Among the fans in attendance at San Antonio’s Alamodome to watch Villanova lock up a second men’s basketball national championship in three years was Mark Ferrante, the second-year head football coach who arrived at the school three decades ago, when the historic 1985 title game upset of Georgetown was still fresh in the minds of Wildcats fans and current basketball coach Jay Wright was a young assistant for legendary coach Rollie Massimino.
After serving as an assistant himself to longtime coach Andy Talley, Ferrante took over the football program in December 2016. While he had been in Houston for Kris Jenkins’s title-winning buzzer beater two years ago, Ferrante took advantage of Villanova’s Easter break and his elevated title this time around to get the full Final Four experience: catching up with the school’s football alumni, interviewing a candidate for a facilities position and held a meeting with hopes of filling out future football schedules.
Below, Ferrante discusses what it’s like to run a football program out of the same campus that’s home to the nation’s preeminent basketball team, his efforts to return the Wildcats to FCS playoff contention and his grand football plans for some of the basketball team’s stars.
This interview has been edited and condensed for context and clarity.
Eric Single: What is your relationship with Jay Wright like, and has it changed since you took over as head coach?
Mark Ferrante: It’s funny because when I first came here in 1987, Jay was on the staff, and then he moved on to do his things prior to coming back, and when he came back, which is now 17 years ago, when I first bumped into him, his first response was, “You’re still here!” So that was kind of funny when we had that initial interaction, but Jay’s great. Our relationship has changed in the fact that I will go to his office more frequently now as opposed to when I was an assistant, I may have just popped in. I’ve taken some recruits over to sit with him when they’re on campus.
He and I are a similar age, so I think we’ve seen each other coming up through the same things. Now he’s gone on and made his mark at these other programs and now obviously what he’s done here is tremendous, so we’ll share ideas and thoughts and I’ll try to go over and pick his brain from time to time on some of the things he’s doing as far as setting the culture in his program and so on and so forth. Although when he first came back here, because Coach Talley was here so long, he would kind of stop in our offices as well, and I think he was doing the same thing through Coach Talley, trying to come back and understand the landscape of Villanova, if you will.
ES: How much is the basketball team a factor in the recruiting pitch for Villanova football?
MF: We’ve always used it as a positive and not a negative. We’re an FCS program, and they’ve been in the higher level. We’ve always used it as a positive so when we’re recruiting student-athletes for football, we always mention to them how great it is to have a basketball program—or all the sports, for that matter, but they’re the ones that are the most high-profile—we always mention to them that when they’re on TV it’s free advertising for your degree. So the V is very recognizable especially now these last three years—not that it wasn’t after the ’85 championship, but now even more so. It just promotes who we are as a university and promotes everybody who graduates from here, not necessarily just the people within that sport that are getting that recognition. So it’s something that we’ve always spun as a positive.
Some of our opponents used to say—they don’t say it much anymore once we won our championship in 2009—“They’re a basketball school, not a football school,” and then we would continue to do well on the field. A lot of times the people that used to use that against us are teams we started beating semi-regularly. But we love it.
ES:Since you got there, Villanova has had three men’s basketball coaches, and now you’re the second football coach in 30-plus years. [Women’s basketball coach Harry Perretta has been at the school for 39 seasons.] Is there something about how things are run there that lends itself to that rare type of longevity?
MF: I think it’s Villanova as a whole, not Villanova as an athletic department, and the reason I say that, I think it’s something that you recognize when you’re here. It’s hard to explain what it is, but when you talk family and community, which is what Villanova University is all about, you get that sense when you are here.
Every five years, with the employees here, they have what they call a recognition dinner. It’s amazing to me that it’s not just in the athletic department. A lot of the custodians, a lot of the people that work in dining facilities, a lot of the professors also have that type of longevity. It’s just a place that promotes community. It’s a place that promotes family. I think it’s campus-wide, but obviously with myself and Jay, you don’t have a lot of turnover with the stability we do have in athletics. I think you also get that sense of pride, community and family within the athletic department as well.
ES:There’s a pretty limited number of FCS programs that have anything really close to your situation as far as sharing space with a nationally contending basketball team on a year-to-year basis. You mentioned the positives, but are there any negatives or challenges that come with that?
