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Daily News Sportsperson of the Year: Villanova's Jay Wright

JAY WRIGHT found the news that he had been voted the Daily News Sportsperson of the Year a little hard to believe.

After leading 'Nova to the Final Four in 2009, Jay Wright has been named the Daily News Sportsperson of the year. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)
After leading 'Nova to the Final Four in 2009, Jay Wright has been named the Daily News Sportsperson of the year. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)Read moreDaily News/Inquirer

JAY WRIGHT found the news that he had been voted the Daily News Sportsperson of the Year a little hard to believe.

"I think I would have voted for Chase Utley, just because he was such a beast in the World Series," said Wright, the charismatic Villanova basketball coach who took the Wildcats to the Final Four last April. "And the Eagles went to the [NFC] championship game. That still counts for this year, right? When I think of Sportsmen of the Year, I think of Andy Reid, Donovan McNabb, Charlie Manuel, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins. To me, that's what last year was."

Duly noted. Yet it was also about the 'Cats making a historic run in March Madness, the longest by any city team since 'Nova's ultimate shining moment that remains 1985. This time it didn't end in a championship. But the images and storylines still imparted impressions that won't ever fade.

Even in a pro town.

The players play. They're the ones who are ultimately responsible. At some point, though, it all goes back to the person in charge. So maybe it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise that Wright was the choice in a vote of the Daily News sports staff and other experts.

He received four of 32 first-place nods and 91 points, to finish 15 ahead of Temple football coach Al Golden (who got five first-place votes) in balloting among the paper's sports staff and other experts.

Wright was named on 29 ballots, to Golden's 26. Nobody else made it onto more than 18.

The Phillies swept spots 3-7. In order, it was manager Manuel (five firsts, 62 points); lefthander Cliff Lee, who now is a Seattle Mariner (five, 52); first baseman Howard (three, 49); general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. (three, 41); and second baseman Utley (three, 29).

'Nova's Scottie Reynolds, who made the buzzer-beater that beat Pitt in the East Regional final, was eighth (two, 26).

In 2008, Phillies closer Brad Lidge was the inaugural honoree.

"I love going to that [Philadelphia] Sports Writers [Association] dinner," Wright said. "Because I like seeing all the Philadelphia sports people. I'm a Philly guy. The first time I'm up there on the dais, with everybody, you just feel like a part of the city's sports community. To be among all those people, I still look at myself as Jay Wright from Council Rock [High School]. I'm a fan. I go down to an Eagles game, nobody knows I'm there. I go to the Phillies all the time. I just love being a fan.

"It's very humbling, just amazing, to be included. Wow. I almost don't know what to say."

From 1989 to 2004, Villanova won three NCAA Tournament games and lost six. Each of the victories was in the opening round - against Princeton, Portland and Long Island. Wright didn't make it into the 65-team field until his fourth season. Since then he has gone 11-5.

People tend to notice those things. Which is why his name comes up with vacancies from Kentucky to the NBA. Not that he's looking to change addresses any time soon.

"Having grown up here, I never thought I'd be the coach at Villanova," Wright said. "I'm happy. I love living here, I love what the school's about. But I was also thrilled at Hofstra [1994-2001]. I could have stayed there the rest of my career. I was fine. I had my team, I had my family. For me, this is the best job in the world right now.

"Our fans want me to be the poster child. They want me to be the big-time coach. And sometimes it's tough. You want to be what they want you to be. It's just not me. I love coaching Villanova. I love coaching in Philly. But Villanova was good before I got here. I think Fran Dunphy, who's done a fantastic job, would say the same thing about Temple. We watched it. We know it's not us. And we know the people coming after us are going to be successful . . .

"This is a program award. The coach is the representative of the program, the university, the team. It really makes me feel good that Philadelphia embraced what we did, and Villanova basketball. It really does. When we play at the Wachovia Center, there's a lot of Villanova fans. But there are a lot of Philadelphia basketball fans that sell that place out. It's a different type of crowd. It's been kind of one of my dreams that we could be embraced by Philadelphia. We've had to work hard to earn that. And if this means we've earned that, then it means even more to me."

Athletic director Vince Nicastro, the man who hired Wright, believes that's just Jay being Jay.

"Besides putting his heart and soul and a tremendous amount of work into it, he's taken a great Villanova tradition and been able to build upon it," Nicastro said. "When you meet him, you can immediately tell there's something special about him. He got every piece of the [coaching] package. His vision and mission values are in direct alignment with Villanova's. It's a great combination.

"For him to be recognized like this is tremendous. But he doesn't get hung up on what the end result is going to be. He takes care of today's activities, so it will end up being good. But he never makes it about him. He just sees the big picture. There's so many factors out there, but it's always about the program. What can make us as a whole better. He knows that if everything falls into place, it'll be fine for Jay Wright."

These Wildcats (11-1) are ranked eighth, heading into the Big East portion of their schedule. This season's recruiting class, which has lost 6-10 Mouphtaou Yarou to hepatitis B, was considered one of the best in the country. Wright has three more highly touted freshmen coming in next season. And he's already involved with the top prospect for 2011. So he's obviously on a roll. Yet he's savvy enough to understand that doesn't guarantee anything. Not a national title or more Final Fours. Last season, Wright even told a Daily News columnist that wasn't necessarily the goal. Which probably didn't sit too well with much of 'Nova Nation. So be it.

"When we came here, we just wanted to be the best we can be," Wright said. "I don't know what that is. But I just don't know anything else. I don't want to BS you. I tell our teams all the time, anything can happen. A guy can get hurt, you can play the best you could and not make the NCAA Tournament. That doesn't mean you didn't do a good job.

"I went up to [Pitt coach] Jamie Dixon after our game and told him, 'You're just as worthy as us.' And it was true. I really do realize how fragile this is, and how fortunate we are to be here at this time. When I first came here, we struggled. I remember playing Penn at the Wachovia Center, our home game, and we got waxed [72-58 on Dec. 10, 2002]. They were good. I remember thinking like, 'We've got so far to go, even within our own city.' And we're the team everybody expects to win.

"A lot of things can go either way. We got some bad breaks the first couple of years and that was OK. It's nobody's fault. I was going to be OK with the fact that if we didn't get it done in 5 years, then we really don't deserve to be here.

"We have a meeting once or twice a year, where we bring the whole staff in. [Sports information director] Mike Sheridan, secretaries, trainers, chaplains, to give them a little history lesson. To remind them that when we started here, we were over there [in the Pavilion]. Just to make them understand the story, our story, who we are and how we got here. Because everyone who comes in here now only knows the Davis Center, the Wachovia Center, selling out every game, second weekend of the Tournament, preseason Top 25. That's it. They don't remember going 1-3 in the Big 5. It's so easy to go back there. Don't take this for granted. Take a really hard look at all of it."

How's that for perspective?

"This is a great sports town," Wright concluded. "For us to be picked first, and a coach from Temple to come in second, that says something . . . Probably my biggest thrill is when we play like the St. Joe game at the Palestra, and I remember as a kid watching the game there. I get as much from that, if not more, than I do at the Final Four or Big East [Tournament] . . .

"[The Daily News] is known for sports. And Villanova going to the Final Four was the winner, in a year when the Phillies went to the World Series again."

Believe it.