THE RETURN: Willis comes back to Alma mater as Red Tornadoes’ varsity boys basketball coach

Former Hickory High multi-sport athlete Daniel Willis returns to Alma mater as a basketball coach for first time since 2001. (Photo courtesy of Hickory Public Schools)
Marcus Smith
Sports Editor

It’s been said that there’s no place like home.

For Daniel Willis, a 1997 Hickory High School graduate, that phrase is indeed true.

As first reported by early on Tuesday followed by Hickory Public Schools in its press release, Willis has decided to leave his post as associate head men’s basketball coach at The Citadel and return home to coach the Red Tornadoes’ boys team.

Willis was approved on Monday night by the Hickory City Schools Board of Education to become a physical education instructor to go along with his duties as head varsity boys basketball coach.

He will be the 10th head varsity boys’ coach that the Hickory has had since the 1970s; he will be taking over for coach Andy Poplin - who resigned after seven seasons in April to take the same position at A.L Brown High School.

Hickory finished the 2019-20 season at 22-6 overall - having won 20 or more games in six consecutive seasons - and were 9-3 in the Northwestern 3A/4A Conference (second place).

The Red Tornadoes went 158-40 under Poplin which included three conference championships.

“We are excited to welcome Daniel Willis back home to Hickory,” said Athletic Director David Craft in the press release. “He brings a professional background that will enhance our program, serving as a great asset for both teaching and coaching the students at Hickory High. He is passionate about basketball and we are excited that Willis will be joining our Tornado Team as the Head Basketball Coach.”

Willis was a very accomplished three-sport athlete with the Red Tornadoes having led the varsity football team as its quarterback to the North Carolina state championship in 1996, having also garnered the most passing touchdowns in a season (24) and in a career (45).

He was also named West Regional Most Valuable Player twice (1996-97) in basketball and an All-Conference selection.

In baseball, Willis earned All-Conference, and his 1997 team earned the program’s most wins in history.

After high school, Willis attended Lenoir-Rhyne University and was a focal part of its men’s basketball team from 1997-2001.

He scored 1,980 career points - which at the time was a South Atlantic Conference record. He was also a two-time consensus All-American guard and was honored as the Bears’ Athlete of the Year in 2001, as well as SAC Player of the Year in 2001.

As far as his coaching career, Willis not only served as a coach at The Citadel, but also at Virginia Military Institute (Lexington, VA) as the Associate Head/Assistant Basketball Coach for ten years.

At both institutions, Willis assisted in running every aspect of the programs. He recruited potential cadet-athletes, including making high school schedules to comply with NCAA rules and he served as the Academic Coordinator for the teams.

Prior to joining the coaching staff at VMI, Willis served as the assistant basketball coach for Tusculum College in Greeneville, TN. Additionally, Willis served as the Assistant JV Coach at Hickory High from 2000-2001.

Willis began his coaching career as a graduate assistant men’s basketball coach at Western Carolina University in 2001 - having earned a Master’s degree with the Catamounts in physical education. He spent three seasons with the program and was named to full-time assistant during the 2003-2004 season.

Willis has been recognized in the Sports Hall of Fame for Catawba Valley Sports (Class of 2020), Lenoir-Rhyne University (Class of 2014) and SAC Hall of Fame (Class of 2010).

“Hickory is an outstanding city where I was born and raised and spent 23 years of my life,” said Willis in the press release. “It is a special place in which I still have deep roots and relationships today.

“Now with extensive coaching and teaching experience — I am looking forward to leading the basketball program at Hickory High, building a positive and valuable relationship with the Hickory community.”