This was so long ago, before the name Jay Wright earned much attention. Long before the pair of NCAA titles, before Villanova, before Wright was Hofstra’s head coach, or Rollie Massimino’s UNLV assistant, or under Massimino at Villanova, or Wright’s season as a Drexel assistant, riding to recruiting visits in the Dragon Wagon, a white station wagon that had a hitch on the back to also ferry rowing shells down to the river in the spring.
This was Jay Wright’s first coaching gig, any level. Since Wright just got a call from the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, word coming out officially Sunday that he’s going in, class of 2021, let’s note that the coaching portion of Wright’s life began without scholarships to offer, at Division III University of Rochester.
“I was 34 years at Rochester,” Mike Neer said over the phone. “We had a new athletic director who realized I needed more than a part-time assistant. … I wanted someone young, energetic, had some recruiting experience — preferably had been a player at a place that had some academic standards. It’s easier to sell that if you’ve bought it.”
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This was 1984. This was where the road to those Final Fours for Wright began …
Not so fast …
Pat Flannery was the choice. Part-time assistant at Drexel. Had all the above criteria. Neer offered him the job.
“Eddie Burke [Drexel’s coach at the time] probably went to his AD, said, ‘Throw in free parking and we keep him,’ " Neer said.
In turn, Flannery recommended another Bucknell guy, a few years behind him.
“No experience — nothing, zero,” Neer said of this recommended guy. “Look at the resume, it can fit on a gosh darn postcard.”
But he called the Bucknell head coach, who recommended this guy Wright highly, never mind that his current job wasn’t in basketball at all, but selling season tickets for the USFL Philadelphia Stars. Neer brought in Wright for an interview, remembers asking, did you at least sell any tickets?
“Oh yeah, last week, a family of four in Wilkes-Barre.”
Neer was riffing a bit, but you get the point.
“He’s so raw, I think I can get him for a couple of years,” Neer said. “You could see he was full of [spit] and vinegar. Good-looking guy, personable. He’s going to be able to do the recruiting thing. He did well. I found out, going to the summer camps and clinics, he loved it.”
This was long before cellphones. No text updates.
“Weeks, no phone call, nothing,” Neer said of that first summer, Wright out on the road.
Then, in Neer’s memory, Wright came back, “ragged, lost weight,” maybe even with diagnosed mononucleosis, but also with a long list of names of potential recruits.
Neer remembers telling himself: “He’s gotten a taste of the bigger time and he knows what he wants.”
Not that any of it was easy. Joe Rapczynski, then coaching North Catholic in Philadelphia, remembers Wright being so appreciative that Rapczynski held a couple of players after a practice to talk to Wright, that a number of other coaches in the Philly area weren’t making such time for the University of Rochester assistant.
Funny to think about now. Sorry young man, these kids have to get home to dinner. What was your name again? Jay? Rapczynski said Wright never forgot, always has had time if Rapczynski wants to stop at a Villanova practice. (Also gave him a tour of the arena when Wright was at UNLV. Rapczynski remembers going into a locker room where this guy said he was working there that night, introduced himself … “Garth.” Yeah, Garth Brooks. Working that night, in concert. Wright had moved up in the world.)
Even at Drexel, where Wright went in 1986 after two years at Rochester, “he was so young. He certainly had the charisma,” said Joe Cassidy, then a Drexel assistant. “He had the look. Charisma would be the right word. He had charisma that future head coaches have. At that age, I don’t want to say he was humble, but he never overstepped his bounds. He deferred to myself or Eddie.”
Pat Flannery had been the key to Wright getting that job, too. Flannery, who would eventually be Bucknell’s head coach for 14 seasons, had moved on from Drexel to William & Mary as an assistant, recommended Wright yet again.
At Rochester, Neer said, Wright had been the varsity assistant, junior-varsity coach, plus the intramural director, with all that entails — getting referees on the cheap, making sure enough basketballs were inflated, and the games started on time.
