Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

How Jay Wright has proved to be a perfect fit at 'Nova

When the Villanova Wildcats got home from their successful trip down the long tunnel of the Big East tournament, Jay Wright started noticing all this stuff in the papers and on television about the Eagles. Apparently, there had been some moves or something.

Villanova head coach Jay Wright. (Brad Penner/USA Today Sports)
Villanova head coach Jay Wright. (Brad Penner/USA Today Sports)Read more

When the Villanova Wildcats got home from their successful trip down the long tunnel of the Big East tournament, Jay Wright started noticing all this stuff in the papers and on television about the Eagles. Apparently, there had been some moves or something.

"I said, 'Arch, did you know they traded Foles?' " Wright said to point guard Ryan Arcidiacono. "He keeps up with all that. He just looked at me and nodded."

It's easy for a coach to get lost in the basketball at this time of year, particularly one at a relatively small school in a relatively new conference alignment that happens to become the second-seeded team in the entire country.

That sort of thing rarely happens, but it happened this season for Villanova, which has about one-third the enrollment of top-seeded Kentucky and lacks many of the amenities that supposedly are requirements for elite programs.

"We understand our place in the atmosphere," said Whitey Rigsby, who played at Villanova and is now the school's director of development for athletics as well as the color commentator for basketball radio broadcasts. "We don't have a huge endowment. We don't have the money that a lot of the big state schools do. But the culture here, not to be pompous or arrogant, is different from other places. You've got to embrace it. You're not getting the most money. You're not getting the most facilities. But we're number two in the country this week. That's pretty good. And Jay deserves the lion's share of the credit."

Wright would deflect that praise and shift the focus to the university at large and the other people within the program specifically, and he would use all those buzzwords that are truly embraced on campus, but tend to elicit eye-rolls everywhere else. Playing "Villanova basketball" was a banner that was waved long before Wright became head coach, but he has perfected a blending of that tradition with the new realities of what it takes to win in the current game.

Villanova hired Wright in 2001 after Steve Lappas resigned when his contract wasn't extended beyond a lame-duck season. The hiring was recommended by new athletic director Vince Nicastro and approved by then-president Rev. Edmund Dobbin, but no one could have known just how well it would work. Wright, the coach at Hofstra, had been an assistant for five seasons at the end of Rollie Massimino's tenure, but his roots weren't really at Villanova and his ability to recruit and compete on a national stage was untested. Well, it worked.

"It's incredibly comforting to have Jay. That might be a good word to describe it," Nicastro said. "He's a veteran coach and he's proven how good he is in all phases of coaching and how committed he is to the students and the mission here. You see schools changing coaches all the time. One of the real strengths of the program over the years is having great leadership and great continuity. Having Jay is perfect for us."

Villanova has had only five coaches since 1936, so continuity is nothing new. Wright, who is in his 14th season, followed Al Severance (1936-61), Jack Kraft (1961-73), Massimino (1973-92) and Lappas (1992-2001) into the job. They were all good - and Massimino had the great fortune to win the biggest college upset of all-time - but Wright is better. In the school's last 10 trips to the NCAA tournament, the Wildcats have been a No. 5 seed or higher six times. That takes more than coaching. It takes a program that hums along very efficiently in all phases.

"A lot of places, if you don't win, you go. Period. Here, if you don't win, you're still going to go eventually, but you get a much longer leash," Rigsby said. "If you're a guy like Jay Wright, you're going to get a pass for a while. He hasn't had to use that pass much. It's easy to say now when you're a No. 1 seed and you win the league championship and everything's great. But three years ago, when the team was 13-19, these people still loved him."

Wright is 53, in the absolute prime of his career, and if there is another challenge out there that intrigues him in the next few years, he almost certainly could name his ticket. He also could stay at Villanova for the rest of his coaching career, if he chose, but that seems unlikely. Wright has a healthy self-confidence, and maybe he'd like to test that somewhere else. Maybe at a college program that can recruit the one-year wonders. Maybe in the pros. But, then again, maybe not.

This week and this month, it is a good time to coach Villanova, and Wright knows exactly how good he has it right here, right now.

"I talked to John Calipari, and he told me that between the regular season and their tournament, he had to go to Florida for a couple of days, just to get away. He can't even go out to dinner [in Lexington, Ky.]," Wright said. "I've talked to Rick Pitino and Bill Self, and they tell me the same thing. I've told them that it's just not that way here and they don't understand it. I always say that the Philadelphia Eagles make this the best place to coach college basketball in the country. You can fly under the radar."

Not at the moment, he can't, but that's OK, too. If you're playing in mid-March, and that stage fits you like a designer suit, it's all right to be visible for a little while.