Jay Wright would listen to the homily during Easter Mass, waiting for something inspirational he could text his players. He sat on the Ocean City beach in the summer and wondered if the other beachgoers knew this was Wright’s scheduled day away from the recruiting trail and not that he was cutting corners.
Coaching, Wright said, was his obsession, and he could not turn it off even when he was at church or the Jersey Shore. His drive paid dividends as Wright won two national titles and built Villanova into one of college basketball’s premier programs.
But the 60-year-old said he lost that edge last season. Wright was no longer “totally obsessed” and coached the Wildcats to his fourth Final Four despite saying his effort level was at 70%. He told the school last month that he couldn’t keep coaching that way, and his stunning retirement became official on Wednesday night when he told his players.
Wright said Friday after a news conference to introduce new head coach Kyle Neptune that he does not know what he will do next, but the Hall of Fame coach said he is fully retired from coaching.
“I really feel confident about the coaching part,” said Wright about his decision to no longer coach. “I always felt like it was a run, and when you’re on top of it and you’re grinding and you have the edge and you’re ahead of it, you do it. But for us, if you’re not all in 100% grinding. ... It was every single day for me. Every single day. Sometimes that’s good, sometimes that’s bad. I look forward to not have to live that way.
“It’s a bad thing sometimes with your family. There were times where [my wife] Patty would grab me in church and tell me to put my phone down.”
Wright will remain at Villanova as a special assistant to the school’s president. It will not be a full-time position, and the school said Wright will be involved in “fundraising, advising, education and more.”
“The edge always came natural to me,” Wright said. “I wouldn’t have to think about anything that I did. I would just go into a team meeting or practice and have everything set. I started thinking like ‘You have to get yourself fired up here. Let’s go.’ We say to our players, ‘You’re either 100% in or you’re against us.’ ... We couldn’t ask the players to give 100% and I’m giving 70%. It was the right time.”
Wright said retiring in this fashion is a dream. He’s leaving on his own, handing the program to a longtime former assistant, and has a roster ready to win next season with three top recruits signed. Neptune, who coached one year at Fordham, will be aided by assistants that were with him on Wright’s staff, coaches Neptune said he grew up with.
“This has been a dream of mine to come back here and be a part of this program,” Neptune said. “This was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”
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Wright told athletic director Mark Jackson at the end of the regular season that this would be his last. Wright told his assistant coaches during the NCAA Tournament and waited to tell his players once everything was in place.
“It was kind of hard to have that team meeting given that it was kind of leaked,” said Caleb Daniels as the news of Wright’s retirement spread on social media shortly before they gathered in the school’s basketball facility. “He wanted to tell us before it was leaked, but nevertheless, we were all in a state of shock. We’re all happy for him, wished him luck, and we’re with him every step of the way.”
Wright said his 70% effort level was masked by his assistant coaches, who he said “were on top of their game” while the coach was trying to motivate himself. Could the players tell that their coach was missing his edge?
“You could see certain signs of it, but we really didn’t have a clue that he would retire this early,” Daniels said. “... You know, he wasn’t as energetic throughout, and you get kind of tired over time, but I still thought he had a little bit of fire under him. He would light a fire under us during each and every game.”
Wright did not have a farewell tour like Mike Krzyzewski, whose 47-year career ended the same night at the Final Four. But Wright’s decision — which just few knew — before the Big East Tournament allowed him to savor each moment. Wright said he and Patty “enjoyed every part” of their last ride. And then the Wildcats kept winning.
“Going into Madison Square Garden, it was awesome,” Wright said of the site of the Big East tournament. “And then when we won, Mark and Patty and I looked at each other and said ‘Holy [expletive]. Do you believe this?’ We really got to enjoy it.”
Wright still has to clean out his Villanova office, but said he hopes to be on the beach this weekend. If so, he won’t have to wonder if anyone is thinking why he’s not working. And on Sunday, he can listen to the homily for himself.
Wright does not know what’s next — “I honestly don’t have a plan,” he said — but said his times on the sidelines are finished.
“I know I’m going to miss the games. I know I’m going to miss the competitiveness. I know I’m going to miss the practice,” Wright said. “But what I’m excited about is that I love the relationships with the players and I kind of felt like in the last few years that my energy level has been committed to basketball, and recruiting, and NIL and not as much as relationships with the players.
“So if they’ll still talk to me. I look forward to going to breakfast with these guys and lunch with these guys and not have to yell at Eric Dixon about being in his stance and can actually talk to him about life and let Kyle yell at him about that.”