Another Villanova basketball era ends.
John Shackleton never made a basket. He was never announced during pregame introductions. Just add him to the list of big-time contributors to ‘Nova’s 2016 and ‘18 NCAA titles, and all the rest that the program accomplished over the last decade.
Shackleton, who is leaving the school to become an individual instructor, was the strength and conditioning coach for Villanova’s men’s team. Add in team nutritionist. Listen to Jay Wright and his players over the years and the overall impact became clear.
Did Shackleton’s role result in tangible wins? Wright answered this week with an emphatic yes.
The former ‘Nova head coach said he believed Shackleton’s “unique” approach kept players conditioned and rested late in the season — “it helped us in tournament play to be fresh.”
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Wright was mostly referring to how Shackleton monitored the load placed on bodies.
“Really what it was, I was full-time with basketball — a lot of it was observation, watching practices, communicating with the coaches,” Shackleton said over the phone Thursday, explaining that technology allowed him to monitor stresses put on bodies. “This is what we did today … maybe do that tomorrow.”
Under his watch, a generation of Wildcats players, from Kris Jenkins to Omari Spellman to Eric Dixon, changed their body types.
“My man Coach Shack, I’m with him every day all day,” Jenkins told me in 2016. “He changed my life. Not just a temporary thing.”
Jenkins said those words several days before Jenkins put himself into NCAA title game lore with his last-second game-winner against North Carolina.
A Shack column that week had made sense. When a team makes the Final Four, the stories have mostly been written, so more of the stories behind the stories get told.
“He’s our nutritionist,” Wright said at that Houston Final Four. “He picks every meal we eat. He monitors heart rates, body fat, weight, our rehab, our flush days.”
Most strength and conditioning coaches probably don’t have as much input into practice plans. Wright had related how initially he didn’t want Shackleton because he’d never worked with basketball players. That changed when Shack came over to basketball in 2012 on an interim basis.
“Look, Villanova was my dream job,” Shackleton said Thursday. “When I was a kid, Villanova was the team I followed.”
So why is this Temple graduate and former Central Bucks West football player leaving? Shackleton has asked himself the same question.
“I got my dream job,” Shackleton said. “I want to pursue something else, but I’m actually in my dream.”
He came down on the side of not wanting to get stagnant. He already knows there’s a private individual market for his services. He is looking at basing himself on the West Coast. He even thinks about online possibilities, to take some of his ideas global.
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It’s interesting looking back now at how Shackleton described some of the Villanova players back in 2016. Mikal Bridges, for instance: “He’s a thin, long guy. He’s actually very strong for his body weight. Pound for pound, strongest kid on the team.”
Ryan Arcidiacono: “He’s just a blue-collar type of dude. He put in the work. There was never any drop-off.”
Jenkins himself: “He just knows how his body moves. So everything we do, his technique is, like, flawless.”
Asked for a 2023 update, Shackleton mentioned a couple of recent players. Eric Dixon: “He’s literally the strongest dude in the weight room.”
Cam Whitmore: “You saw it on the court. Very explosive.”
Caleb Daniels: “Was just an all-around beast.”
Shackleton had explained in 2016 his own nutritional approach: “Try to stick to all natural foods. Also, I look at the source of where it comes from. Some grass-fed beef rather than grain-fed. Looking at how the animal or fish are raised. Because the nutrients are a lot higher in those types of foods, higher-quality foods. … At our hotel, you would see, there are labels out there. Grass-fed beef. Wild fish. Free-range chicken. And I get busted on for it, but they know it’s good for it. Everybody busts me, but they eat it.”
Maybe all this has become more mainstream these days, in addition to monitoring hydration, as Shackleton always did. Shackleton isn’t claiming he invented any of this. But looking back to those two titles — “Maybe we were a little ahead of the curve. Back in 2016, we probably were ahead of the curve.”