MF: I’m sure no matter what school you’re at, what program, there’s always going to be challenges. Everyone has their own crosses to bear, if you will. We’re a private school in a state-school [football] league, so the biggest challenge we have, and it’s not because of basketball, it’s because of where we are and who we are at Villanova, is our limitations on our roster size. That’s something where a Delaware or a James Madison or a Stony Brook, some of the state schools within our league that have been doing well, they’re able to carry and attract more people. It’s just because of the makeup of our university as a whole.
Right now we have a brand-new facility—I mean, facilities used to be a little bit of a crutch, if you will, but we have a new facility in our end zone now, the Talley Athletic Center, so that’s really helped us in the recruiting aspect of things. It’s hard to say. We’ve been here so long, and as Coach Talley has done throughout his career with me being with him for an extended period of that time, we’ve always tried to turn things into a positive. It’s hard for me to sit here and give you an overall true negative, and I can’t think of many that would be related to ‘Oh, we’re a Big East perennial power basketball program, does that hurt us?’ It helps us more than it hurts us.
ES:This spring is certainly different than your first spring as head coach, but I’d assume you have a little more perspective now. Is there anything Coach Talley did not warn or advise you about running the program?
MF: Coach and I have been close for a number of years, obviously, so I would say he prepared me well, but there are certain things that you can’t prepare for. December 2016, when our season ended in the playoffs, that’s when I took over, but that was really more hectic, I don’t want to say chaotic. I had to hire my replacement, not just for the offensive line, but we did have some coaches that did have opportunities because of the year we had to move on, so I ended up hiring a new strength coach, a new line coach and then four other coaches last spring, so that was challenging, along with trying to get ready for my first spring practice session as the head coach.
Now that we’re into year two of spring practice, it seems to be smoother, an easier transition. We haven’t had any coaching turnover as of right now. It’s been a little less hectic. The things that you can’t prepare for, I’ve done a lot of the things because Coach Talley gave me a lot of responsibility, especially in the latter part of his career, as far as running a banquet or addressing the team after practice or doing interviews. The couple things that I have said were the most different were No. 1, the 24-hour day from one day to the next has gone a lot faster for me as a head coach, just a lot more coming across my desk now, and then the two-hour practice on the field has gone slower because I don’t have my own specific position and I’m not doing my individual drills and all those things.
The other thing—and I don’t want to call it challenging either but it was something you almost can’t prepare for, so it was new—was when we’re in the fall season and it’s gameday, what you say to the team before the game, what you say to the team at halftime, and what you say to the team in the locker room after a game, win or loss, that’s something I think you just gotta get a feel for and just do. There’s no rehearsal for that.
ES:I was looking at the stat sheet from 2017 and couldn’t help but notice that seven different Villanova players attempted a pass last year. That seems ... high.
MF:Well, a couple of them were a fake punt and a reverse pass, but we did play three different quarterbacks. We had 18 season-ending injuries last year, so we started out the season pretty well at 4–2 at one point, and we did have some injury up to that, but then it snowballed even more. Our starting quarterback went down in Week 5, and he was having a phenomenal year. In the first four games, he threw six touchdown passes, no interceptions and over 70% completions, so we were going in a good direction and then the injury bug kind of jumped up and bit us a little bit.
We went from playing a redshirt junior to a redshirt freshman to a true freshman over time from the quarterback position, so without any consistency there you’re gonna struggle. And then the rest of the attempts, we ran a fake punt with our punter so he threw a pass, we ran a couple reverse passes, trying to muster up a few trick plays here and there just because we weren’t able to have the offensive consistency that we had earlier in the year once we got all those injuries.
ES: I don’t know if you saw the SB Nation story last week about the beach football game that the Villanova basketball team still fights about to this day. Which member of this year’s basketball team would make the best addition to your football roster?
MF: Oh gosh. We’ve talked about that [laughs]. As far as grittiness, [Donte] DiVincenzo and [Collin] Gillespie would probably be really good defensive backs, and with DiVincenzo’s ability to jump you could definitely throw him some fade patterns into the end zone. [Omari] Spellman and [Eric] Paschall would be great two-way players on offensive tight end and defensive end, and [Jalen] Brunson could be our quarterback. With his command of what he does on the court, with his presence and what appears to be level-headedness, being the field general, if you will. And I think he could play defense somewhere, too, because he seems really strong.
But we’ve talked about that from time to time, Paschall and Omari would probably be great additions to tight end, defensive end. And like I said, DiVincenzo and Gillespie, the way they dive on the floor—that’s something they all do, but those two guys just seem to have that grittiness to them.