- Ian Begley, ESPN Staff Writer
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NEW YORK -- Seton Hall's season ended Tuesday afternoon with a 76-70 overtime loss to Rutgers in the first round of the Big East tournament.
But outspoken ex-coach Bobby Gonzalez, who was fired by the school last March, believes the Pirates still would be playing today if he were coaching the team.
"If I was back this year we would have won over 20 games and we would've went back to the NCAA [tournament]," Gonzalez said in an interview Tuesday afternoon with ESPNNewYork.com. "To have a record like that with the talent that I left them is unacceptable."
Kevin Willard took over for Gonzalez and led the Pirates to a 12th-place finish (7-11) in the Big East in his first season.
Gonzalez, who was fired by Seton Hall last March, said Tuesday that he would like to get back into coaching as an NBA scout or assistant coach. Gonzalez also holds out hope that he can return to the college game.
He says the time he's spent away from coaching has helped him gain perspective on the mistakes he made in the final tumultuous months of his tenure at Seton Hall.
"I think that I was too focused on winning games, making it, getting to the top. I was just too much of a maniac, I was too driven," Gonzalez said. "I think that the good thing that this year did was [it] made me put it in perspective and take a step back and realize it's not life and death.
"I probably shouldn't have picked as many fights, I probably was too aggressive. ... And that made everybody a little uncomfortable. I should have been a little more politically correct, a little more diplomatic. But at the same time, who I am and part of what got me to [coaching Division I basketball] was my personality."
Gonzalez, known for his brash style, was fired March 17, 2010, after Seton Hall lost in the opening round of the NIT to Texas Tech. School officials referred to off-court problems when they announced his firing.
A week before the season started, transfer guard Keon Lawrence was arrested on suspicion of driving the wrong way on the Garden State Parkway and seriously injuring another motorist. Lawrence was suspended for the season's first eight games. (Lawrence and Jamel Jackson were dismissed from the team last month due to a violation of team rules.)
Junior forward Robert Mitchell and former player Kelly Whitney were arrested on suspicion of robbing eight people at gunpoint in mid-March, a day after Mitchell was kicked off the team by Gonzalez over a dispute about playing time.
Forward Herb Pope was ejected from Seton Hall's season-ending loss to Texas Tech in the NIT for hitting a player below the belt.
"We took a chance on some kids with some bad backgrounds that definitely backfired on me," Gonzalez said, though he wouldn't say which players he was referring to.
Gonzalez believed Seton Hall was making him the "fall guy" for the Mitchell incident by firing him.
"I'm not saying I'm perfect, I made my share of mistakes [but] they were trying to destroy me and hurt my career. Not just fire me, but crucify me," he said.
Shortly after his firing, Gonzalez sued the university, claiming he was fired without cause and was owed two years of salary under terms of his contract. The school and the coach settled the suit in mid August. Terms were not disclosed, but Gonzalez said Tuesday that "we walked away pretty happy."
A little more than three months after he was fired, Gonzalez was accused of stealing a $1,400 satchel June 29 from a Polo Ralph Lauren store at The Mall at Short Hills in New Jersey. Gonzalez turned himself in to police in Millburn shortly after the incident. Gonzalez was accepted into a one-year pretrial intervention program in December that will allow him to avoid a criminal record stemming from his shoplifting arrest.
Under the program, Gonzalez is required to perform 50 hours of community service and pay restitution to the store. If he completes the one-year program, shoplifting and criminal mischief charges are slated to be dismissed, according to the Essex County Prosecutor's Office.
Although he did not address specific incidents, Gonzalez said he realizes he made plenty of enemies during his tenure at Seton Hall. Any university or NBA team that hires Gonzalez likely would risk a public-relations backlash for the way things ended with the Pirates.
"Right now the perception and the reputation of Bobby Gonzalez is, 'That guy's crazy, he's too wild, he doesn't get along with anybody, he's too hard to work for, he's a maniac, he brings in all these bad kids,' " Gonzalez said. "But you know what else? I'm a winner."
Seton Hall finished 19-13 in 2009-10, its best season under Gonzalez, who departed with a 66-59 overall record and a 29-45 mark in the Big East Conference. The Pirates failed to reach the NCAA tournament during Gonzalez's four-year tenure.
Before that, he led Manhattan to four 20-win seasons and two NCAA tournaments in seven years.
"No one can say to me that I can't recruit and I can't coach. They can say other things about me as a human being. Fine. But they can't say I can't coach," Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez, a New York native, has attended numerous New York Knicks practices at the team's facility in Greenburgh, N.Y., this season and on occasion has met with Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni.
Gonzalez says he also spent time at the Charlotte Bobcats' training camp with ex-Bobcats coach Larry Brown to network with NBA employees and seek advice on how to break back into coaching.
"I know I can still coach," he says. "I want to get back into the game."
Ian Begley is a regular contributor to ESPNNewYork.com.
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