LINCOLN — Luca Virgilio — world traveler, Rome native — knew very little about the American Midwest.
So soon after he was contacted by Fred Hoiberg about moving to Lincoln and becoming his director of operations, Virgilio went on Google.
“I typed in, ‘What to expect Lincoln, Nebraska,’ ” Virgilio said through a thick Italian accent from his new office at the Hendricks Training Complex.
The first link that popped up was a short clip from “Yes Man.” In the movie, Jim Carrey and Zooey Deschanel take an impromptu trip to Lincoln. There are shots of a pioneer museum and Carrey and Deschanel at a Husker football game in the front row painted in red. The trip ends with the two taking refuge in a barn during a storm.
“I thought, ‘Well, that looks fun,’ ” Virgilio said.
So, like Carrey, Virgilio said yes.
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After a lifetime in Rome, then traveling through Europe as a scout and five years in New York City, Virgilio moved to the least-populous place he’d ever lived. Because, he said, why not?
“I’m exploring the United States,” Virgilio said. “I came over here and I’m pleasantly surprised. It’s a small town — but I like the vibe. I love to walk around now that the weather is good.”
Nebraska stole Virgilio from St. John’s, where he worked for five years at a variety of jobs, including as a graduate assistant and management analyst. Virgilio is the final piece of Hoiberg’s administrative staff at Nebraska.
“He’s really good, he’s very detailed and you have to have that in that position,” Hoiberg said. “He’s done a great job helping our guys, doing what they need to accomplish to get enrolled in school — he’s been phenomenal with that. So happy to have Luca on board.”
Virgilio got into basketball because he wasn’t that good at soccer, he said.
Turned out, he wasn’t that good at basketball, either. But he loved watching the sport. His uncle was a second-division player in Italy, and Virgilio would catch his games around Rome two or three times a week.
Out of college, Virgilio worked for a basketball academy in Rome, tasked with scouting youth players. He spent his early 20s in mostly empty gyms around Europe with a notebook and a pen, watching 16- to 18-year-olds scrimmage and writing reports. And he was content with that.
At some point, Virgilio noticed more and more U.S. college teams were in these gyms trying to recruit. And most were failing.
“It’s not easy for someone to just come in and understand the market, and you have states in the U.S. but you speak the same languages, you have the same school system,” Virgilio said. “In Europe, everything is different. A kid from Germany is one thing, Greece or Italy or Spain is totally different.”
St. John’s coach Steve Lavin saw an untapped market in Europe. He realized he needed help recruiting and hired Virgilio as a graduate assistant.
While there, Virgilio met Matt Abdelmassih. They hit it off.
Five years later, both are now in Lincoln working under Hoiberg.
“It was appealing because I strongly believe that this university has incredible potential to be a powerhouse in college basketball,” Virgilio said. “And I think that they — we — have all the resources to be successful.”
It has been a busy first few weeks. Virgilio has been tasked with getting players from the previous staff graduated while welcoming in 11 new players, setting them up with class schedules and places to live.
On top of that, he has to get the entire program ready to take a trip to his home country in August.
“I was like, ‘Dang, we’re going to Italy this summer?’ I’m starting to feel the pressure of, ‘OK, I need to make sure this is the best experience for these kids. If there’s one bad bite of food, they’re gonna blame me,’ ” Virgilio said.
Though he won’t be out on the court with the team much, Virgilio does think he can help bridge the gaps among all the fresh blood entering the program.
Nebraska will have five international players on the roster next year, including Thorir Thorbjarnarson (Iceland), Yvan Ouedraogo (France), Matej Kavas (Slovenia), Dalano Banton (Canada) and Shamiel Stevenson (Canada).
With more players from out of the country, the team will inherently be closer, Virgilio said. And he thinks Nebraska will have even more foreign players in years to come, thanks to his connections and Abdelmassih’s recruiting acumen.
Should they need a reference for Lincoln, Virgilio will know just the film to show.