date at HHS is Aug. 10 with school opening on Aug. 17.
He and his wife, Tiffany, have two daughters (ages 5 and 8). Tiffany Craft played basketball at Hayesville High and played for a Mars Hill University team that reached the Elite 8.
Willis, quarterback on HHS’ 1996 state 3A football title team (16-0), is in the South Atlantic Conference Hall of Fame and LRU Hall of Fame. He’s third on the all-time scoring list in the SAC in men’s basketball.