With Kyle Neptune at Villanova, the Wildcats are in good hands after coach Jay Wright’s departure
The New York City native takes pride in being a young Black coach in the Big East: ‘I hope that just by being in this spot I can motivate someone else’
In April, Basketball Hall of Fame coach Jay Wright surprised many when he retired from coaching. The 60-year-old Wright left college basketball after amassing a 642-282 career record, good for a .695 winning percentage. At Villanova, Wright won an even more impressive 72.5% of his games, winning 520 of 717 contests.
Wright coached Villanova to two national championships, four Final Fours, eight Big East regular-season championships and five Big East Tournament championships. Wright almost single-handedly kept the Big East relevant after the league hemorrhaged blue bloods and reinvented itself in 2014 amid the ever-changing landscape of college sports.
Deciding who should follow a legend can be difficult. Ultrasuccessful college basketball programs are often an embodiment of the coach who orchestrated the success. No program wants to take a step back, but instead would like to find a successor who embodies the same culture and values as the legendary coach, and who also has the same intangibles.
Villanova wasted no time deciding who that coach was: Wright’s former assistant Kyle Neptune was the clear choice.
Neptune, 37, spent 11 years as an assistant at Villanova, off and on, with a most recent eight-year stretch from 2013 to 2021 that included both of Wright’s national championship teams. Last season, Neptune’s first season as a head coach, he led Fordham to a surprising 16-16 record, its best record in six years. The Brooklyn, New York-born Neptune, much like Wright, is known for his superior work ethic, attention to detail and professionalism. Neptune is one of seven Black head coaches in the 11-team Big East conference.
Around the time Wright was making a name for himself coaching at Hofstra University in the late 1990s, Neptune was on the blacktops of Brooklyn honing and exhibiting the skills that would later attract Wright and Villanova.
Khalid Green, currently a director at New Heights Youth Inc. and a former Brooklyn Nets scout, coached Neptune on the Brooklyn Bridge AAU team he founded when Neptune was a teenager.
“So, [Neptune] calls me one night and asks me how can he get playing time,” Green recalled. “I told him to look at the team you’re on. At the time we had Ramel Bradley, who went to Kentucky, Chris Taft who went to Pittsburgh, Sebastian Telfair and others. I told him you have to look around and bring something to the table that they don’t bring. And then he became our Shane Battier. The kids on our team were calling him Shane Battier because he was taking multiple charges a game. On the concrete. He was winning games for us by taking charges on concrete. It got to the point where I couldn’t take him out of the game.
“[Neptune] was the type of young man that I knew no matter what he decided to do in life, he would be successful.”– Gary Charles, Kyle Neptune’s former AAU basketball coach
“He was all about the intangibles. He’s the kid that would sacrifice for the betterment of the team. A lot of things that he did would not show up in the stat book. But, for the players that were involved, they knew he was one of the most valuable players because he would set the screen when nobody wanted to set the screen, he’d rebound that ball in traffic when everybody else was just standing around. And he also bought into being a team player on the bench where he was the loudest one rooting for his teammates.”
Neptune remembers his time playing for Brooklyn Bridge fondly. “One thing I’ll say about Coach Green, I think he had a unique way of letting you know where you stood,” Neptune said with a smile. “The way he coached definitely built character. He set a standard, but also let you know where you were in the hierarchy at any particular time.”
Another New York City grassroots coach who was influential in Neptune’s development was Gary Charles, an AAU and grassroots basketball legend and founder and CEO of ABIS, Advancement of Blacks in Sports. Charles coached Neptune on the AAU circuit and later helped him secure his first college coaching opportunity.
“[Neptune] was the type of young man that I knew no matter what he decided to do in life, he would be successful,” Charles told me. “He got the most out of his talent. What I saw from him was the makeup of a mature young man who understood his limitations [as a player] and understood what he could and could not do and what he needed to do in order to get ahead.”
Neptune went on to play college basketball at Lehigh, followed by a brief stint playing overseas. When he found that the overseas basketball grind was tougher than he anticipated, he decided to return home to New York City and seek out his grassroots mentors for guidance on how he could carve out a career in basketball.
