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Villanova Basketball’s Kyle Neptune Takes Over for Jay Wright

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Photos by Tessa Marie Images

Can new head coach Kyle Neptune pick up where Jay Wright left off with Villanova University’s men’s basketball team?

When Kyle Neptune was a kid, his teacher gave the class a choice to write a book report on one of three topics. Neptune’s mother made him report on all three. That’s how things went in his house. “They wanted to push us out of our comfort zone,” says Neptune, noting that the same was expected of his sister, Alisha.

Neptune is disciplined. He’s cordial. And on this morning, he’s also distracted. As we chat in his office, Villanova University’s new men’s basketball coach is looking out the window into the practice court, where a Wildcat player is putting up some jump shots. Judging from Neptune’s reaction, the player could be doing a better job.

In years past, Neptune might’ve been on that court with the shooter while former head coach Jay Wright entertained guests. That’s what assistant coaches do. For several summers, in fact, the boss would be away for weeks working as an aide on Gregg Popovich’s USA Basketball staff, leaving Neptune and the other assistants to run things.

Things are different now. Neptune is in charge, one year after leaving the Main Line to reverse Fordham University’s roundball slide. Wright’s sudden retirement this past April left much of the college basketball world searching for answers as to why a man who’d just taken his team to the Final Four and won a pair of national titles would step away. Wright was Neptune’s coaching mentor, and the decision to entrust one of the sport’s premier programs to someone with just a year’s experience at the top perplexed some. “Nobody understands our culture quite like Kyle does. Nobody understands the fundamental elements of Jay’s success like Kyle does,” says Villanova athletic director Mark Jackson. “But we’re not trying to replicate it.”

Had Jackson conducted a national search for Wright’s replacement, Neptune’s name wouldn’t have stood out. He isn’t even all that well known among the Wildcat community. Villanova assistants Mike Nardi and Dwayne Anderson played for the school. Neptune spent 10 years on Wright’s staff but was somewhat anonymous. “It’s probably not the perfect timing,” Wright admits. “But I think for the long term, it’s the perfect move. He’s been ready for a couple of years. He went away and got a year’s experience at Fordham, and he came back with experience.”

And Neptune is also working with an experienced staff. “Every single person there he’s worked with,” says Wright, who’s now a special assistant to Villanova’s president, assisting with fundraising and alumni and community relations. “I saw him run a practice the other day, and it was like I was standing in the middle of the court running practice.”

There’s no denying Neptune is a logical heir to what Wright constructed at Villanova, a foundation unique in college basketball due to its emphasis on the program and eschewing the lure of heralded prospects who may be looking for quick exits. Using that formula, Villanova won national titles under Wright in 2016 and 2018, along with two Final Fours. Neptune is charged with keeping them winning big, providing a means for the university to maintain a prominent national profile based, in no small part, on its basketball success. “As head of the basketball program, you try to make sure you’re running a program that correlates with, and has good synergy with, the university mandate,” Neptune says. “As long as we’re doing that, if it helps Villanova, great.”

When news broke that Villanova was hiring Kyle Neptune, Al Vora was ecstatic. Vora has known Neptune since the two were sixth-graders at Brooklyn Friends School. Neptune is godfather to Vora’s children, and when the two get together, they return to memories of their formative years at Brooklyn Friends.

The day after the announcement, Vora visited Neptune at Fordham. “He was getting his stuff together and was so locked in,” recalls Vora, whose hospitality group owns bars, restaurants and supermarkets. “I thought maybe he was thinking about his new challenge. He said, ‘I have to talk to the kids at Fordham, make sure they’re OK and tell them they’re in good hands.’ He was thinking about his responsibility to them.”

If Neptune was somehow born with the potential for single-minded commitment, his parents, Brenda and Alex, certainly nurtured it. Brenda is a native of Trinidad. Alex grew up in Guyana, where he played basketball, volleyball and table tennis. Each worked long hours, and both were highly committed to their children. “I give my parents a lot of credit for infusing us with a lot of morals,” Neptune says. “A lot was based on hard work.”

Kyle Neptune Picks Up Where Jay Wright Left Off

Neptune describes Brooklyn Friends as “a unique utopian world” with a mix of students ranging from affluent to ordinary. Neptune began his sporting journey there, playing soccer and baseball. But by his sophomore year, he was focused on basketball, setting a number of school records. In 2003, he led the Quakers to the Class C New York state title. In the semifinal win, he scored 27 points, pulled down 16 rebounds, blocked eight shots and had four steals. Two days later, he had 31 points and 19 boards in the championship win. “Athletics were not at the forefront at Brooklyn Friends when Kyle came there in middle school,” says Vora, who was on the state title team. “We were a Cinderella story.”

Neptune was also a member of Brooklyn Bridge Elite, a top-shelf Amateur Athletic Union team, where he served as a defensive stopper. The fact that he wasn’t upset by the dual roles—star for one team, reserve for another—appealed to Billy Taylor, who was assembling his first full recruiting class as the new coach at Lehigh University in 2003. “As a first-time head coach, I wanted players with toughness, energy and a winning background,” Taylor says. “Kyle brought that to the table.”

Neptune played in all 30 games as a freshman during the 2003–04 season, helping the Mountain Hawks to the NCAA tournament. He became a starter as a junior, bolstering the team with his tough defense, strong outside shooting and natural leadership.

“He was able to connect with younger players as a mentor,” Taylor says.

After graduating from Lehigh, Neptune played pro ball overseas in Latvia, Lithuania and Puerto Rico. He met with some success, but after a year or so, it became clear that it wouldn’t last. “Between my body deteriorating and my skill level, I realized it was time to move on,” he says.

