1 It’s Not About the Championship
In many ways, the story of our 2016 Championship win began the season before, in what seemed like another “storybook season”— right up until the moment we suffered the agony of a crushing defeat. For fans and the media and most people looking in from the out- side, it seems a season can only be called “storybook” if it comes complete with a storybook ending. In our basketball family, we don’t see it that way. Not at all.
This may come as a surprise, but our big goal each year isn’t to win the Championship. Our goal is something much simpler: We want to be the best team we can be by the end of the season. That’s it. And at the end of the 2014–2015 season, we were one heck of a good team.
Not to say that we don’t want to win, or that a loss to a No. 8 seed in the second round of March Madness was what we were looking for. No one wants to lose. It’s just that while the press and some fans described the end of our 2014–2015 season like some sort of tragedy, it was my job to keep everyone in our program focused on how well we’d played all year—and to think about the lessons we could learn from our mistakes. The World Evaluates on Its Own Terms. We Evaluate on Our Own.
Looking back on it, we really were having a storybook season.
Despite the graduation of James Bell and Tony Chennault, two pillars of our success during a 29–5 campaign in 2013–2014, we had made great strides on this 2014–2015 journey. Darrun Hilliard and JayVaughn Pinkston had become true leaders as seniors in our pro- gram. Ryan Arcidiacono, Dylan Ennis, and Daniel Ochefu comprised our junior class. We started those five and relied on sophomores Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins, along with freshman Phil Booth, as key pieces for us off the bench. We had sophomore Darryl Reynolds ready on those nights when we needed help at the forward position too.
This was a deep team.
The group also displayed a toughness that I loved. Everyone on the roster was dialed into the tiny details that can spell the difference between victory and defeat. From the start of the season in Novem- ber and on through February, these young men established Villanova as a Top 10 team in both major polls. By March, we were in the Top 5 and considered a favorite to land a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tourna- ment.
Still, we hadn’t taken home a Big East Tournament Championship since 1995. There are a lot of folks who downplay postseason confer- ence tournaments because they aren’t the NCAA Tournament, but I’ve never felt that way. I came of age coaching in the 1980s and ’90s, and I cherish being a part of the Big East Tournament. I knew how much that win would mean to our Villanova community.
On the final day of the regular season, we honored our last Big East Tournament champions during halftime of our game against Georgetown at the Wells Fargo Center, where both the 76ers and the Flyers play their home games. Many of the key people who had lifted Villanova to the top of the conference twenty years earlier—head coach Steve Lappas, All-American Kerry Kittles, Jonathan Haynes, Jason Lawson, Alvin Williams, Eric Eberz, and Chuck Kornegay— were there that day. To have those guys in the stands during our final game of the regular season was magic. We take pride in playing hard always, but I think the presence of that team gave us an extra boost of determination. And when the game ended, and we won, we invited all of those guys to join us on the court as we took hold of the Big East regular season championship trophy. What a special moment that was, to see our players mingling with those Wildcat heroes.
Tradition means everything at Villanova, and we honor it every chance we get. Our fans love to see the legends from years past, and we want our current players to appreciate that we are all part of something much larger than any one of us. Our performance that whole season was a continuation of the work those guys had put into their big win in ’95. Two decades after the fact, you could still see the rewards of that title written all over their smiling faces.
A week later, we walked into what has to be one of the greatest settings in all of sports, and certainly one of my personal favorites: Madison Square Garden on a Saturday night, playing for the Big East Championship. With the fire and spirit of the 1995 team fresh in our memories, we put an end to our long Big East Tournament Champi- onship drought with a 69–52 win over Xavier.
That win was our fourteenth in a row and our thirty-second in thirty-four games. Like I said, it was a storybook season.
After the postgame press conference, as I walked into the spacious locker room that usually belongs to the New York Knicks, the team cheered and sprayed me with water. (They’re too young for cham- pagne!) I emphasized the pride we as a staff took in the willingness of these young men to give wholly of themselves to our values. They in turn reveled in the simple pleasure of messing up their coach’s hair.
The next day—after a quick stop at the CBS studio to tape a seg- ment with Greg Gumbel, Clark Kellogg, Doug Gottlieb, and Seth Davis—we met up with our charter bus to make the two-plus-hour drive back to the Main Line. (That’s a common nickname for the area outside Philadelphia where Villanova is located.) Most college teams spend a whole lot of time on buses, and it’s natural to develop a rap- port with the driver. At Villanova, there has been a long line of good people in that role, most notably the late “Doc” Dougherty, who skill- fully steered us throughout legendary Coach Rollie Massimino’s ten- ure (1973–1992). Our current steward of the roads is John Mills, a genial, deep-voiced man who has the perfect temperament for long hours at the wheel. As much as we as a coaching staff appreciate John, that is nothing compared to how the players view him. They absolutely love the guy, and you see it in their interactions with him every time they board the bus. On this day, John was as pumped up as any of our players, and he clearly wanted everything he did to re- flect the winning feeling our team was carrying.
