There were some quick high-profile changing of seats in City 6 women’s basketball Friday as former Drexel coach Denise Dillon, in charge of the Dragons for 17 seasons, was introduced as Villanova’s new coach, and Drexel confirmed that longtime Dillon assistant Amy Mallon will be the Dragons’ new head coach.
Dillon played at Villanova for Harry Perretta, who retired after 42 seasons as Villanova’s head coach. She was named this season’s Colonial Athletic Association women’s coach of the year after leading the Dragons to a share of the CAA regular-season title and a top seed in the canceled CAA tournament.
“Everything kept pointing to Denise, at every turn," said Villanova athletic director Mark Jackson, noting that Villanova’s alumni base was vocal, and also noted that when Dillon had come back one time to speak to Villanova athletes, “I came away with such a strong feeling about her leadership philosophy, who she was, what Villanova meant to her. … Certainly as a basketball strategist, her approach, I learned a lot about that. At the end of the day, I think I realized that she’s a competitor.”
Dillon used the word “surreal” to describe getting the gig, making it clear it had long been her dream job since she graduated and started working as Perretta’s assistant, then left for Drexel after four seasons.
“There is only one place I would have left Drexel for," Dillon said. “Villanova is that place.”
Dillon said she’s enough of a competitor that she didn’t really want to know who other candidates might be; she prepared for this job search like she hadn’t gone to the school.
Dillon mentioned learning about strategy and situations and, maybe most of all, about relationships from Perretta. Her style of play was heavily influenced by his coaching. That said, Dillon made clear that Villanova players should expect to up the defensive intensity.
Of goals, and whether the bar has been set for women’s basketball by the national titles won by the men’s team, Dillon didn’t back away from that.
“You want to be a national contender," Dillon said.
Of course, Dillon returns to Villanova at the same time Connecticut returns to the Big East.
“Talk about a wrinkle," Dillon said. “They’ve got a target, and we’re all going after it.”
“I hope we made it difficult for her to leave," said Drexel athletic Director Eric Zillmer of Dillon. “There’s two sides to the story. One is the numbers. … "
He rattled off some of Dillon’s achievements.
“Besides the numbers, she is a wonderful leader and even a better person,” he said.
Of Mallon, Zillmer said, “She’s been ‘interviewing’ for the job for 16 years. We know her very well. We’re grateful she’s accepted the job.”
Zillmer noted that Mallon had been a defensive specialist as assistant coach. “Besides that, she has an infectious personality. Most important, she’s a relationship builder. We feel like we can continue our program.”
A Big 5 hall of famer from her own Villanova days, Dillon is a former Cardinal O’Hara star. Drexel had been above .500 once in the dozen years before she got there. Year 2, after serving as an interim coach in Year 1, she was 19-10 and never looked back, the Dragons averaging a little more than 20 wins a season.
Over the last four seasons, Drexel won 96 games, even with the unfinished business this year after the coronavirus pandemic shut things down with the Dragons four minutes away from starting the CAA tournament.
She doesn’t just replace her old coach. She takes over for a legend. Perretta was Villanova’s coach before there was a Big East or Big 5 City Series women’s play. A beloved figure in women’s basketball circles, and local hoop circles, Perretta’s team won at least 20 games in 20 different seasons, topped by a 29-4 record in 1981-82, and also a run to the NCAA Elite Eight in 2002-03.
Drexel has had sort of a head coach-in-waiting for quite some time. Mallon, the 1993 Big 5 player of the year at St. Joseph’s and another Big 5 hall of famer, joined Dillon’s Drexel staff in 2004. She’d been head coach at Rosemont College and Episcopal Academy, and an assistant at both St. Joe’s and Villanova.
Mallon said her philosophy will start with defense – “I feel like that’s the thing everyone is always rewarded for.”
She’ll try to create the same staff cohesion that she felt Dillon’s staff has had, to instill the same culture, including an open-door policy with players, where relationships are formed and grown.