The Rev. Rob Hagan immediately thought of the parable of the barren fig tree. As the chaplain for the Villanova men’s basketball team, he had just been on the winning end of a Big East tournament quarterfinal game, feeling the highs of seeing the Wildcats advance to the next round. After his team departed the news conference room, Hagan stayed behind to listen to Marquette, the team Villanova had just defeated.
There was a somber tone. Marquette was thinking about the disappointment of a 13-19 season; Hagan was thinking about the man who prevented the fig tree from being cut down because it had not borne fruit immediately.
The parable is a March favorite.
“They certainly didn’t get all the results they were looking for this year,” Hagan said later. “But there’s a lot of value besides wins and losses. How do we learn? What are we going to do differently? How will we grow? That’s why I like that story. It shows that you don’t just dismiss everything else because you didn’t get the win.”
College basketball’s most pressure-packed month can bring up a wide range of results and emotions: success, failure, pain, doubt, finality. Mistakes are magnified. Careers end without warning. For all of those reasons, Hagan’s place at the final seat of Villanova’s bench is an important one. He is a counselor for the good times and the bad. And Hagan is not the only one in such a position.
Since the Big East Conference was reconstituted in 2013, the league has returned to its roots as a home to teams that compete in Division I in sports other than football. Most of the colleges are Catholic, and at the conference tournament this week at Madison Square Garden, half of the conference’s 10 members — Creighton, Marquette, Seton Hall, St. John’s, and Villanova — had members of the clergy on the bench. They are there not just for moments of prayer and reflection, but sometimes just because a team member needs someone to listen.
“I’m simply a presence for whenever they need me,” said Marquette’s longtime chaplain, the Rev. William Kelly.
Kelly, 91, has been the program’s chaplain since Rick Majerus’ second season, in 1984. He had been teaching at Marquette since 1961 and began serving as an assistant to the former chaplain, the Rev. Leonard Piotrowski, toward the end of coach Al McGuire’s tenure, when Piotrowski had other duties.
Since then he has been on the bench for seven head coaches, each of them bringing in his own beliefs — but always allowing Kelly to serve when needed.
“It was stability,” said the former Marquette coach Kevin O’Neill, now a Fox Sports analyst. “He was a voice of reason in a sea of chaos. That’s what every basketball season is.”
O’Neill has also worked at Tennessee, Northwestern, Arizona, and Southern California over the last 20 years, but has stayed in close contact with Kelly, as others connected with the program have.
Marquette players who have gone on to successful careers in the NBA will occasionally reach out to Kelly in moments of doubt and crisis. Dwyane Wade, now an All-Star with the Miami Heat, makes a point of saying hello to Kelly when he is back in the Milwaukee area.
It is that connection that makes the Big East unique.
With the birth of the new Big East last season, Seton Hall’s chaplain, the Rev. John Dennehy, has tried to organize a dinner for the chaplains each year the night before the tournament begins. (Because of scheduling and varied team arrival times, those efforts have been unsuccessful.) And because only half of the league’s members have priests who travel with them full time — some, like Georgetown, have never had one; others cannot travel for budgetary reasons, and Butler is not a religious institution — the chaplains have become a close-knit fraternity.
Those chaplains are leaned on heavily by coaches whose programs have them available full time.
“It’s an important reminder for all of those virtues that transcend basketball,” St. John’s coach Steve Lavin said. “It keeps us more grounded and rooted to the larger mission than just winning games.”
Each priest and each program has individual routines and times for prayer.
At Marquette, Kelly spends much of the hour before a game around the team. He watches the shoot-around sessions and is in the locker room in those idling moments before taking the court. But he spends the final 15 minutes or so before each game with the team’s first-year coach, Steve Wojciechowski. Sometimes they sit in silence; sometimes there are bits of conversation. But Kelly always makes sure to bless Wojciechowski before taking the court.
At Seton Hall, Dennehy makes the rounds talking with players and coaches before the game. Sometimes, he talks just basketball. Other times, deeper concerns come up.
At Villanova, coach Jay Wright makes sure nothing is done before a prayer circle takes place.
Four hours before every game, at the team meal, there is prayer, a reading from Scripture, and prayer intentions from every person in the room.
“It’s not just, ‘Hey, Father, say the Hail Mary and get out of the way,’ ” Hagan said. “We’re trying to put a spiritual fingerprint on what we’re about to do.”
Their roles, each of the priests say, are designed for approachability. They are not on the bench to pipe up and offer a prayer during a timeout or to make sure every player is attending church services when he is not on the basketball court. They are there to provide someone outside the basketball world to talk to.
“Father Rob is not just a priest who is there during games,” said Darrun Hilliard, a senior guard at Villanova. “He’s there for you in the summertime. He’s there for you when you’re not even there.”
Each chaplain knows the role he provides for the team. But there is an element of fandom as well. Hagan was a Villanova student when the Wildcats won the 1985 national championship, so he lives and dies with every play, just as a coach would.
Dennehy, a Seton Hall graduate, pores over the box scores and the play-by-play at halftime of every game.
Kelly has a similar routine, though he takes it one step further. After every home game, he goes into the press room and grabs a stack of game books to take back to the Jesuit residence on campus.
“We review the statistics and the strategy to see what we should’ve done,” Kelly said with a smile. “We are fans, too, you know.”