A Villanova Fan’s Notes – 36 Years In The Making
A long time ago, I read a great book called “A Fan’s Notes,” by the late Frederick Exley. It’s a fictional, semi-autobiography that chronicles many aspects of Exley’s life, chief among them his outsized devotion to the New York Giants and their then-star running back – and former classmate of Exley’s at USC – Frank Gifford. The narrator was thoroughly possessed by his love for the Giants and Gifford.
Many times during the long slog of my obsession with Villanova University basketball, dating back to my freshman year in 1980, I’ve thought about that book. I’ve imagined I might produce a similar work if the Wildcats ever won the NCAA national championship again after their miraculous performance of 1985.
Someday, maybe I will write a book about Villanova basketball – about its improbable NCAA championships in 1985 and 2016 – and its legion of zealous followers. Many of my friends, and now their children, fall into the Rabid Fan category. For example, 13-year-old Abby, who enjoys wearing a temporary tattoo “V” on her cheek, not only watches and rewatches the Wildcats’ televised games when she’s not attending in person, but she also watches and rewatches other Big East games, to scout Villanova’s opponents in advance. Yes, watches and rewatches, you read that right. Her mother, a Rutgers grad, is a bit concerned. Her Villanova alum dad is a bit proud.
I realize many other universities have zealous supporters; Villanova isn’t alone in that regard. However, most of those other schools, the ones with a realistic shot of winning a national title in Division I basketball, anyway, also have top-division football teams and are large public universities.
Villanova does not and is not.
That’s part of what makes the comparatively small population of Nova Nation seem that much more close-knit and enthusiastic.
Only two NCAA men’s basketball national championship teams in the past 31 years have NOT had a Division I-A (or “FBS,” as it’s now called by the NCAA) football program. Both were from Villanova.
Here are some random reflections from a die-hard Villanova basketball fan of the past 36 years. This will pale in comparison to anything from Exley’s 1968 National Book Award-nominated work. But while the subject matter differs – a flagship NFL franchise vs. a small Catholic university – fan obsession is a universal condition. Or dare I say affliction? They might be Giants, but Villanova is the reigning champion.
I was a reporter and sports editor for the student newspaper, The Villanovan, during my four years. I covered a fair number of Wildcats basketball games. Getting ahold of a press pass was something magical in those days. It made you feel special to go through the press entrance and sit courtside among professional journalists. It also granted you entry into the postgame press conference where, if you summoned up the courage, you could ask a question in a room crowded with often-surly reporters on deadline. This was a time before laptops and smart technology. I’d hand-write my notes, then type them back at the office on an IBM Selectric Typewriter. College kids today would be aghast. But, of course, it was all we had and knew, and it was ancillary to getting to watch Rollie Massimino’s band of scrappy players. Guys like Alex Bradley, John Pinone, Stewart Granger, Mike Mulquin, Aaron Howard and many others. Villanova basketball, to me, has always been Villanova basketball. The team is always comprised of hard-working kids who are intelligent, well-spoken and serve as great ambassadors for the University. And they realize that receiving an education and graduating is their number-one priority. Each team contributes to the foundation of success for future teams.
A number of games from my college years burn brightly in my memory. One of the notables occurred in January 1983. The Cats beat a mighty Patrick Ewing-led Georgetown team at UPenn’s on-campus gym, the Palestra, which can rightly be called a College Basketball Cathedral. The 68-67 victory, in all its building-rattling, breath-stealing, down-to-the-wire glory, uncorked pandemonium. The school newspaper’s photographer rushed to the top of the stands as fans flowed downward around him. I can still see in my mind’s eye the photo he took from above the mayhem. It was a black-and-white portrait of a human river swirling around the players in joy. Goliath had been slain by the Wildcats, and it wouldn’t be the last time.
The fact that I remember the exact score of that game but I couldn’t tell you what shirt I wore yesterday is, to me, a symptom of fandium obsessium* (*a Latin-sounding term I just made up). This particular malady consists of not being able to remember your wedding anniversary and other seemingly important things but having a razor-sharp recollection of sporting events from decades ago. There are many victims, mostly male, in its clutches. Symptoms include being forced to sleep on the couch (a side effect of forgetting the wedding anniversary) and, in extreme cases, divorce.
