Note: VCUs Villa 7 Consortium gets underway later today in Richmond. Here is the agenda for the coaches, and use the left hand links for additional information such as who is attending.
And here is a great backgrounder by Dana O’Neil.
I was fortunate to sit in those meetings a few years back and can vouch for its impact. It’s interesting to think that during one session I sat in between a senior administrator from North Carolina named Norwood Teague, and a bright young athletics director from Western Kentucky named Wood Selig.
Anyway, here’s a take on Villa 7 that talks about its actual influence, which extends far beyond its original goals. (Warning: long read.)
University of Texas assistant basketball coach Russ Springmann saw his body language, his overall demeanor, and cringed. Springmann was interviewing for a head coaching job he stood no chance of getting, and he was watching one of the major reasons why unfold.
Springmann stared at himself and he realized he didn’t look the part. He didn’t have a leader’s presence in the interview, and he knew that would have to change. He realized in that moment, watching himself implode, that his basketball knowledge was irrelevant if he didn’t offer a commanding presence to the people who hire him.
How did he know this?
Springmann wasn’t having an out of body experience; nor was he actually interviewing for a real job. He was reviewing his mock interview, one component of VCUs Villa Seven Consortium program. Springmann and every assistant that participates in the program is given the opportunity to review their entire interview and get pointers on how to improve that part of the hiring process.
“It was incredibly helpful to simulate an interview with an (athletics director) and other knowledgeable people,” says Springmann. “To go through it and be asked the questions that are in that actual situation is amazing. People tell you to be prepared, but to be with them and to go through the litany of questions? That’s another level.”
The mock interview is but one example of the ever-evolving Villa Seven program. It began as a way for athletics directors and assistant coaches to meet one another, but the program has annually evolved and changed its focus with the realities of the collegiate basketball industry. Villa Seven has become one of the most respected professional development and networking gatherings in the country, in any industry.
Its ability to gravitate with the changing collegiate athletics landscape is one of its most powerful attributes. Mike Ellis, associate athletics director at VCU and the man most responsible for its growth and success, recognized a long time ago that being nimble and adapting were critical for the program.
“We knew we wouldn’t make it better by adding coaches,” Ellis says. “That’s not special. We knew we needed to bring influence, and that meant athletics directors and professional development experts. That’s what makes it effective.”
Pat Kelsey, associate head coach at Xavier, agrees.
“It’s one of the best professional development clinics I’ve ever been to,” Kelsey says. “To have presenters like Jerry Colangelo, one of the best sports businessmen and minds in the world. Phil Knight, to hear him present. Mack Brown is a football coach but he’s at highest level of our professions. They’ve given up their time and energy and it’s been spectacular.”
The recent success doesn’t mean the program hasn’t been effective from Day One. Ellis has shepherded the program from its conception in 2004, and he re-evaluates its composition almost daily.
“It began as a means to put two groups together who need to get to know each other,” he says. “But the more questions we asked, the more we began to understand the realities these individuals face.”
That beginning was a 2004 meeting in Las Vegas’s Mirage Hotel and Casino, in the facility’s Villa Seven. Approximately 20 athletic directors and 30 carefully-selected assistant coaches were in attendance, and the goal was straightforward and two-fold.
First, athletics directors gathered to jointly discuss and try to resolve the issues facing their programs. It was a philosophical summit designed to gain consensus on problems such as scheduling and retaining and/or hiring coaches.
The second part of the agenda was an evening reception where assistant coaches met the athletics directors in an informal, cocktail party setting. The point: one day an AD may need to hire a coach. These assistants are the best and brightest of what they do. It can only be helpful for everyone if each group get to know each other now, instead of later.
Its brilliance resided in its simplicity, but Ellis was keen enough to recognize the dynamic and knew they’d need more. Villa Seven became a full-fledged program that broached topics such as professional development, and what both coaches and administrators could expect to find in their jobs.
The more came in the form of what they called “an educational symposium.” A May 2005 meeting was held in Charlotte, and it reflected the new educational bent.
Legendary coaches Bobby Cremins and Morgan Wootten chaired a panel discussion surrounding the business side of coaching. Most topics had little to do with the Xs and Os of basketball. ESPN, led by former coach and current college basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla, lent its view on the media. Other ESPN executives discussed the future of television and basketball.
There was a public speaking seminar. Missouri coach Frank Haith shared his “first 100 days” on the job, helping the group understand pitfalls and unexpected demands on their time.
“(For him to) give perspective of what the first year was like; what worked and what didn’t and how to organize our time,” says Kelesy, “that perspective is important. That blueprint is very powerful for us to know.”
The buzz in the industry caught the attention of Nike in 2005.
“When Eric (Lautenbach) and Martin (Newton) became involved,” says Ellis, “the program really took off. Their help and commitment have been incredibly significant in the maturation of everything we do.”
Lautenbach, the director of college basketball sports marketing for Nike, and Newton, helped provide not just economic force to keep this a no fee event for coaches and administrators, but also key perspective into the future of the event.
In 2007, Villa Seven expanded to include a program for division one women’s basketball assistants. To date, 13 coaches who participated in the program have been hired to head coaching positions. In 2008, they added a Villa Six program for young assistants just making their way up the ladder.
