For a while, for the first 10 years maybe of his coaching career, Jay Wright liked to say he loved coaching college in a pro town because our attention span toward it was limited and fleeting. You won or lost on Monday and – no matter how critical the game was -- nobody talked much about it by Wednesday.
This is no longer true, of course, and it happened long before Villanova’s 77-74 victory over North Carolina in Monday’s NCAA championship game, a delightful test of wills between two incredibly worthy teams that vacuumed the attention of fans from every part of the country and every major and mid-major conference out there. If you did not watch this game, if you did not find something or someone out there to root for, then give up watching college basketball.
I am not a Villanova fan as much as I am a Jay Wright fan. I have watched him, with open-mouthed admiration, navigate through all of the disappointing ends to promising seasons and all the ugly rumors initiated and enflamed via social media with such dignity, such class, that it is, in a word, inspiring. If he can handle his stuff like that, I often told myself, you most certainly can handle a couple of nasty emails and comments directed at your work.
And so for me, the one shining moment from Monday came after Kris Jenkins hit the shot that will be the headline of his obituary. Watching Wright, doing his best Herb Brooks imitation, walking without a trace of joy, palms extended upwards, walking toward an opposing coach he instantly empathized with.
Wright later said he was thinking about how to defend Carolina for 0.7 seconds or something like that, but I think this was to ward off attention to his spontaneous and heartfelt gesture to Roy Williams. He did not want any part of Monday night’s story to be about him or that, and so the narrative recalled in the aftermath was about a huddle more or less run by seniors who knew by heart the play design, about a coach who said afterward that he wanted the decision left to the point guard who has run his offense for four seasons, who is so synced with Wright’s mind that he embodies what the coach would play like if the good Lord gave him the talent to play at this level.
Instead, we watch his players. We watch Daniel Ochefu kindly take the mop from the overmatched kid in charge of and mopping the floor, working it back and forth vigorously before returning it with a friendly pat to his head and an extra hop to his step.
We watch Ryan Arcidiacono surrender the shot he – and every other player -- has imagined since childhood to give another player that shot, a better shot.
And then at the end, we watch the coach resembling the player, his players, with a humble walk toward his colleague, an understated response amid all the final madness of a March run that was all that and more, more, more.
Not a squeak about silencing any critic, about personal redemption, nothing even about his brilliant strategies and substitutions, substitutions that allowed Jenkins, with four fouls, even to be out there at the end.
Most of the time, coaches get too much blame, and too much credit for how their teams perform at this time of the year. As much or more than any coach, Jay Wright knows this.