Neptune reached out to Green and Charles, among others, and all were eager to help the young man who had left such a lasting impression on them as a player.
“If [Neptune] needed help or wasn’t sure about something, he had no problem picking up the phone and saying, ‘G, I gotta talk to you.’ He didn’t have that problem of thinking he knew everything. And I admire that about him and when you see that, you have no problem trying to help that person out,” Charles said.
Neptune’s hard work and the relationships he built paid off quickly, as Wright hired him to be his video coordinator in 2008.
Now, 14 years later, one year after proving he could lead his own team and have success, Neptune has the opportunity of a lifetime, back at Villanova, a place he calls home.
“A lot of what I’ve learned in this business is because I’ve been at Villanova,” he said. “I think I’m uniquely a Villanovan. My thought process is so aligned with what’s been going on here over the last decade, just because I’ve been here for most of that time. To stray too far from that would just kind of be unnatural for me.”
As for his success at Fordham, Neptune just looks at it as another step in his journey.
“Anytime you can do anything professionally, the more experience you have the better. So, having that year of experience really helped me to mature as a coach,” he said. “You get to do something you love at a high level and I enjoy doing that. Coming back [to Villanova], I’m excited to do the same thing here.”
“I know, for me, growing up and seeing other African Americans in positions that are coveted positions was unbelievable for me, just seeing that that was possible. I’m proud to be in that spot and I hope that just by being in this spot I can motivate someone else.” – Kyle Neptune
There is no denying the pressure that comes with taking over a top-tier college basketball program and succeeding a legend in the profession. Duke coach Jon Scheyer is in the same situation this season as he takes over for Mike Krzyzewski in Durham, North Carolina. Neptune, however, seems quite comfortable in his own skin and understands that although Wright has been his mentor, he will not be successful if he tries to be anyone other than himself.
“I really feel no pressure. I’m going to be me,” Neptune said. “I can’t be Jay Wright. There’s no way I can be someone that I am not. My only goal now is to keep the culture and the bones of the program where it’s been, and for each team, just think about it like we have to be the best team we can be by the end of the season, and if we are doing that at a high level, then I’m comfortable with the results.”
Neptune also understands the significance of this opportunity, being a young Black coach in the Big East, picked to lead a storied program with immediate championship expectations.
“I have such a high level of pride to be part of the Big East because they are really into diversity. It’s one of the major things we focus on, we talk about it all the time and it’s a source of pride for the league as well,” he said. “I know, for me, growing up and seeing other African Americans in positions that are coveted positions was unbelievable for me, just seeing that that was possible. I’m proud to be in that spot and I hope that just by being in this spot I can motivate someone else.”
Green and Charles have no doubt that Neptune will be successful because they’ve witnessed the character traits in him that are needed to be successful at the highest level.
“Twenty percent of what we do is coaching, it’s the other 80% that makes you who you are, as far as helping kids out,” Charles told Andscape. “What are you doing to help these young men? So, for me, it’s not as much about how great of a coach you are, it’s more about whether you are going to be there for the young man when he is done. And like Jay Wright, that’s Kyle Neptune.”
“No. 1, he’s confident,” Green told Andscape in response to why he believes Neptune will be successful at Villanova. “He had a strong foundation playing for the Brooklyn Bridge program and of course coaching under Jay Wright at Villanova only elevated that foundation. He was Jay’s right-hand man and top assistant during those national championship seasons.”
As for his own expectations coming into this season, Neptune is his understated, confident self.
“I think we’re in a great spot,” Neptune said. “Villanova for years has had a main guy coming back. This year [with the Achilles injury to guard Justin Moore, who is expected to return around January] we don’t have that. It’s actually an exciting time because I think the guys that are coming back have a high level of talent and I think they are a little more hungry because they are not the guys you traditionally look at and know what they are going to be. I think all of us in our program know what they are going to be, but I think they have a little bit of a chip on their shoulder.”
The season got off to a nice start for Neptune and the Wildcats on Monday with a 81-68 win over La Salle. Based on Neptune’s history of finding any way possible to get the job done, it’s safe to say Villanova and its tradition of hard work, unselfishness and most importantly, winning, is in good hands.