When Wright hired Neptune as a video coordinator in 2008, his work was so thorough that coaches from other teams would call him for footage of schools they’d be facing later in the year. “He knew to put his head down and have a lunch-pail mentality,” says Keith Urgo, then a Villanova assistant and now head coach at Fordham.

Neptune moved to Niagara University in 2010 and worked three years for the legendary Joe Mihalich. In 2013, Neptune began an eight-year stint at Villanova that included plenty of player development and a chance to hone his recruiting, scouting and preparation skills. Most importantly, he showed a high level of strategic ability. “He was our most complex X and O guy,” Wright says. “My response is sometimes psychological or conceptual. He’s about X’s and O’s.”

Neptune also excelled at working with players. When Caleb Daniels transferred to the program after two years at Tulane University, it was Neptune who helped him transition. “Those workouts were like no other,” says Daniels, now a Villanova grad student. “They were crazy. He simulated game situations and asked us what we were going to do.”

All the while, Neptune was preparing to run his own program. In late March 2021, that opportunity arrived when Fordham, which had posted just two winning records since 1993, staggering to a 2–12 record during the COVID-impacted 2020–21 season. With Neptune, Fordham improved to 16–16 and was 8–10 in the conference, huge steps forward despite Neptune’s having very little time to recruit. “I thought I did as good a job as I could have,” Neptune says. “I had 14 new players to get to know. We had to create and refine a style of play. We had to lay the foundation for the entire year in the summer. It was not an easy task.”

Villanova Men's Basketball New Head Coach, Kyle Neptune

Urgo served as an assistant under Neptune at Fordham. “He didn’t try to do anything he wasn’t very good at,” Urgo says. “He was humble enough to lean on me and others. He wasn’t afraid to hear the truth.

Like everyone else at Villanova, Neptune never thought Wright would retire after the 2021–22 season. He was busy finalizing his roster for the upcoming campaign, getting ready to get on the recruiting trail and looking forward to building on the previous year’s success. “I thought I would live in the moment and focus on the task at hand,” he says.

For Saturday afternoon games at the Wells Fargo Center, Villanova University’s campus literally empties out as buses ferry thousands of students to South Philadelphia. “Playing those games is a big boost to the university,” Wright says. “Alumni come in from all over the country to see friends and go to the games.”

Villanova is the only Big 5 school that plays games at Wells Fargo Center—because it’s the only school that’s won three NCAA titles and attracts consistent national attention. That success has had a mammoth impact on the institution over the past decade. The most recent fundraising campaign brought in more than $760 million, well beyond the $600 million goal. In 2016, the school admitted 43% of its applicants. Last spring, it welcomed just 23%. In 2013, a little less than 15,000 students applied to the school. Last year, the number ballooned to almost 24,000. And tuition has increased from $58,245 in 2014–15 to $77,705 in 2022–23.

Granted, there’s no guarantee that if Villanova’s hoops fortunes flag, admissions will suffer and fundraising will lag. Boston College and Georgetown University haven’t been overly successful athletically in the past decade. Yet they remain highly desirable destinations among applicants. It’s possible Wright’s work has already put Villanova in a position to continue its popularity with students and donors regardless. But why take that chance?

“It’s a huge responsibility,” says Wright about coaching at Nova. “That’s another reason why it’s important to have a person who’s part of the family—and not just a basketball coach.”

Neptune’s assistants—Nardi, Anderson and George Halcovage—all have deep roots in the program. With Neptune in charge, it could be strange, given that they’ve worked together as assistants. “The one common denominator with Kyle is that family is very important,” Nardi says. “He, his parents and sister are all very close. He doesn’t have a wife and kids, so he looks at us as brothers and extended family. That’s a huge piece of what we’re trying to continue.”

It’s not easy being the guy who follows “the guy”—especially when he’s Jay Wright, who’s likely to remain the face of the program and the university. But Villanova appears to be fully committed to Neptune. “It’s a surreal feeling when you’re doing something you love every day—not often do you get to do that,” Neptune says. “I think about what I get to do every day. It’s special.”

THE FAMILY BUSINESS

When Jay Wright announced his retirement as the Villanova University men’s basketball coach in late April, his wife, Patty, thought it meant the end of worrying about wins and losses.

Apparently not.

This past summer, their son, Taylor Wright, was named interim head coach at Episcopal Academy, a position he hopes will become permanent after this season. “My dad and I were in the living room, using potted plants as players for X’s and O’s, and Mom was like, ‘Here we go again,’” says Wright, who graduated from EA in 2011.

Taylor Wright

A history teacher at the school, Wright had been an assistant and head JV coach for the Churchmen since 2019. “When coach [Brian] Shanahan took leave, I offered to help,” Wright says. “A couple weeks later, he resigned, and I was asked if I wanted to be interim coach. I love working with kids.”

It’s another bit of serendipity for Wright, who played basketball and baseball at Brown University. After graduating, he earned an MBA at Villanova and worked in finance in New York for three years. In the fall of 2018, he went to a baseball alumni gathering at Brown, and when the coach asked if anybody wanted to see how fast he could throw, Wright, a pitcher, was surprised to see his fastball hitting 90 miles an hour.

That convinced Wright to try a professional sports career. He ended up pitching three seasons for the independent Evansville Otters and Somerset Patriots. When COVID-19 hit, he became a part-time teacher and coach at EA, starting full time this year.

Settling into his new role, Wright notes that his father will be a “special advisor,” and he’s picked up plenty of tips over the years. “I’ve spent so much time around coaches,” Wright says. “It just seeps in.”

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