Jay Wright is becoming the TV face of college hoops. He’d be nuts to coach again.
The former Villanova coach has been terrific in his first NCAA Tournament as a TV analyst. Why would he ever return to coaching when he's so good at his new job?
Halftime of Connecticut-St. Mary’s on Sunday night in the NCAA Tournament’s second round, UConn up one, and if you left your television tuned to TNT during the break, you saw and heard Jay Wright in his sweet spot. He knew the coaches and teams well — the Huskies’ Danny Hurley from all those Big East battles, the Gaels’ Randy Bennett from two recent Villanova-St. Mary’s March Madness matchups. So well that, as he watched UConn’s guards defend St. Mary’s guards for pretty much the full length of the floor, as he watched Bennett allow his guys to drive the ball to the hoop, Wright knew what Bennett and Hurley were doing and why.
So after Seth Davis and Candace Parker weighed in, Ernie Johnson cued Wright for his insight.
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“St. Mary’s likes to look really pretty in their halfcourt offense — and here’s where you get into the ego of coaches,” Wright said. “Randy Bennett’s teams always look like they run great offense. Danny Hurley’s saying, ‘You’re not going to look pretty tonight. We’re going to get up in you. We’re not leaving to help anybody. Your guys are going to have to go one-on-one.’ [St. Mary’s is] hanging. We’ll see how long they can do it. That can wear you down, too, and that one-on-one play might be the product of a little fatigue late.”
Johnson gave him a playful smirk.
“Did you reference the ego of coaches?” he asked Wright. “Is that what you said?”
“Did that slip out?” Wright said.
“Does that exist?”
“That came from here” — Wright pointed to his gut — “and it went right out my mouth. It didn’t pass my brain. Sorry ‘bout that.”
‘Grateful to be by his side’
Jay Wright would be crazy to coach again. That was the big question 11 months ago, after he shocked the public by retiring after 21 years, four Final Fours, and two national championships at Villanova: Would he ever return to the sideline? He was 60 at the time. Nothing about the sport had passed him by or would for a while. College? Nah. He was never going to have it as good anywhere else as he had it at Villanova. But it was fair to wonder whether the right NBA offer might coax him back — maybe the 76ers or the Lakers or the Knicks.
We have our answer now, or should. He would be nuts to go back. He has been that good as an analyst, for CBS and Turner Sports, during this season and in this Tournament, sharp and smart and comfortable. Jim Nantz already has announced that this will be his last Final Four. Bill Raftery is great, still, but Bill Raftery turns 80 next month. Wright can be the TV face of college basketball for the next 15 years if he wants to be. Has he given that possibility any thought?
“No,” he said over his cell phone late Sunday night from Turner’s studios in Atlanta. “In the short term, I’m just trying to learn this.”
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He should be thinking about it. It’s clear that the networks are grooming him. They eased him into it back in the fall; his first game, with Tom McCarthy and the man Wright succeeded as the Wildcats’ coach, Steve Lappas, was at Villanova. But they’ve been ramping it up ever since. Wright has called games with Ian Eagle and Brad Nessler — “They’re putting me with these two studs,” he said — and McCarthy has taken him under his wing, lending him advice and showing him the ropes when it comes to the itinerant life of a sports broadcaster: the travel, the crew, the booth, all of which Wright has greeted with a kind of wide-eyed respect. He walks through the telecast truck before and after every game he does, shaking hands with each member of the crew.
“His amazement at what the technical director does is so great,” McCarthy, back in Clearwater with the Phillies after calling Tournament games last week, said in a text message Monday morning. “Jay has been awesome because he has been himself. I have loved every bit of it. He has let his guard down and allowed his audience in to see his instincts and hear his basketball insight. It takes a lot of time for guys, normally, to settle into that comfort zone. He wants honesty, and I have tried to be honest, but I have also given him space to get his feel. I’ve told people, ‘I’m grateful for the chance to be part of this and be by his side.’
“I’m telling you, his reaction to the technical director — the one who presses all the buttons and stuff — is one of my favorite things.”
The job has been more work than Wright anticipated, especially once he began preparing for the Tournament. He had called a game a week during the regular season, so from that exposure and film work, he was familiar with the country’s top teams. But two weeks before Selection Sunday, the networks sent him reams of research on all the Tournament’s possible participants. “It’s like being in school again,” he said. “You’ve got to read a lot. The film, I really enjoy. The research, the reading — at least it’s on something of interest.”
As for the charisma necessary to be a TV star … that was never a problem for Wright, and it isn’t one now: Listen to him tease Kentucky’s and Providence’s fan bases for being “crazy” or kid with Parker about spending so much time in Atlanta that he learned to love lemon pepper chicken wings. (“Bringing ‘em back to Philly,” he said.) And the more experience he gets, the better he’s going to be and the more opportunities he will open for himself. He could be part of CBS’s No. 1 panel team, with Greg Gumbel and Clark Kellogg, right now. Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith are fun and funny and a blast to spend time with. But they’re not watching these games as closely or thinking about them as deeply as Wright is, and because he coached in the Tournament and immerses himself in college basketball, his perspective will always have an authenticity that theirs won’t.
He saw Fairleigh Dickinson upset Purdue and Kentucky fall to Kansas State and Furman knock off Virginia, for instance, and appreciated that he could empathize with those losing coaches without having to experience the agony of defeat again himself. “It’s definitely way less stressful — way less stressful,” he said. “As I do the games, anytime I feel any twinge of ‘Do I miss it?’ I look at Matt Painter. And I look at John Calipari. And I look at Tony Bennett. I look at their faces, and I know the feeling. And I know what the next few weeks are going to be like for them. It’s torture.” He sounds like a former coach who would prefer to remain a former coach. And who can.
The right thing to do and say
Wright didn’t want his comment about St. Mary’s and Bennett and the ego of coaches to be misconstrued. “The point I was trying to make,” he said over the phone, “was that Randy Bennett was not allowing his ego to get involved. Usually, they like to pass it around, reverse the ball a few times, and then run their offense. But UConn was denying everything, so they couldn’t make the passes. So they committed to driving the ball and going one-on-one. It doesn’t make the coach look like he’s running good plays, but it’s the right thing to do. He just wanted to do the right thing to win.”
It didn’t work, for the very reason Wright suggested it wouldn’t: fatigue. St. Mary’s was still down one early in the second half. Then the Gaels tired. UConn won, 70-55, outscoring them 29-15 over the game’s final 14 minutes. It sure made Jay Wright look smart, not that he has needed a whole lot of help.
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