“Villa Six is for everybody that wants to help themselves, from D1 through D3 and junior college,” says Ellis. “We have five hours of programs, 120 coaches, and it is working well and growing every year. I get emails frequently from guys who wants be a part of it.”
The quality is what keeps it moving forward.
“It’s one of the most valuable networking tools that I’ve ever been a part of. In this business (you get opportunities) because of the relationships you create and cultivate,” says Kelsey. “There aren’t many forums where you can meet individuals you hope to work with and get to know them. It’s happenstance at other events and places, but Villa Seven is so well respected it’s invaluable in our business.”
The inventive and nimble agenda is the backbone of that quality. Kelsey likes to talk about speed dating. For him, it was a fun yet extremely effective means to network.
“At most events you get to know each other but maybe hang around in a circle of people you hit it off with, but they take two hours out of one of the days there and sit the athletics directors at tables in a huge room,” he says. “You have seven minutes to get to know them and move on to the next table. Sometimes the ADs are informal but sometimes they have specific interview questions, but you walk away having spent quality time with 12-15 athletics directors.”
Springmann backs up Kelsey’s assertion.
“We get to network as coaches, but to be in a situation where an AD can get a true feel for you and recommend you for a job…where else does that happen?” Springmann says. “One consistent in life is (the importance of) networking, and they’ve given us a tremendous avenue to network not just with coaches but with ADs and assistant ADs. And then to do things like bring in people to evaluate how you interview–people outside of our business. To have that service is incredible. It’s a brain child that has taken on a life of its own, and it has the reputation in the business as being one of the most powerful programs in the country.”
It’s one thing to hear the assistants talk about its power and its impact on their careers. It’s another to talk to its graduates and benefactors.
VCU athletics director Norwood Teague likes to retell the story of meeting his current head coach, Shaka Smart, for breakfast one morning in a Florida diner. It was a 7:00 meeting, and Teague says that by 7:30 he wanted to offer the job to Smart right there on the spot.
The power of Villa Seven is that Teague was not making a fool’s gesture. It wasn’t a heat of the moment decision based on the gravity of the situation and vague positive feelings of a fit. Teague and Smart had met, many times prior, through Villa Seven.
“They could’ve hired any assistant coach in the country,” recalls Smart. “I’m not the type of guy you meet one time and people come away with ‘that guy is unbelievable.’ I’m not super flashy. That two-year opportunity to develop my relationship certainly helped strengthen my profile in Norwood’s mind.”
Smart became a national name this March guiding the Rams to the Final Four, but his 55-21 mark that also includes a CBI championship is testament to a product of a system that strips away the veneers and finds true coaching talent.
It is very important to understand this dynamic and not underestimate its importance. Instead of a Florida diner being the first meeting between an athletics director who needed a coach and an assistant coach who wanted a job, it proved to the last. It was the culmination of what turned out to be years of interviewing.
There’s no bias of title or immediate impression and allows evaluation over time, and in different circumstance. It’s ideal for what is for a mid major program a critical hire, and for a young coach their most important career opportunity.
Jim McCarthy, an assistant coach at Northeastern, takes it a step further.
“The publicity surrounds becoming a head coach but there’s more immediacy in that it makes you a better assistant,” McCarthy says. “We get to talk with Chris Mack or Brad Stevens and we can go home and apply those lessons immediately in our jobs. And I guess that also makes us a better head coach down the road.”
McCarthy is a big fan of another of the program’s enhancements, the athletics director panel. The administrators share their perspective on how they approach their jobs, frequently debunking myths about hiring processes or the everyday relationship between an AD and the coach.
It is those refinements that keep Villa Seven relevant and a leader. Ellis’s goal is to continually refine the program to remain contemporary with the business.
“What makes it truly unique is that it’s all encompassing,” says McCarthy. “It’s so well done that you come home and you talk about so much positive. ‘I learned this’ and ‘I learned that.’”
There’s power in the numbers. Nearly 60 Villa Seven members have moved into division one head coaching positions. The list includes Smart, Buzz Williams (Marquette), Chris Mack (Xavier), and Josh Pastner (Memphis).
But that’s what Villa Seven is supposed to do. The true power resides in the unintended consequences, the new programs and speed dating and women’s focus and Villa Six. It isn’t what Villa Seven was set up to do, it’s what Villa Seven has become. You can hear it in the words of the coaches, and in the margins of a hiring process.
“I knew who Norwood was and he probably knew who I was,” says Smart, “but without Villa Seven we wouldn’t have had the relationship we built before (the hiring process).”
Says Springmann: “It’s making a great and profound impact on our business. There are people that want to get in because of the influence it carries when you mention it. They don’t settle for ‘it working.’ They are constantly asking for feedback and Mike Ellis is relentless at asking questions about what it needs to be.”
Says Kelsey: “So much time and energy and effort is put into every second. When we walk out of there we know that every second there was powerful and useful and it makes us better coaches.”
Its influence is without question in the collegiate basketball industry. However Villa Seven has been granted the sincerest form of flattery.
A midwestern hospital group has inquired about modeling a similar program. They want to utilize Villa Seven strategies and tactics for their incoming doctors.
Imagine that: a training program for people whose job it is to save lives is being modeled after a college basketball professional development program.