May 9, 2014
The Nova Notebook, by director of media relations Mike Sheridan, looks back at the visit Villanova head coach Jay Wright made this week to Washington, D.C., as part of a USA Basketball leadership forum.
In his 13 years as Villanova's head coach, Jay Wright has long been familiar with visits to the nation's capital. This is the home of the Wildcats' longtime BIG EAST rival, Georgetown, after all, and an area from which VU has drawn exceptional talent, most recently Kris Jenkins and Josh Hart. Plus, there are often alumni functions in the city and Wright even spent few days here in July of 2007 before leading a USA Basketball squad to the Pan American Games in Brazil.
Yet the train ride down the northeast corridor during the first week of May delivered him to an experience unlike any of those taken previously. Wright joined a select group of college coaches brought together by USA Basketball to take part in a Sports Leadership seminar created by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin E. Dempsey. Also present on the panel were Connecticut coaches Geno Auriemma and Kevin Ollie, Syracuse's Jim Boeheim, Pitt's Jamie Dixon, Michigan State's Tom Izzo and Texas Tech's Tubby Smith. It was moderated by ESPN television analyst Jay Bilas.
Wright and his wife Patty departed Philadelphia Tuesday afternoon and returned just over 24 hours later. The interlude only served to enhance the esteem in which they hold the men and women of our nation's armed forces.
"Patty and were really proud to represent Villanova," states Wright. "These great universities were included because of their basketball tradition and their educational excellence. We knew that General Dempsey wanted people there from programs that are respected by everyone in our country."
The relationship between USA Basketball and Villanova is long-standing. Wright twice served as head coach for Team USA in the 2005 World University Games and the aforementioned '07 Pan American Games. In 2012, he helped direct the U.S. Select Team, a group of collegians that scrimmaged against the Senior National Team before it departed for Olympic competition. Sean Ford, Men's National Team Director, is a one-time Wildcats' student manager and his top aide, B.J. Johnson, is a former Wildcats walk-on.
"Like many of the experiences we've had with USA Basketball, it starts with Sean," says Wright.
Kim Bohuny, a Senior Vice-President of the National Basketball Association, works with USA Basketball on a program called "Hoops for Troops". Ford informed Wright that Bohuny was formulating a leadership event in concert with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
"Sean asked me if I would be interested if this happened," Wright recalls. "Kim followed up and asked me if I could participate - I told her I would be honored to do so."
The coaches and their wives or guests were invited to a reception hosted by Gen. Dempsey and his wife Deanie on Tuesday evening.
"The General is a great guy and a huge basketball fan," states Wright. "He went to West Point and got his master's degree from Duke. You could tell right away that the General and his wife were enthusiastic basketball fans. They knew all about our team and college basketball."
The reception concluded at 8:30 p.m. and the group adjourned to a restaurant to share dinner.
"It was just an amazing night," says Wright. "There was a lot of discussion about the world and what it meant to mentor young people from the age of 18-22. We talked about striving for excellence and understanding the importance of service, to your country and your community."
At 8:15 the next morning the group convened at the hotel to begin its day. The contingent was treated to a White House tour that included the West Wing, Situation Room and other vital spaces.
"It was so informative," Wright says of the tour. "We learned about the history of the White House and the workings of the President's staff."
Among those who greeted the USA Basketball delegation was Vice President Joe Biden.
"The Vice President came in and met all of us," Wright says. "He was incredibly personable and knew a lot about all of our teams. He was particularly proud that his wife Jill is speaking at Villanova's Graduation ceremony (next week). He made a point to reference that and have fun with it."
Next they were ushered in to meet President Barack Obama.
"He was very engaging, very Presidential and very charismatic," says Wright. "It was a great session."
The President took some pictures with the visitors and the coaches presented him with a gift from USA Basketball signed by all of the coaches.
From there, it was off to the Pentagon. A meeting with the Chairman and his staff of Generals was first on the agenda.
"It was just an incredible think tank with the General and his Generals from the Air Force, Army, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard," notes Wright. Next came a briefing from the Chairman on the state of the world.
"The General's intelligence and his understanding of the world and the future was just incredibly impressive," Wright states.
For lunch, the group was split into two groups and Wright was seated at a table with Deanie Dempsey, who shed light on the sacrifices often made by spouses of those serving in the armed forces.
"Deanie Dempsey gave us some wonderful insight into what it was like to serve as an enlisted man's wife," he says. "She went 14 months without seeing her husband when he was in the Iraq war. Many other service wives and husbands are in the same situation. It was just inspiring for all of us to hear."
At 1:30 p.m. the leadership forum began in a packed auditorium of more than 400 observers at the Pentagon. It was streamed live over the internet and also carried on the Armed Forces Network (a link is available here: http://www.dvidshub.net/video/335630/pentagon-sports-leadership-forum#.U2u57SjQrNI)
"I learned a lot," says Wright, who took copious notes.
The session ended after an hour and the group exchanged goodbyes while committing to work together in the future.
24 hours later, Wright was still trying to get his arms around it all.
"You go into this with a great respect for the military," states Wright. "You walk out of the Pentagon with a feeling of patriotism, a love of our country, and admiration for the service men and women of the armed forces. We met so many amazing people and leaders. It's something we'll never forget."
Exam week ends Friday at Villanova and Wright has a few weeks to parse those thoughts before his team reconvenes at the start of the first summer session in late May. The experience of this unique visit to Washington is certain to be a topic when they gather.
"One of the things I'll share is that, from President Obama to Vice President Biden to the Chairman of the Joints of Staff, they know our team," says Wright with a chuckle. "They talked to me about specific games of ours from last season, which I didn't expect."
But the meaning here went far beyond the hardwood.
"You see how much service to your country and community is respected," he states. "The lessons of leadership I learned from (the Generals) in terms of discipline, respect and service can be extremely helpful to all of us. It was so inspiring to see these young men and women and how much they sacrifice to serve our country. By comparison, the sacrifices we make for the game we love are small.
"But we can still have a great impact on our university, our community and our world if we maintain a mindset of service to others."