The Spiritual Backbone of Villanova Basketball
The Augustinians Friars have been thrilled that our very own Villanova University Wildcats are the 2018 NCAA Champions! What an incredible season it was, and with such a definitive closing! One man integral to the team is Augustinian priest Fr. Rob Hagan, O.S.A., the team chaplain and spiritual director. Since 2004, Fr. Hagan has worked alongside Head Coach Jay Wright to mold and guide young men who are not just skilled, but disciplined--mentally and spiritually--on and off the court.
In the week of the Final Four Championship, a number of news outlets featured profiles of the secret weapon of Villanova basketball: their chaplain! We encourage you to read them over to get a fuller portrait of this extraordinary member of the Augustinian Order. On March 26 The New York Times featured the article, "You Know Sister Jean. Meet Father Rob."
CatholicPhilly also published a profile of Fr. Hagan the day of the championship, titled, "Villanova, Loyola Chaplains Took Center Court at Final Four."
In both these articles, of course, he is in good company--paired with the legendary 98-year-old chaplain of Loyola Basketball Sister Jean Delores Schmidt, of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Perhaps though it is best to hear Fr. Hagan in his own words! Here is Fr. Hagan--in a video featured on the channel PennLive--speaking about their championship season:
THERE WAS hardly any epiphany, no specific wow kind of moment, not even a minor vision. It was almost like an evolution.
Rob Hagan, a self-described Drexel Hill kid, simply reached the point in his life at which he realized it was time to make the transformation from successful criminal defense attorney to Augustinian priest.
But there was, well, maybe at least the hint of a sign.
"I came home, after a very good result. I was feeling good, I've got a steak and a cold beer, it's 7 o'clock and I turn on 'Jeopardy!,' " he recalled, nearly 20 years later. "The guy says to Alex (Trebek), 'I'll take quotable quotes for $200.' And the answer is who authored the phrase, 'Give me chastity, but not yet?' Who was St. Augustine? And I said to myself, 'I can't get away from this guy.'
"I was 10 years removed from my time at Villanova. I'd met some interesting dudes in my work. What was appealing to me about the Augustinians is, they were just like regular guys. They weren't just on their knees in prayer all the time. They were teachers, they were out with the people. It was more down to earth. That planted a seed in my mind. (St. Augustine) was a sinner before he was a saint. He went around the block a few times before figuring it out, if you know anything about him. He wasn't perfect.
"Moses saw a burning bush. That's not what happened to me. I like people. I make friends. I'm embarrassed that these kids (now) go to Habitat for Humanity and build houses on spring break. In my day, we hopped in a Winnebago and went down to Fort Lauderdale. We don't want to do that story."
These days, he's universally known around his alma mater as Father Rob. And as coach Jay Wright might be the first to tell you, he's as essential to everything that goes on with the basketball program as Jay Wright. OK, almost. But you get the point. His official title is associate athletic director. His most visible role is chaplain for the men's hoops and football teams. You will see him sitting at the end of the bench this weekend in Houston, cheering on his guys during pregame and timeouts when they play Oklahoma in one of the national semifinals. In short, he's there for whoever needs him, for whatever the need. And it's one of those 24/7/365 deals, as you'd suspect. When he's not helping the school run its affairs when it comes to lawyer stuff. Or overseeing the areas of sports medicine and strength and conditioning. Or being the adminstrator for golf and tennis. He wears a bunch of hats. And wears them all with distinction.
It's hard to run into any Wildcats player who doesn't have a Father Rob story, even when you don't expect to get one. And he usually has a story handy in return.
"He's our rock," senior guard Ryan Arcidiacono said. "He's unbelievable. He keeps us humble. And you can turn to him in any situation. It's not about him being a priest. It's about the person. He never turns you down. And everyone here knows that. He saw this (Final Four) coming. He's what this team is about, what this university is about. More than anybody, he's part of all this."
Maybe the best part about Father Rob is, when you're with him you don't really think of him as a priest. It's just his way.
"I've been called a lot worse," he pointed out, when asked about his preferred title. In this case, his background serves him well.
