Mike Sielski: Kyle Neptune isn’t feeling the heat about succeeding Jay Wright at Villanova. Yet.
PHILADELPHIA — Kyle Neptune had a free hour late Monday afternoon, so there he was, opening the door to Villanova’s basketball offices, his the last at the end of the hallway. Walk past one doorway, then another, then …
“Hey, guys,” Jay Wright said, emerging from one of the offices.
It wasn’t a surprise to see him. Wright will still work at and for Villanova, and he still had Friday’s commencement address to deliver. When he decided last month that he would retire, he and the university’s other power people strove for seamlessness in the transition from him to the next head coach. Open up the search in the hopes of attracting a bigger name? Nah. Neptune had worked under Wright for 10 years. He had just coached Fordham to its second .500-or-better record in the Rams’ last 15 seasons. He was the guy.
Which means, three weeks in, much of the job feels familiar to him. He knows most everybody, and most everybody knows him. On the wall behind his office desk hung five photos of him: with his family, with Wright, with Joe Girardi — from the night Neptune and Wright threw out ceremonial first pitches at a Phillies game. Near a conference table were five souvenir folding chairs from Villanova’s recent Final Four appearances. Arleshia Davidson, Villanova’s director of basketball administration, had taken care to decorate Neptune’s office in a manner that didn’t differ much from Wright’s.
“I’ve done nothing,” Neptune said, “except show up.”
Close, but not quite. His first mission as head coach, he said, was to “re-engage” with people connected to the program. At Fordham, he had to hire nine staff members and recruit 10 players. At Villanova, he had to make sure that the coaches and staff and returning players were reassured and that the recruits were still coming — all of them are.
“One of the things I tried to do in beginning conversations with all those people,” he said, “is acknowledging that, ‘Hey, I’m the only one here right now who’s extremely happy and had their dream come true.’ Everyone else is in a spot. The [assistant] coaches — the dynamic has shifted where [Wright]’s not going to be the head coach. That’s a shock to them. They came here to work for him. The players came here to play for him. I wanted to acknowledge the mixed range of emotions and let them all know that that’s OK. Building from that vantage point was important. I wanted to let them know that I don’t feel any sort of way that you have mixed emotions right now.”
The early part was always going to be the easy part for Neptune, though. He can be the same person, the same coach, now that he was when he was one of Wright’s assistants: can talk to everyone the same way he once did, the same way he always has. “I’m saying the same things now that I was saying to our players back then,” he said. “The core values haven’t changed, and they’re not going to.”
There’s pressure now, of course, but it doesn’t compare to what he’ll eventually have to face. In theory, there are aspects of the job in which Wright excelled and that Neptune can, too, and there are aspects in which Wright excelled and Neptune won’t measure up. And there will be aspects in which Neptune can thrive to a degree that Wright couldn’t. Again, that’s in theory. In reality, Wright was the standard-bearer at Villanova, in the Big 5, and arguably in all of college basketball, and Neptune hasn’t done anything yet to draw a direct comparison between himself and his mentor. He hasn’t benched anyone. He hasn’t cut anyone’s playing time. He hasn’t made an in-game decision with which one of his assistants might disagree. He hasn’t lost a game to an inferior opponent.
“I don’t feel the pressure to emulate him, except for the core principles of the program,” he said. “I’m going to be myself. I can’t be anyone else. I’m just not thinking that way.
“Coach Wright instilled this in the program: Everybody wants to win, but if that’s all you think about, it’s just not the way we look at it. We need to hold people to a certain standard of how we do things and put everything you can into it and hope that gets you the results you want. That’s covering all your bases. I don’t know if I’ll get the same results, but I know I’ll put everything into it, and I’m going to try my best every day, and that’s all I can really do as a man.”
What’s that old saying? Eighty percent of success in life, maybe 90%, is showing up. Kyle Neptune has that part down. It’s that last little bit that will make all the difference for him, that will determine if everyone comes to regard him as a worthy successor to the guy just down the hall.