As Kris Jenkins was launching the game-winning shot in the final second of the NCAA men’s basketball championship game last Monday night, cameras caught Villanova coach Jay Wright casually watching the play unfold. Wright was the coolest cat in the Houston arena.

Villanova’s new athletics director, on the job since just last September, was not so collected. Mark Jackson had enough nervous energy to power all of Philadelphia. He had experienced nothing like this as a student-athlete at Colby College.

“I wasn’t the coolest guy in the building,” Jackson said on Thursday, a few days after the Wildcats beat North Carolina, 77-74, for their first men’s basketball title in 31 years. “I had my wife flanked on one side and my brother on the other. I saw looks on their faces I hadn’t seen before. It was pure joy. We were all acting like children.”

Jackson graduated from Colby, where he played defensive back for the football team, in 1995. The Villanova job is his first as an athletics director. Before taking the job, Jackson worked for years at the University of Southern California, most recently under the long-winded title of Senior Associate Director of Athletics and Chief Innovation Officer. National championships and Jackson seem to attract each other. While at USC, Jackson worked in the football office when the Trojans won the national title in 2004.

An East Coast guy raised in the Boston area, Villanova seemed like the perfect place for Jackson to take the next step in his career.

“I didn’t know a lot about Villanova before I came here,” Jackson said. “When this opportunity presented itself, it just immediately started to click.”

Men’s basketball is the highest profile sport at Villanova, so Jackson immersed himself in the sport. He attended every game this season, home and away, getting to know the alumni and fans, and getting a sense that this could be a special season for the Wildcats.

“I was just learning how the basketball program works. I got to know Coach Wright. He’s been here a while. I had a lot of time spent with him,” Jackson said.

Beginning with the Big East Conference tournament in early March, Jackson’s last month has been frantic. Villanova played its first two NCAA tournament games in Brooklyn, New York before heading to Louisville, Kentucky for the Sweet 16 and regional final, where the Wildcats knocked off top seed Kansas, 64-59. It was in Louisville that Jackson really got a taste of how basketball-crazy Villanova fans can be.

“I knew when we beat Kansas our fans were going to show up in full force in Houston,” Jackson said.

On Thursday, Jackson and his staff were finishing details for the team’s victory parade, which was Friday in downtown Philadelphia.

“That’s the one thing about these tournaments, you learn to adjust a lot faster,” Jackson said. “When we got back from Houston on Tuesday, we said, ‘Geez, we’ve got to do a parade, right?'”

Jackson feels like a perfect fit at Villanova. The focus right now is on men’s basketball, but he’s already thinking of other sports. The track and field team is doing well, he said. The football program is a contender in the Colonial Athletic Association. The men’s lacrosse team is ranked No. 16 in the country.

“Lacrosse is coming on. Our soccer program is coming on. We’ve got a lot going on,” Jackson said.

The congratulations messages from Jackson’s Colby football family started rolling before the net stopped shaking from Jenkins’ swish. Current Colby football coach Jonathan Michaeles reached out to Jackson, as did two of his coaches, Tom Austin and Ed Mestieri. Jackson heard from friends and former teammates.

“I still have a very strong Colby connection,” Jackson said.

During March Madness, Mules pulled for Wildcats.

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

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