I went to eight of 10 NCAA Tournament games Villanova played during my four years in college. Then I graduated in 1984 and headed to law school in Boston. I watched in 1985 on a small TV (not to scare the kids, but it was not a flat screen and not high-def!) in my friend’s apartment as the Wildcats won the national championship by once again beating Ewing and his Hoyas. Maybe I had been holding the Cats back, I thought. They waited until just after I graduated to break through to the title. I’ll admit, fans tend to have an unrealistic view of the power of the karma they can create for their teams. More on that later.
I was elated they won, of course, even if it was a year late for me. Two friends and I celebrated that win in a true student fashion – by going to Burger King. I remember that clearly because one of the friends, Jay (I’ll rat him out only by first name) inadvertently insulted the guy working the drive-through window when ordering. When we realized it, we speculated as to whether our burgers may have been seasoned with saliva. Having worked the kitchen at a Sambo’s (another historical reference), I know that spit does happen. But I didn’t really care. The Cats were atop the college basketball world (even if there may have been some cocaine fueling one of the players along the way, as was later revealed). All was right with the world.
The N.I.T. Championship in 1994, won over Vanderbilt, 80-73, was bittersweet. It arrived nine years after an NCAA championship. Villanova became the 15th team to win both an NCAA and NIT Tournament championship. Big whoop. Winning the NIT was a fried baloney sandwich the night after filet mignon. I was there, I admit, and was enthusiastic at the time, but seen through the lens of history, that victory withers. “We’re No. 65!” doesn’t satisfy. If finishing second equates to being the first loser, as many say, then winning the NIT meant we were the 65th loser. I don’t think it’s NIT-picking to say that the NIT doesn’t mean S.H.I.T.
In 1995, Villanova won the Big East Tournament championship. Five nights later in Albany, N.Y., on St. Patrick’s Day, Villanova played Old Dominion in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. I was driving to Stowe, Vt. with work colleagues for a ski weekend. We pulled over at a bar to watch the last hour of the game. The Wildcats lost in triple-overtime to the underdog Monarchs. Some observers called that a great game, a “thriller.” I called it a killer. It ruined my weekend. It was like a ski pole through the heart. Many VU fans consider that to have been one of the worst losses – if not the worst loss – in program history. It still pisses me off.
My friend’s wife started her own baking company a number of years ago. It’s called MacDougall’s Irish Victory Cakes. The company specializes in creating mouth-watering delicacies based upon the recipes her great grandfather devised in Ireland and, later, in the States. He baked for kings and queens and was well-known throughout the British Isles. Just a whiff of one of the cakes will cost you 200 calories, but it’s well worth it.
In 2015, like many, I felt the Wildcats had a good chance at going far. Just before the NCAA Tournament, I ordered two dozen Irish Victory Cakes for delivery to the team with a note to Coach Jay Wright, saying I hoped the Victory Cakes would bring victory for Villanova in the NCAA Tournament.
And they did.
For one stinking game.
Maybe I needed to order a batch before each game. After the Cats’ bitter, bitter, bitter (did I mention bitter?) defeat at the hands of North Carolina State in the second round, I was not in the mood for eating anything with “victory” in the name. A big glass of bitters was in order. But Coach Wright sent me a personalized thank-you note and a Villanova basketball T-shirt [note: in my opinion, Villanova basketball couldn’t have better stewards than University President Fr. Peter Donohue, Coach Wright and Athletic Director Mark Jackson.] This year, I took no chances. I didn’t order any Victory Cakes. As any die-hard fan of a sports team knows, karma rules the day.
I first became aware of Danielle Kousoulis on Sept. 11, 2001. Shortly after I made it back to my Manhattan apartment from downtown, through the sirens, dust and whirling chaos, I turned on my TV and saw Barbara Walters interviewing a young guy who was trying to find his girlfriend. Her name, he said, was Danielle Kousoulis. I took note because I knew that her surname, like mine, was Greek. Her boyfriend had been talking to Danielle, who worked at the brokerage firm Cantor Fitzgerald, via cell phone when the first tower collapsed. The line went silent on her end. As you might know, nobody from Cantor made it out alive.
About a month later, my Villanova Magazine arrived, and Danielle was, sadly, pictured as one of the 15 Villanova alums who died on 9/11. I thought that was a weird coincidence. About a year later, I learned that one of my friends was, in another weird coincidence, close to Danielle’s family. I started participating with him in an annual memorial golf tournament to fund a scholarship in Danielle’s name. A few years ago, the golf tournament gift was a sweatshirt with “Danielle Kousoulis Memorial Fund” written on it. I wore that sweatshirt to this year’s Big East Tournament so I could bring Danielle’s spirit with me to root for our shared alma mater. I also told a few people at the tournament about the significance of the sweatshirt, just to further keep Danielle’s memory alive. Maybe she was still perfecting the art of fan support at the Big East Tournament – since the Cats lost the title game to Seton Hall – but I have no doubt that Danielle’s spirit was with the team during its remarkable NCAA Tournament run.
