Villa 7 sounds like the next James Bond flick, but it’s actually an invitation-only seminar that helps athletic directors meet the rising stars of the college basketball coaching ranks.
Winthrop men’s basketball coach Pat Kelsey, who attended the conference as an assistant at Wake Forest and Xavier, spoke at the annual event last weekend about a “Coach’s First 100 Days.” Kelsey just completed his rookie season as a head coach and was honored to be in Minneapolis speaking to a group of talented assistants who were in the same position in which he had been several years earlier.
“It’s very exclusive and it’s hard to get into it,” Kelsey said. “From that standpoint it’s a very powerful thing. But what makes it most special is the curriculum. The mountain of notes I have from those four, five, six years that I was invited out there, it’s just unbelievable the pedigree of the speakers and presenters.”
With typically self-deprecating humor Kelsey added, “Obviously, I think I brought down the curve on that a little bit this year.”
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The birth of Villa 7
Mike Ellis, a longtime assistant basketball coach and now the associate athletic director at the University of Minnesota, disagreed. When putting together this year’s program, Ellis, Villa 7’s creator, saw Kelsey as a natural choice to be the First 100 Days presenter.
“The passion that is so clearly evident with Pat in every aspect of his life, the energy, the enthusiasm and his desire to be just great at everything he does, is really why we wanted him here,” Ellis said Wednesday. “I knew he would treat this opportunity with the respect that we wanted. I also know he valued his time here, and what we were able to give to him, and what he was able to take away from here.”
Ellis started Villa 7 in 2004 when he was at Virginia Commonwealth University with the intent of finding a replacement for then-coach Jeff Capel, who was drawing covetous glances from a number of big schools. Ellis and VCU athletic director Norwood Teague knew they needed to be proactive in case Capel was lured away (he ultimately was, by Oklahoma).
“If we lost him, we weren’t sure what direction we were going to go,” Ellis recalled. “Through that conversation the idea was born. What we tried to do was be very, very diligent. That would not only help us, but help other schools like us that really need to be successful on the basketball side of things.”
The event takes its exotic name from the impromptu first gathering Ellis cobbled together in 2004 at a Las Vegas Mirage Hotel accommodation called Villa 7. Ellis brought his brainchild with him when he followed Teague to Minnesota last year and it’s now co-hosted by Nike, which has helped keep Villa 7 free of charge and operating at a high level.
“The people involved have helped make it special,” he said. “We weren’t trying to make money; we were just trying to help administrators and coaches.”
The First 100 Days
The First 100 Days is an annual topic at Villa 7, which hosts 50 men’s and 35 women’s coaches per year. Other speakers have included Anthony Grant (currently at Alabama), Frank Haith (Missouri) and last year’s speaker, Michael White, who just led Louisiana Tech to a 27-7 record in 2012-13, the school’s best season in years. The speakers, almost always rookie head coaches, usually have plenty to share.
“I think it’s relevant because there are people in that room that will be going through it next spring,” said Ellis. “It’s a critical piece of what we do.”
Kelsey’s hour-long presentation touched on a number of issues that first-year head coaches face in their first 100 days on the job. His chief point was the overriding challenge of dealing with a cyclone of new responsibilities and obstacles that all seem to touch down at once in a coach’s professional and personal realms.
Kelsey said that having the notes of previous years’ presentations proved incredibly helpful to him this last year. Ellis echoed that idea Wednesday, adding that he had just spoken with former VCU assistant Will Wade, who was hired earlier this week by Tennessee-Chattanooga. Wade had his previous couple years’ worth of Villa 7 notes sprawled across his desk.
“I think it helped me know what to expect,” said Kelsey, about his personal stack of notes. “To listen to other coaches and what they went through, you sort of have a preparedness when those things start coming at you fast and furious.”
Kelsey is one of Villa 7’s recent success stories, as are a number of others. Marquette’s Buzz Williams, Ole Miss’ Andy Kennedy, Virginia Commonwealth’s Shaka Smart, Memphis’ Josh Pastner and Xavier’s Chris Mack are all past Villa 7 participants, assistants who got their shot at the head coaching hot seat. Ellis credited Winthrop athletic director Tom Hickman, who has never attended Villa 7, for making the move to snatch up Kelsey when larger programs hesitated, because “he’s got a star on his hands.”
Former Winthrop women’s basketball head coach Marlene Stollings was also a Villa 7 alum when she was hired by Hickman in 2011. That she left a year later for VCU was no coincidence; the school’s administrators had met her at Villa 7.
Of the program’s many valuable offerings, the most important for budding assistants may be what’s literally called the speed dating round. Coaches get seven minutes with seven athletic directors to pitch their visions and ideas, and hopefully make an impression. Business cards fly around and much like a coach’s first 100 days, it’s a whirlwind.
The payoff can be great – 120 Villa 7 attendees have been hired as head coaches since 2004. Ellis estimated about 20 of those occurred at the conference. Though few land jobs at the actual event, the value is in planting seeds for the future, whether as an athletic director or as a budding assistant coach.
“The reality is you need to be prepared,” said Ellis. “The very best case is if you come and develop relationships over time.”
The video doesn’t lie
Like all of the Villa 7 attendees, Kelsey had work to do to become a more viable head-coaching candidate. In 2011 he was one of 10 assistant coaches invited to the Villa 7 event a day early to go through mock interviews with actual athletic directors and search firm representatives. After videotaped sessions, Kelsey was able to see his weaknesses and what he needed to improve upon. Coaches love telling their players that the tape doesn’t lie; that belief holds true at Villa 7 too.
Ellis said Kelsey’s preparation was impeccable, but that he had to clean up the delivery of his vision.
“He absolutely took the information and did what winners do with it,” said Ellis. “And that’s get better.”
Almost a year later, Kelsey was hired at Winthrop. His return to Villa 7 last weekend brought the journey full circle.
“It’s the best thing I’ve done in my career in terms of professional development,” he said. “To be asked to go back there is one of the greatest honors of my professional life.”