The Writing Is On The Wall: Denise Dillon Enters Third Season


Olivia Pasquale/Villanovan Photography

Denise Dillon addressing the team and fans on Selection Sunday last season.

Meghann Morhardt, Co-Sports-Editor

When Denise Dillon moved into her office in the Davis Center, she made one important design decision. She left the wall above the couch blank. 

The significance? When the office belonged to former head coach Harry Perretta, that spot was occupied by photos of his teams which beat UConn in the ‘90s and 2000s. 

Dillon, a member of the 1992-93 team that upset the Huskies on the road, remembered that feeling of accomplishment and had her sights set on reaching that point again.

“The girls would come in here and ask ‘What are you putting on that wall?’” Dillon said. “And I told them when we beat UConn, at The Pavillion in front of a sellout crowd, then we’ll put that picture over the couch.” 

While the dream was for the win to come at home, what the Wildcats were able to pull off on Feb. 9 at the XL Center in Hartford was a feat too large to not put a picture above the couch. 

“After we got them at their place last year, Maddy Siegrist came over and told me, ‘Well now we have a picture for above your couch,’” Dillon said. 

The win snapped the Huskies’ 169-game conference win streak dating back to 2013, and marked the first time that Villanova beat UConn on the road since Dillon’s freshman year. As a member of that team, this win also made Dillon one of only two women to beat the Huskies as both a player and a coach, the other being Dawn Staley of South Carolina. 

While Dillon knew that she would eventually reach this milestone at Villanova, was she expecting it to happen this fast?

“No,” Dillon quickly answered. “In sports, anything is possible. But I felt there are just some pieces that always need to come into play. And also recognizing an area of taking advantage of some situations like them missing top players. […] You always give yourself a chance if you’re willing to compete.”

In her two years, Dillon’s teams have never struggled with said willingness to compete. She has been able to develop a culture within the program and every player is fully committed to the common goal. 

“It always comes back to playing for each other and playing for Villanova,” Dillon said. “That’s the only way to describe it.” 

Being able to play as a cohesive group and achieve Dillon’s desired “togetherness” is significantly improved by the team’s relationships off the court. With six local players on the roster and several families that travel to attend games, the team has a family feel. 

“We’ll do something on a Friday night at my house or something set up here and we will joke with the players (and often their families) and call it ‘forced fun,’” Dillon said. “But they always say ‘We like it, it’s not forced. We like hanging out with each other.’”

This vibe translates to the locker room and it starts from the top with Dillon and her staff. While they have worked hard to cultivate this, the players made it easier by welcoming her with open arms when she was hired in 2020. 

“I was appreciative of them embracing me in the new position,” Dillon said. “The ones who are returning and then the ones that we’ve brought in just being on board with getting to know each other and (figuring) it out. The good, the bad and the ugly.” 

Prior to Villanova, Dillon spent 17 seasons as the head coach at Drexel. Dillon led the Dragons to 10 postseason appearances, including one NCAA Tournament berth and one WNIT Championship in 2013. 

When she joined the Wildcats, the players recognized her coaching accolades. But arguably more importantly, they respected her experiences as a player who was once in their shoes at Villanova. 

“We never asked anything of them that we haven’t been asked in the past,” Dillon said. “But at the same time, I think they feel my genuine love and passion for this university. And all I want is for them to have a similar experience that I had.” 

The knowledge that Dillon gained in her time as a student athlete at Villanova did not come from the games alone, but rather from all the time that she spent learning from Perretta. Dillon played for the legendary head coach for four years before joining his staff after graduating. Dillon served as an assistant coach at Villanova from 1997-2001, an invaluable experience that kick-started her coaching career. 

“I think his teaching of the game,” Dillon said of what she learned from Perretta. “It doesn’t matter what we know as coaches if our players don’t understand it, so teach it. With understanding comes great confidence.” 

Perretta is known for his basketball mind, but Dillon took something even greater from her time spent under him as a player and a coach. 

“I think his greatest strength was building relationships with his players, and that was something I certainly wanted to have as well,” Dillon said. 

This focus on relationships all comes back to the culture that Dillon has developed which has helped make the transition from Perretta as seamless as possible. Dillon has only been at the helm for two years, yet the program has already taken a step forward in success and recognition.

Dillon has led the Wildcats to an overall record of 41-16, including 24-9 in Big East play over her first two years. Last season, Villanova tied the program record for most conference wins in a single season (16), earning the team a second place regular season finish and Dillon the title of Big East Coach of the Year. 

The ‘Cats advanced to the Big East Tournament championship game, but came up short against the top-ranked UConn. Despite this loss, Villanova earned an at-large bid and advanced as an eleven-seed to its first NCAA Tournament since 2017-18. The Wildcats upset No. 6 BYU in the first round before falling to No. 3 Michigan in the Round of 32. 

While the ending was not what the team had hoped, Dillon and the Wildcats outperformed preseason expectations and earned national recognition. Dillon is pleased with the notoriety that the team has gained, but she knows that there is still more to come.

“I don’t think we will be a great surprise this year with Maddy Siegrist’s reputation, and her leading the way,” Dillon said. “But we want to be known nationally as a team who’s consistent with what we’re doing on both ends of the floor and getting the result because of it. It wasn’t just last year. This is where we’re going.” 

As Dillon enters her third season at Villanova and 20th as a head coach, she is excited to see what comes next. 

“I’m most excited to see this team grow and watch them come together and continue to grow and progress,” Dillon said. “I think they’re capable of a lot and if they remain true to who they are and stick together, it’ll show at the end of the season.” 

While there is still room to grow and more to accomplish, with the space above the couch already filled, Dillon is well on her way to cementing her Villanova legacy.