"My progression might not be as radical as it seems," said Hagan, 50, who has been in the post for 12 years. "I do a lot of the same things. I deal with people in some of their best moments, and some of their worst. I have to respect confidentiality, I deal with some of the most private moments in a person's life and try to walk them through it. So, it's not really much different.
"The guys that really knew me (back then) weren't surprised. They said, 'You can make up for all your sins now.' In Media, they had a legendary hot-dog guy in front of the courthouse. Augie's. Former boxer, been there, like, 30 years. Everyone knew him, he was an institution. I'd already made my decision. It's June 1997, I'm entering the order in about two months. I'm with all these lawyers, and one guy asks how I'm doing. I said, 'Matter of fact, this is one of my last cases. I'm going to enter the Augies.' And he goes, 'You're going to sell hot dogs?' "
He could have landed anywhere. He landed on the Main Line, in what he considers one of his many blessings.
"I walk in a long line of Augustinians who've walked this walk before," Hagan said. "I didn't start any of this. It's a tradition. (The late) Father Bernie Lazor did this for 30 years. He was with Rollie (Massimino) and Jake (Nevin) in Lexington (in 1985). I actually preached at his funeral (in 2007). To be honest, this wasn't really on my radar. It's a privilege to represent the program in a very special way. It's an opportunity to build relationships. A lot of what I do is listen. These guys have so many people telling them what to do. There's a reason why we have two ears and one mouth.
"We all have plans. It's good to have, but things happen. If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. The next thing you know you're on a road you didn't expect to be on. But it's a really good road. Look at me . . . Nobody preaches to the team more than Jay. But he might say, 'I want to run something by you.' He hits them his way, I hit them my way. In many ways we're saying the same thing."
Who says there can't be room for more than one voice in a locker room? It's a balance. And not only during the season. That's just when his presence is most apparent to the outside world. They each have their place. Someone has to be the other go-to guy. Might as well be a regular bloke who happens to wear a collar.
"He has an impact, on all of us," Wright said. "I usually use my pregame talk to reference what he talked about in his homily. The humility of this team, the spirit of this team, really comes from him. When we're out there shooting, he's shooting. He gets what athletes are about, what college students are about, about what we're trying to do. He has an incredible ability to mix his faith and religion into what we do. So it resonates with the guys.
"It's because he doesn't push himself on anybody that he's such a respected guy. Not as a priest, as a man. I think male athletes, when they feel like they need to share their soul, they don't feel like they're going soft when they go see him. That's why they go. He's a much more important part of this than people know."
And Hagan makes it look so natural, so easy. You don't get to be a Father Rob any other way. So it's a great look on him. And it's omnipresent. Not bad for someone whose first calling was the courtroom.
He thought he had it all. Now he finally does. His path took one of those turns. The right one for him, as it turned out. And a campus community.
"My father passed away when I was a senior (at Cardinal O'Hara)," Hagan said. "He was 47, went to bed and had a brain aneurysm. But he gave me one of the greatest gifts, at a young age. An appreciation for how short life is. It's not a dress rehearsal. None of us know how long we're going to be here, so make it count. Life happens.
"Students are under incredible pressure. You develop your mind, and your body. You want to develop your spirit, too. You have to be fresh to go back into the arena. What successful person hasn't failed? To be a winner, you have to be a loser. It's always the getting back up. You're a total of all your experiences. You have to be realistic. A lot of the great moments are a little more off the radar. Some of the special ones were during the 13-19 season (in 2011-12). It's the whole journey. It's nice to be part of something when everyone has a role to play.
"Any day I get up is a great day. People ask me what I'm teaching them. But I learn so much from them. It's definitely a two-way street. I think that's what everyone's looking for. A few years ago, (former Wildcat) Randy Foye calls me to ask if I can do his wedding. So I go to New York City and watch him get married. To a Villanova girl (Christine). All these guys come back. I watched Mike Nardi grow up. Same with Baker Dunleavy. It's very cool. That's what I get out of this."
Score one for the everyman, who, in reality, has become anything but.
Learn more about what it means to be an Augustinian by checking out our other blog posts here