‘Friends of Nova’ aims to keep Villanova competitive in the NIL era of college athletics

The university's NIL collective, which was launched in October and is managed by Ashley Howard and Randy Foye, promises to play a key role in both recruiting and retaining players in the coming years.

by Colin Beazley

Updated on Feb 24, 2023, 9:00 a.m. ET

Much has changed on the court for Villanova basketball this season, with new leaders, new freshmen, and a new head coach taking center stage. However, one of the biggest changes for the Wildcats is happening away from the hardwood.

Villanova launched its own NIL collective for student-athletes in October. That collective, Friends of Nova, aims to provide Villanova student-athletes with opportunities to capitalize on their name, image, and likeness.

While many collectives are led by major donors, Friends of Nova is managed by two members of the Villanova family. Former Villanova assistant (and former La Salle head coach) Ashley Howard and former Villanova guard and 11-year NBA veteran Randy Foye serve as the program’s co-executive directors.

Howard and Foye hope that Friends of Nova will allow student-athletes to focus on their academics and athletics, knowing that there are people dedicated to helping them best capitalize on their personal brands.

“I want our kids to be in a space where they only have to worry about basketball and performing on a court,” Foye said in October, later clarifying that the collective is for all Villanova sports, not just basketball. “I don’t want them in a situation where they gotta go out there and do certain things for money. When it comes to building that war chest and building that base, that’s what me and Ashley [are] here for.”

That “war chest” is something Foye emphasized. There isn’t a specific plan for what it will be used for, but the hope is it will allow Villanova to be versatile. It can be used in high school recruiting, the transfer portal, or even in retaining student-athletes with professional aspirations, like Justin Moore or NCAA women’s basketball’s leading scorer Maddy Siegrist.

The idea for Friends of Nova was first pitched by Joe Topper, who served as the chair of Villanova’s Board of Trustees from 2017 to 2021. The school ultimately partnered with Blueprint Sports for the collective’s framework. Blueprint Sports has worked with NIL collectives at universities like Gonzaga, Arizona, and Penn State.

While the collective is for all sports, one of its primary goals is to ensure that men’s basketball remains competitive in a rapidly changing college athletics landscape.

“All of the programs that Villanova’s going to recruit against, the other schools are going to have NIL in place,” Howard said. “I’m excited to be in a position where I can help spearhead the charge so that we can make sure that the program is competitive on that front.”

The team has struggled this season, with a 14-14 record. But Foye said he doesn’t think anything would be different if the Wildcats had been having their typical success.

“I think [Friends of Nova] is on the right track,” Foye said. “No matter what’s going on, we’re on the right track.”

However, fans are as worried about the off-court struggles as they are about the team’s .500 record. Head coach Kyle Neptune has signed just one recruit in the Class of 2023. His predecessor, Jay Wright, was rumored to have retired at 60 in part due to not wanting to navigate NIL and the transfer portal. While Wright denies it, the concern lingers.

On October 26, two weeks after Friends of Nova’s launch, the NCAA Division I Board of Directors clarified their interim NIL policy. Schools can encourage donors to send funds to collectives, directly referring donors and collectives to each other and facilitating a new network of relationships.

“It’s so much easier for me,” Foye said of the October legislation. “I have a ton of great relationships there at the university, but at the same time, the university is the university. They have all of the relationships.”

In the same update, the NCAA said that school employees, including coaches, can now assist with fundraising efforts. Neptune officially endorsed Friends of Nova the next day on Instagram, but it’s Wright that will likely have the largest fundraising impact. Foye said that they’re working on a video with various Villanova alumni, utilizing Wright as a “key piece.”

In January, Villanova athletic director Mark Jackson sent an email to students and alumni, endorsing Friends of Nova and encouraging contributions.

“While our focus continues to be providing a world-class education and premier competitive experience for Villanova student-athletes,” Jackson stated, “NIL is now a key component to retaining and recruiting the very best student-athletes, particularly for our flagship men’s basketball program.”

Neither Foye nor Howard has previous experience on this side of NIL, but they both believe they’re the right people to lead Friends of Nova.

“When you think of Villanova basketball, Villanova athletics, and the success and the history and the prominence that all of our sports teams have had, I now want people to think about the next generation,” Howard said. “… Friends of Nova is going to be here to really set the tone and help sustain the excellence that Villanova athletics has had for the last few decades.

Nate Brown

General Manager

Nate Brown is the General Manager of Zags Collective, leading the charge to help amplify the opportunities for the Gonzaga student-athletes through NIL partnerships with local charities, fans and businesses. With over a decade of experience in the professional sports industry and as a former business owner in Spokane, Nate is a seasoned professional who knows what it takes to succeed. Most recently, he served as the National Sales Director for a prominent west-coast real estate company, where he was responsible for driving growth and retention. With a deep understanding of sales and marketing, Nate brings a wealth of knowledge to the table and is always seeking innovative ways to drive revenue and create partnerships.With a passion for ensuring the success of student-athletes both on and off the field, Nate is dedicated to providing the necessary resources to keep Gonzaga competitive on the national stage. He understands the importance of building and maintaining strong relationships with the community and local businesses, and works to maximize opportunities for Gonzaga’s student-athletes. As the son of two Gonzaga alumni, including a father who was a baseball pitcher and also a coach for the school, Nate has a great connection to the university and a passion for ensuring its continued success. Outside of work, Nate enjoys spending time with family, including his wife Jessica and their 16-year-old daughter Brooklynn and 12-year-old son Marcus. When not working or spending time with family, you can find Nate at any one of the amazing golf courses in Spokane, honing his swing!

Mike Smith

General Manager

Mike Smith joined Micconope 1851 in March 2023 and is excited to be the General Manager and looks forward to working with Blueprint Sports increase NIL revenue generation for Florida State University student-athletes. Smith comes to Micconope 1851 from Catawba College where he held the title as the Senior Director of Athletics, Development. Prior to working in Athletics at Catawba College, Mike served as the Associate Athletics Director for External Relations at Charleston Southern University. Smith has an impressive background in the collegiate athletics industry, having held senior level development and corporate sponsorship sales roles at The University of Southern Mississippi, Limestone University, the Sun Belt Conference, Florida Atlantic University, and with multimedia rights-holders Tele South Communications at the University of Mississippi, Learfield Sports at UNC Chapel Hill, and with International Sports Properties at Georgia Tech. Smith is a graduate of North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina, and holds a master’s degree in Business Management from The University of Tennessee, Knoxville. In his new role here at Micconppe 1851, Smith will be responsible for raising major gifts for NIL deals as well as securing NIL corporate sponsorships for Florida State University student-athletes. Mike looks forward to helping ensure the FSU student-athletes have the resources and leadership opportunities to remain competitive nationally and positioned for success well beyond graduation. Mike is married to Katy Smith; the couple looks forward to relocating to Tallahassee, Florida, and becoming a part of the Micconope 1851 and Seminole family!

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