Somehow, while we were up in the CBS studio, John had navigated Manhattan’s crowded streets to find a primo parking space just a few steps from the front door at CBS. A bunch of us high-fived him as we climbed aboard, and in a matter of minutes we were through the Lincoln Tunnel and on our way. Unfortunately, after all of that, the bus broke down on the New Jersey Turnpike, but we barely minded. If you’re going to have engine trouble, there is no better time for it than in the afterglow of a Big East Championship. Help arrived in no time, and we made it back to campus just in time for our NCAA Tournament Selection Sunday Watch Party.
The Selection Show event is something we all look forward to. We invite about five hundred people to join us in the Villanova Room, a large ballroom located in the Connelly Center, the main student cen- ter on campus. Included are the players’ and coaches’ families, Villa- nova staff, alumni, and students. There is a buffet dinner and then we all turn our attention to the giant television screens in each corner to watch the show. The media is there to chronicle our reactions, and in the wake of our Big East win, the excitement was even more pal- pable than usual. When the announcers started unveiling the bracket, one region at a time, the room fell silent and everyone stared at those TVs. When they got to the East Region, and announced that we’d been seeded No. 1, you can imagine the scene: The cheers echoed off the walls, flew straight through the windows, and joined the chorus of cheers erupting from other buildings all over campus.
This was our tenth NCAA bid in eleven seasons, and as I stepped up to the lectern, I reminded everyone—myself included—that it should never be taken for granted. There are 351 Division I teams that aspire to that goal at the start of every season, and earning one of those sixty-eight invitations means something. That was especially true for our seniors, including one young man in particular, Jay- Vaughn Pinkston, or J.P. as we called him. I’ll use JayVaughn as a way to examine something we value more than winning at Villanova: our players, and how they develop as people during their time with us.
JayVaughn Pinkston had come to Villanova as a McDonald’s All- American from Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School in Brooklyn, New York. At 6'7" and a rock-solid 240 pounds, his frame hearkens back to the tough power forwards of yesteryear. In fact, if you were constructing an ideal forward, you might start with the kind of chis- eled frame J.P. sports today.
Yet that physical snapshot is only part of who he is.
During his four years at Bishop Loughlin, JayVaughn wound up playing for four different head coaches, a fluke of timing and circum- stance. That’s very tough on a player. There’s no continuity. It’s a new system to learn every year. After each of those coaching changes, there were Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) teams and other high schools urging him to switch programs. Each time he refused.
JayVaughn was a tough city kid, and you could see that on the court. Like a lot of city kids, I think, he was comfortable being a man of few words. What struck me was that even though he didn’t come across as a gregarious individual, the people at Bishop Loughlin loved him. I think that had a lot to do with the loyalty he showed to his school and the people who cared about him.
As a freshman at Villanova, JayVaughn had his career sidetracked after an incident at an off-campus fraternity party in November 2010. He got into a fight with another student, and the mistake cost him dearly. The university deemed it a violation of student conduct and suspended him for the remainder of that school year.
JayVaughn could have left Villanova, and it was an option I pre- sented him with during a series of long discussions we held in the weeks after the incident. If he had wanted a fresh start somewhere else, we would have supported that. But he and his mom, Kerry, who had raised him by herself in the gritty Brownsville section of Brook- lyn, were determined to see him through this. They resolved that he wouldn’t leave Villanova without a degree.
Rather than simply return to Brooklyn for six months of idle time, JayVaughn chose to remain in the area. (The terms of his suspension prevented him from living on campus.) To pay the bills, he found a job in a warehouse. He paid rent to a local family to live in their home. J.P. was on his own from a basketball standpoint, unable to work out with our team. We stayed in touch via text and phone calls, but we saw him infrequently, usually at our weekly radio show after he finished work. When the show ended at 8 p.m., we would some- times have dinner together.
For a guy who loves basketball the way J.P. does, it wasn’t an easy time.
He was reinstated as a student in time to rejoin us for the first summer session in June 2011, but he was not in top basketball condi- tion. He had to spend extra time in our weight room, working under the supervision of our excellent strength and conditioning coach, John Shackleton. Every day he got a little bit better, but there was a long road ahead. Still a freshman in 2011–2012, he moved into the starting lineup and, over the next few seasons, became one of the most respected players in the Big East.
J.P.’s rise mirrored that of our team. As he became one of our top defenders, we became a better defensive team. Over time he learned how to lead, and as he did we became a more confident unit. By the time he became a senior he was our rock, never caring what his point total looked like, concerned only with the team’s success.
That is why, as far as we’re concerned, JayVaughn is a model of success for a Villanova Basketball player.
Coming in, he wasn’t a great student, but he wanted to become one. He arrived as a highly skilled individual player who wanted to become part of something larger than himself. He faced some tough challenges and overcame them with dignity. In the end, he left Vil- lanova as a beloved figure with his degree in hand, and leadership traits he might have never known he possessed. He played a vital role on some of the best teams Villanova has ever had. In every way pos- sible, JayVaughn helped prepare our guys for their next journey—the one that would end with us on top.
And in his own final college game, he played with focus, together with his teammates, to the very last second.