When Wright left Rochester, he didn’t leave it entirely behind. Neer can remember when Wright got Hofstra’s head-coaching job in 1994, “he called me and Flannery, he was going to be at his parents’ house [in Bucks County], ‘I want to pick your brains on offense and defense and running a program.’ ”
For the record, Neer said with a laugh, “I’m not getting those calls now.”
Neer didn’t mean that Wright had forgotten where he’d come from. He’s just long since incorporated all his experiences. At Rochester, the head coach tried to instill in players that basketball is a game of habits.
“What’s your philosophy?” Neer said of any coach. “In my case, I believe there are a bunch of nonnegotiable fundamentals of the game, and I’m going to identify them, coach the hell out of them. Under duress, habits take over. The goal is, we’re going to shoot ourselves in the foot less than the opponent.”
You expect to hear Wright was a sponge for it all. Well, you do. He was. The stuff worked. Rochester won its share, Neer taking Rochester to 12 NCAA Tournament appearances, including four trips to the Final Four, three championship games, and the 1990 national championship. Wright had started in the big-time, small-college version.
Neer, now 73 years old, naturally watches Villanova carefully.
“He’s stylish and smart and pleasant and affable,” Neer said of Wright. “But … he is going to be very protective of those things that are important to his program.”
Neer remembers getting to a Villanova practice one year. In his memory, it was a media day, with those obligations coming first. Then the practice gym cleared of cameras.
“He blew the whistle — it was wonderful, for a flat-out hour,” Neer said. “From drill to drill to drill, there was nothing wasted. One drill led to another. … Behind closed doors, ‘You’re going to take the charge.’ ‘You’re going to make the extra pass.’ ”
Neer remembered asking, “Who’s this 6-5 kid?”
So this was just before Wright won his first NCAA title in 2016. (Donte DiVincenzo sat out that March run.)
The image of Wright and his carefully tailored suits doesn’t surprise Neer.
“I’d love to tell you he showed up with bib overalls, but no, he was a pretty boy at Bucknell probably,” Neer said. “Yet underneath that, he was a tough guy and a grinder. The look is 180 degrees from how he coaches. Yet it fits him. He’s going to sell his brand and he’s secure enough to do it.”
Respect for the boss was just baked in. Cassidy remembers Wright respected Eddie Burke to the point that Jay wouldn’t put the windows down on the Dragon Wagon even as it filled with Burke’s cigarette smoke.
“He loved Eddie,” Cassidy said. “The one thing that Jay did was open New York City for us. We never recruited New York before Jay got there. He opened that up for us.”
Like Neer, Cassidy keeps close track.
“He’s almost to a certain degree revolutionized basketball,” said Cassidy, later the longtime head coach at Rowan, speaking of how when the five-second count while dribbling was abolished before the 2015-16 season, Wright began making use of his point guards “dribble, dribble, dribble, forever …” First Ryan Arcidiacono, then Jalen Brunson, now Collin Gillespie, point guards working inside.
“That’s not the stuff he got from Rollie or any of the stuff they used to do,” Cassidy said. “It’s gotten to the point now, somebody does it on TV, they say, ‘That’s the Villanova move.’ He’s established that as almost like a signature thing.”
“His eyes and ears are always open, whether it’s a cautionary tale or something that can help him,” Neer said.
This past season, Neer remembers writing a text to Wright early on, when the games were being played without crowds.
“It looks like a Division III game,” Neer recalls texting Wright. “This is going to work to your advantage. Your teams are not as reliant on the ‘feel good’ of the crowd.”
The old boss is not claiming any ownership of the fundamentals or the drills. Everyone got it from someone.
“Clair Bee got it from somebody,” Neer said, referring to the famous coaching innovator before Wright was born.
Realistically, Neer knows Wright learned a lot at his first stop, simply by it being his first stop. Yes, they all said, this young guy’s going places. They just had no idea where that road could lead. Maybe Wright’s resume would still fit on a gosh darn postcard, but it would have to be a photo of a plaque, soon to be hanging inside his sport’s hall of fame.
“None of this was guaranteed,” Jay Wright’s first boss said. “He’s respectful of it all.”