March (and decades-long) Madness: Meet the kings and queens of Nova Nation

29Jensen
From left, Debbie and Tom Kelly, and Bobbi and John Kilmer — maybe the most loyal Villanova fans. Certainly the ones who travel to the most road games.

The reinvasion of Texas begins. Two years ago, thousands of Villanova fans made their way to Houston for the Final Four, as many more tried to get there but found flights to the region booked and hotels full. Plenty have said they’re making it this time, so it shouldn’t be hard to spot ‘Nova fans this weekend inside the Alamodome.

They love to call themselves Nova Nation, but when ‘Nova is playing on a winter weeknight in the Midwest, it can sometimes feel more like a little fanatical colony.

“Sometimes, us and the Kilmers are the only ones there,’’ Tom Kelly, Villanova class of ‘74, said this week.

What he didn’t add: The Kellys and the Kilmers are always there. Tom and Debbie Kelly, from Somerset County, N.J., are on an 85-game attending streak, going back to late in the 2015-16 regular season.

In the getting-there business, they see the Kilmers as mentors. Bobbi and John Kilmer, from Hunterdon County, N.J., missed one game this season, opting for sanity and missing a game at DePaul on Dec. 27. However, John Kilmer long ago established a legit claim to being king of all ‘Nova fans, since his origin story might top all, even if he didn’t go to the school.

“I remember very clearly: I got out of service, summer of  ’70, I did not go to Final Four in ’71,’’ Kilmer said. “I made a promise, if they go to the tournament, I’m never going to miss it again.”

He meant it. Every NCAA tournament appearance by Villanova since then has included Kilmer in the stands — almost.

“I missed one,’’ he said.

He was a skeptic in 2013, decided to book a spring training trip instead. “They’re not going to make the tournament. Lo and behold …”

Kilmer missed a first-round loss to North Carolina. Doesn’t sound like he’s lost sleep over it.

Why a Villanova fan? He was an average player on an average high school team, New Hope-Solebury, when his coach brought the squad down from Bucks County to the Palestra to see Villanova face Niagara. The coach told the squad to check out Niagara’s D. Except what Kilmer saw in front of him was a matchup zone devised by Jack Kraft, and some wizardry in the name of Wali Jones. He left 33rd Street a ‘Nova fan, and has never turned back.

Bobbi Kilmer joined the traveling crew when they got married in ‘89, which meant a honeymoon to Hawaii and some island hopping; last island, Maui, where Villanova just happened to be playing in the Maui Invitational.

“We’re the only people in the world who have honeymoon pictures that have both Rollie Massimino and Jay Wright in them,’’ Kilmer said, pointing out Villanova’s current head coach was on Massimino’s staff then.

So of the Kellys and Kilmers, only Tom Kelly is the ‘Nova grad, although Debbie Kelly said, “I did not go during the week. I went on the weekends.” She was in nursing school at the time, dating Tom.

They’ve had season tickets since 1986-87. Their son, Drew, eventually provided the strongest tie to the program. He was a freshman when Steve Lappas took over for Massimino and became a four-year manager, which meant his parents became regulars at the Pavilion. Drew Kelly stayed in basketball and is the veteran head coach at Harcum College in Bryn Mawr, a nationally strong junior-college program.

“Sometimes, we’re back-to-back, at ‘Nova on Tuesday, drive back down on a Wednesday for Harcum,’’ Debbie Kelly said.

Their son presumably understands the deal when there is a conflict between ‘Nova and Harcum.

“We probably made it to eight of his games,’’ Debbie Kelly said. “He also live-streams his games; we can watch them from home. Sometimes we’ll take that route, a little bit easier. We think he understands that — we hope he does.”

When Harcum made the national junior college tournament in 2014, the Kellys threw it into overdrive, driving up to Buffalo for Villanova’s first-round NCAA game, then booking a flight through Chicago to Wichita, driving from there to Hutchinson, Kan. By the time Harcum was out after reaching the Final Four, winning three games out there, Villanova also was done in Buffalo, knocked out by Connecticut. Tom Kelly had left his car keys with a friend, who got the car back to Jersey while they flew home.

“That was insane,’’ Debbie Kelly mentioned.

This season, they planned to break the streak by missing the game at Butler on Dec. 30 since their daughter and family were visiting after Christmas. (They had gotten to the Dec. 27 game at DePaul with the justification that they had close relatives to visit in Chicago and “our children all had things to do.”) Their daughter, perhaps knowing Villanova’s schedule, told her parents they planned to leave the morning of the 30th, visit some friends in Upstate New York.

“We just got an early Christmas present,’’ Debbie Kelly remembered telling her husband before the holiday. “We’re going to Butler.”

“She sat down and booked the flight,’’ her husband said.

At this point, they know they’re playing with house money. They sat about 25 rows behind Villanova’s bench two years ago in Houston, getting a great view of Kris Jenkins taking his shot at the end, seeing Daniel Ochefu grab that mop just before the final play.

“Such an elation,’’ Debbie Kelly said of when it was over. “I just sat down in the chair and cried.”

The Kilmers twice made it to all the games in a season while still working. At this point, they’re all retired.

Despite their collective willingness to go to extreme measures to get to games, their attitude about the games borders on healthy. John Kilmer remembers being at a Villanova road game almost three decades back. The Wildcats had lost, but afterward, Villanova players seemed all right, talking among themselves, even sharing a laugh or two. Kilmer decided to ask point guard Chris Walker about it. He told them they’d prepared well, played hard, and just lost to the better team that night. They had to live with the result. On the spot, the Kilmers decided to adopt that attitude.

“Our motto became ‘We’re not going to let two hours ruin a weekend,’ ’’ John Kilmer said.

He just means every weekend.

“I don’t like winter, don’t like snow. I don’t ski,’’ he said. “I’ve never broken a leg going to a Villanova game. I’ve never fallen down.”