Jay Wright

How a Championship Team Onboards New Members

by Matt Farrell

March Madness is fun because it’s unpredictable. The last few weeks brought wild upsets, a 98-year-old nun becoming a household name (what up Sister Jean?), and some clueless basketball person you know probably outsmarting the annoying “expert” in your bracket pool.

Yet, Villanova lifting the trophy was perhaps the most predictable thing in a tournament filled with wackiness. The win was Villanova’s 165th in the last 186 games, capping off a 5 year run where they won 88% of their games and 2 national titles. Experts are calling it the most dominant run in the modern era of college basketball.

Before we go further, I just want to get this off my chest…I grew up hating Villanova basketball, so it’s OK with me if you do too. Maybe it’s because I went to a rival Big East school, or that I knew I couldn’t afford their tuition. Honestly, I’m not quite sure. But I want you to know this blog isn’t out of love for the team, but rather out of appreciation for what they do and why they do it. There’s so much any organization (especially fraternities) can learn from the way Villanova has built their basketball program. Here are some takeaways you can bring back to your campus:

A strong new member process cancels out membership turnover. Fraternities like to make excuses that their leadership turns over every year, and members cycle out every four. Yet, Villanova’s current run has endured the same factors, plus they have the same type of members: competitive, (typically) 18-22 year old college students with only 1 constant figure–their advisor. For Villanova, the process is all built around coach Jay Wright and his ability to convey team culture to new members. It’s only fitting that he is a fraternity man himself, joining Sigma Chi while at Bucknell. Let’s dive deeper into how he has built one of the best member onboarding systems of any college student organization.

Onboarding is about building up, not weeding out: Considering roster limits and the abundance of great high school players, most college coaches seek to recruit more players than they need, and make sure those who “don’t cut it” ride the bench or transfer. So it’s unusual that Wright intentionally leaves a couple roster spots empty every year. Simply put, his weeding out happens during recruitment, and those that sign with Villanova are given every opportunity to  get on the court. He knows there will be critics either way, and believes this method is the most fair to members of his team. “I want it to work when a kid is here,” says a former assistant on Wright’s philosophy. Think about this the next time a fraternity member tries justifying how many new members they drop.

Embrace continuous member development: While every path is slightly different, a typical Villanova player spends most of his freshman year learning and growing with his teammates, sophomore year emerging as a leader, and upperclassmen years as somewhere between a national award candidate and active mentor to young players. Some of Villanova’s top competition has sought out “one and done” players, who are more talented but already know they are a year away from leaving. This actively mirrors fraternities who see new members as done developing by the end of the pledge process. Villanova’s constant combination of talent and experience is essential towards team goals, as well as individual development. It’s why the program has been a factory of success while their peers often fluctuate based on talent coming in and out.

Know the risk of recruiting “studs”: When Wright first reached a Final Four 9 years ago, Villanova started attracting talent they wouldn’t have sniffed the year before – similar to an up-and-coming chapter suddenly being swarmed by popular recruits. This newfound level of talent ended up sinking Villanova to a 13-19 season, much like that chapter struggling with suspensions or lackluster relationships. “I got sloppy,” Wright told ESPN. “After we went to the Final Four, it was easy to get guys.”

His former assistant, Billy Lange, described the shift Wright had to make so he could still attract great players, but avoid ones in it for themselves: “I want guys that want to play for Villanova and be part of this program. I’m going to message everything I do the same way. If they don’t want to come, that’s fine.” During Villanova’s current run, they have not had a top 20 recruiting class in 247sports’ recruiting rankings.

Treasure your seniors & alumni: There’s a sign on Wright’s door that says “play for those who came before us,” and he holds an annual summer gathering so alumni and their families can form relationships with new players coming in. The bond is very much echoed in the players. Before Villanova’s hot run of success, they were considered chokers and lost in the first weekend of the tournament two years in a row. Current players have praised the seniors on those losing teams for encouraging them to stand tall through adversity, and that forged their path to the top. Yet, most fraternities have trouble getting seniors to even show up once a week?

Onboarding is about your new members, not you: Most organizations with Villanova’s success use their facilities to showcase it, and display banners or trophies for all new members to see. So, people are usually surprised when they learn the walls of Villanova’s practice facility are strikingly bare, with only the word “Attitude” displayed behind each basket.  I don’t see this as a knock on groups who advertise success, but rather a reminder that new members of a successful team can feel a lot of pressure. Wright is clearly doing everything he can to make sure his new members create their own experience, and knows past success speaks for itself. Are there ways we let our history overly influence our new members’ creativity?

Beware of outside attention, and focus on improvement: “All the attention, it’s really scary because it’s intoxicating,” Wright told GQ after his first title in 2016. He noticed that the level of praise they were receiving hurt their ability to do things the right way. Wright began focusing less on calling specific plays, and more on the mental side of the game. When Villanova players make a big shot, they still get pumped up–but Wright instructs them to deliver that emotional energy to their teammates instead of everyone watching. “Players play for their teammates and coaches; actors play for the crowd” is another Villanova slogan. Does your chapter care more about the perception of your new member program from outsiders on campus, or how to strengthen your relationships from the inside?

Enjoy who you’re winning with more than winning: The final secret to how Villanova wins so much? They don’t really like to talk about it. Seriously, YouTube any Jay Wright interview and it will shock you. He doesn’t even take the bait when reporters insert winning into the conversation. After steamrolling one of the top teams in the country Saturday, Wright was asked about it and said his players want “a community off the court, and they feel like it will make them the best they can be individually as a student, as hopefully a pro player, and they really want to enjoy that experience of community.” Players echoed the sentiment, seemingly more excited about seeing how close they could get to their potential than what the scoreboard said. Then, they played even better and won the title.

Star player Jalen Brunson said it perfectly when asked why the championship made him so emotional… “It’s so special when you have a relationship with these guys, it’s something we’ll remember forever.” By the way, Brunson had one of his lowest scoring games, sat on the bench most of the second half, and smiled the whole time while one of his mentees took over the game.

Villanova isn’t done winning, and new leaders and mentors will emerge next year. But they are cool with the fact that lucky bounces and fluke injuries will prevent them from winning every time. That’s why Brunson’s words really hit home with his favorite part of Villanova’s success: “to be able to do this with your brothers.”

Let’s make that a quote we build our success around, too.