Unselfish excellence & a commitment to always-active learning
The Historic 2016 Season
The Villanova University men’s basketball team not only won the 2016 NCAA National Championship; they did so with elegance, grace under pressure, and a deep commitment to quality ethical play. The easiest thing you can say about why the Villanova Wildcats are a fun team to watch is that they give you a riveting, energetic, and beautiful display of how the game is supposed to be played.
But not only is this a talented group of athletes with a beautiful game; they are an incredible force as a team. Writing for CSN Philly, Reuben Frank put it this way:
Villanova became the first team in NCAA Tournament history to beat two opponents seeded third or higher by 20 or more points […] Villanova set a record for most accurate shooting ever in the Final Four, set a record for best three-point shooting by a team playing at least four games in the NCAA Tournament, set another record for highest shooting percentage in the entire tournament by a team reaching the Final Four, posted the third-best three-point shooting in Final Four history and the third-best three-point shooting in tournament history…
This Villanova team achieved things nobody else has ever done. Blowout wins over high seeds. Historic shooting. Huge margins of victory. Record-setting defense. Second-half comebacks from five- and seven-point deficits against a couple No. 1 seeds […] This group — Ryan Arcidiacono, Josh Hart, Daniel Ochefu, Kris Jenkins and the rest — is one of the greatest college basketball teams ever assembled.
I first came to Villanova University in 1993. I completed a Bachelors and a Masters degree there, and joined the faculty. Some of the great joys of my life have happened at Villanova. My sister was married at Villanova. I had the privilege of teaching humanities to first-year students and the honor of being part of one of the world’s great Spanish-language literary workshops there, led by award-winning Chilean poet Carlos Trujillo.
The Center for Peace and Justice Education taught me that an institution can have a very real, very active, and lived culture of selfless service—that this is actually a reasonable expectation. We started the Climate Talks roundtables there, and the Villanova Center for Energy and Environment Education. I could be forgiven for loving Villanova, without any good reason aside from my own personal ties. But the Villanova Wildcats are an example and an inspiration I hope the wider world recognizes and celebrates.
In the 1830s, there was a radical militant organization in the United States that became known as the Know Nothings. They used violence in a campaign of ethnic cleansing, designed to push immigrants out of major American cities. In Philadelphia, they burned the St. Augustine church to the ground, causing the Augustinian friars to leave the city for the highlands about 15 miles west of where their church once stood. That place is now called Villanova; the University was founded in 1842 as Villanova College, and it was created to ensure an increasing number of good people would be working to bring into the world a standard of action and leadership through learning and service.
The University was created as an act of moral defiance against terrorist violence. It is, in the deepest sense, a community united by a commitment to the Augustinian idea that through cultivation of an agile and informed intellect, one can better access truth, work with others, and do good in the world.
Rooted, Relevant, Restless
Jay Wright’s Wildcats embody this spirited other way. I say “other way”, because in major sports, it often seems the road less traveled: all the accolades, all the popular attention, all the monetary rewards, seem to go to the athletes who have their own cult of personality, who stand alone, who play an aggressive game of relentless one-upsmanship.
In the face of that superstar culture, the Villanova Wildcats play a forcefully team-oriented game. Even “the Shot” itself—Kris Jenkins’ historic buzzer-beater to close the championship game—was not just a single shot by a single player. It was an optimally designed play, executed perfectly by a team used to coordinating for such a moment, and a selfless assist from Ryan Arcidiacono, who gave up the shot he had dreamed of taking his entire life, so a better-positioned team-mate could sink it with poise.
In the NCAA, smaller schools like Villanova have been pressured to put millions into expensive football programs that feed into a big-money mass-media culture, but may divert funds away from academics, community facilities, and other sports. Villanova has been a leader in resisting this tendency, to focus on achieving the best quality of service to its students.
Throughout the 2016 season, the Villanova men’s basketball team had a number of setbacks. Incredible streaks of dominant performances were interrupted by disappointing losses. Conventional wisdom said such setbacks suggested a team that would not make it through the NCAA Tournament. What we love about the Villanova Wildcats is what made the conventional wisdom so wrong.
Villanova’s culture is about persistent learning, a rooted, relevant, restless affinity for personal growth and ethical commitment to a better world. This is the culture of learning, doing and contributing that Jay Wright and each of his players brought to the challenge of taking on the best teams in the country. Instead of being limited or daunted by difficulty, they got better.
And all this is particularly thrilling when you consider this Villanova team, playing this way, has won more games than any other team in the country, over three years.
This is why Coach Wright said, only yesterday, as his team regained the national No. 1 ranking: at this point in the season ranking is not the focus; what matters is working together to learn and to keep getting better.
A Foundation for a Better World
In a political climate dominated by vitriolic and discriminatory rhetoric, conspiracy theory, factional and generational division, and worse, this team—like the culture behind it—offers us a foundation for a better world. That foundation is an ethic of personal commitment to learn as much as possible, at all times, to do honest work in the world, to work with others honorably and without prejudice, and to be of service to each other.
You’re not guaranteed to win, just because you put honor and ethics above self-promotion, but you have a much better chance of successes worth celebrating, if you build up to them this way. It is, after all, about how you play the game.