Another weird coincidence occurred right before this year’s NCAA Tournament started. I had met with a couple of my high school classmates on the Monday before the tournament tip-off to discuss ways to support a fundraiser for our alma mater. At one point, our conversation turned to Dave Bauer, a former football star at our high school, Red Bank Catholic. Dave had graduated in 1974 and went on to play football at Villanova before being drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs in 1978. Dave, who also worked at Cantor Fitzgerald, perished on 9/11, although I didn’t realize it until my former classmates told me that morning.
The next day I was on the Villanova campus because I had been invited to co-teach Dr. Mary Kelly’s business class as a guest lecturer along with VU alum Terry Delaney. As I walked into Villanova’s main business school building, Bartley Hall, one of the first things I encountered was a prominent memorial to Dave Bauer. Wow, I thought, what a crazy coincidence. I kind of feel like Dave was making himself known to me and that his competitive spirit lent a guiding hand to the Cats this season.
Many fans of a sports team, possibly almost all, think they personally can influence the outcome of their team’s games by their own actions. Call it karma, or superstition, or just dumb luck. but, really, in our hearts any obsessed fan knows it to be a scientific fact. It’s based on Einstein’s famous Theory of Connectivity. Or something like that.
When I lived in Boston, I became a Red Sox fan. I remember watching the Sox play the Mets in the 1986 World Series with my friend Erwin at his apartment. I don’t recall exactly how it devolved into this situation, but by the ninth inning I was holding a Cheeto in each hand and pointing them at the screen as batters stood at the plate. I spun my Cheetos wands in a circular motion, clearly a well-founded method of affecting a player’s at-bat.
In an effort to offset the powerful forces emanating from my Cheetos, which were, as one would expect, negatively affecting his Mets, Erwin countered by shaking an empty Heineken bottle with a bent bottle cap inside it. This produced an annoying sound, to be sure. Of course, the fact that most of the Heineken bottles in the room had been emptied by this point was certainly a factor in motivating our behavior.
I don’t remember who won that particular game, but I do know that if aliens had landed on Earth and peered into Erwin’s apartment window, they would’ve said “Let’s get out of here, this planet is nuts.”
I’m clearly not the only one who engages in such karma farming, attempting to plant and cultivate the seeds of a beloved team’s victory out of whole cloth. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that such an attempt surfaced before this year’s Villanova-North Carolina NCAA championship game in April.
About two hours before tip-off, I saw a posting on Facebook touting the significance of the number 44 and its role in assuring that Villanova would fulfill its destiny by beating North Carolina. Among other things, this statement pointed out that Villanova had beaten Oklahoma by 44 points in the previous game, the national semifinal, and that game happened to have been Villanova’s 44th NCAA Tournament game since winning the national championship in 1985. It also said that during that historic 1985 run, the Wildcats had beaten Maryland for the school’s 44th all-time NCAA Tournament victory. Adding to this incontrovertible evidence that this was Villanova’s year, the uniform numbers of the Wildcats’ starting line-up added up to 44. And, as the final nail in North Carolina’s coffin, the game was being played on April 4 or 4/4. Villanova was a lock.
I maintain an email list of Villanova basketball fans that I have dubbed the NovaHoops List. I periodically distribute blurbs and links to articles about Villanova basketball. As I was drafting a cover note to send to the group about the recently mined gold nugget involving the number 44 an hour before the championship game, I realized there were about 40-ish people on the distribution list. So I stopped and counted, and it turned out that we had 43 members, including me. I noted in my preamble to the narrative on the significance of the number 44 that we had 44-ish people on our NovaHoops List; we were just one short at 43.
Within a few minutes, one of our list members, Kevin Gallagher, replied that he was adding his coworker and fellow Villanova graduate Mike McGuinness to the list to bring our total number of members to 44. Now, who’s to say if that last act of 44’ed-nesss was what pushed the Cats over the top and assured their victory over North Carolina? I know it cannot be scientifically proven. But I also know 43 other people who might agree that we had a hand in shaping the karmic forces of the glorious night that was April 4, 2016. And, of course, Coach Wright’s last spoken word of the game was reported to be a four-letter word, and the number four is half of 44.