This is what they work for, all those coaches who start as assistants at a place like the University of Rochester, who move on to a Drexel and then up to a Villanova and then across the country to a UNLV before getting that chance to build their own program at a Hofstra that leads to the primo head job, back at a Villanova. They work for that moment in 2009, when Scottie Reynolds drove the lane and willed the ball through the basket, sparking the kind of delirium that defines March.
Coaches, even great coaches, aren’t guaranteed appearances in the Final Four. And here was Jay Wright after Reynolds’s shot: 47 years old, 15 years into his career as a head coach, eight seasons in at the suburban Philly school for which this suburban Philly kid wasn’t quite good enough to play.
“You feel like your program has arrived,” Wright said, and it had, because this was the Wildcats’ fifth straight appearance in the NCAA tournament, and Reynolds’s game-winner against Pitt gave them their 30th win, and darn it if they wouldn’t play North Carolina in a national semifinal the following week in Detroit.
Wright considered that moment, sitting last month in a downtown Washington hotel, slowly working his way through a post-practice plate of melon. In so many ways, he is an elite, established coach running an elite, established program; it’s not unrealistic to think that he could join Billy Donovan and Mike Krzyzewski as the only coaches to win back-to-back NCAA titles in the past 40 years.
But for Wright, for Villanova, there isn’t a straight line from 2009 to 2017, and how he handled the first trip informs how he handles himself now.
“I felt like getting to the Final Four, it’s my job to make sure everybody from Villanova gets to enjoy it,” he said.
So from the moment the Wildcats arrived in Detroit, there were boosters and former players and administrators and alumni and rallies and distractions. He wanted it all. Yet five minutes into the game against Carolina, he realized one team had arrived to win a national championship, and another team (his) was just happy to be invited and effectively had no chance.
If Wright regretted the way he handled that Final Four trip, and he did, he would regret more what came next. As a basketball coach, he is competitive and creative, for sure, but above all else he may be congenial. Saying “No,” well, “Personally, it’s the hardest thing for me. You almost feel like you’re being selfish.”
Instead he said “Yes,” and he overcommitted. Trips to ESPN and speaking engagements replaced time around the basketball offices, around his staff, around his team. He was acting like he thought a Final Four coach should act, doing what he thought a Final Four coach should do. In the moment, he didn’t see how that made him borderline fraudulent.
You know who saw that? His wife, Patty, a Villanova graduate by pedigree, a lawyer by trade, her husband’s brutally honest psychoanalyst by necessity.
“After ’09, she was telling me, ‘Yo, you’re trying to be everything everybody wants you to be, and you’re not being yourself, and you’re not being true to your coaches and your players,’ ” Wright said. “And I was like, ‘Come on, man. We went to the Final Four.’ ”
On his climb up the coaching ladder, Wright wasn’t terribly unlike other young coaches in his position. “He was in a hurry,” said Mike Neer, the head coach at Division III Rochester who took a chance in hiring a former Bucknell player who had been working selling tickets for the Philadelphia Stars in the old USFL. But if Wright was rushing in the early days, he also took time to learn.
“For someone who had never coached, he was interested in what I was doing and how I was doing it,” Neer said. “He was paying attention to the gritty stuff, the on-the-floor drills in practice, the teaching.”
Back then, those were building blocks. When Wright reached the Final Four with Villanova, the castle was in place. Wright discovered, though, that learning the basics and constructing a program wasn’t as difficult as maintaining it. Achieving success is one thing. Sustaining it is another.
“Each organization, whether it’s a Fortune 500 company or a college basketball program, hangs its hat on a uniqueness,” said Billy Lange, who sandwiched two stints as a Wright assistant at Villanova around a seven-year run as the head coach at Navy. “Then they embrace that uniqueness. What you learn is that it comes down to the type of people that you have around you. Villanova is not Kentucky, just like Google is not Apple. He had to see that.”
Wright couldn’t then, but even in those moments, he wasn’t beyond adjusting. Pat Flannery, a former teammate at Bucknell who became the program’s coach, remembers criticizing various aspects of the Wildcats’ play over the years: how they were defending a certain set, how they moved the ball, whatever. Flannery never held back. Wright never took it the wrong way.
“He always wanted to learn,” Flannery said. “Not everybody does that. A lot of people think when they’ve got it going, they’ve invented the wheel. Jay didn’t.”
Wright had to apply that same malleability to all aspects of his program, but judiciously. He and his staff had never been able to recruit the one-and-done players who were concerned solely with their NBA futures and cared little, if at all, about being at Villanova. Now they were available to him.
“It was easy to get ’em, and we just took ’em,” Wright said. “We recruited them on the basis of just being pros, and then when they got here, we tried to talk to them about our family, our culture. They were kind of looking at us like, ‘Wait a minute. This isn’t what I signed up for.’ And that was on me.”
Trips to the NCAA tournament in 2010 and 2011 masked what Wright now acknowledges was something ugly: the deterioration of his program. On March 7, 2012, the Wildcats were dismissed from the Big East tournament by South Florida, ending their season. They were 13-19, Wright’s worst season since his first two at Hofstra.
“That felt like we were 13-19 heading for 8-22,” Wright said. “It felt like we were going in the wrong direction.”
Wright and his staff, though, had started to recognize their failings. The class that endured the 13-19 season as freshmen included Darrun Hilliard, a Villanova-type kid. The class the next year included guard Ryan Arcidiacono and forward Daniel Ochefu, foundation pieces. Wright rearranged his coaching staff. The college basketball world couldn’t tell, but Villanova had pivoted.
“There was no shifting of blame,” said Vince Nicastro, Villanova’s athletics director at the time. “It was always, ‘This is my program. We had a little bit of a dip. Here’s how we’re going to correct it.’ He was never really influenced — and I don’t think he is today — by the external voices.”
Which doesn’t mean he didn’t hear them. In November 2012, the Wildcats were pounded at home by Columbia, losing by 18. They then went to play at crosstown La Salle, always a difficult assignment. Arcidiacono missed six of his seven shots and committed six turnovers. The young Wildcats lost in overtime.
“You can hear people saying, ‘This is the beginning of the end,’ ” Wright said. “These guys are crumbling.”
As Wright recounted this, he wore a rubber bracelet on his right wrist, Villanova blue with one word printed in white block letters: Attitude.
The word hangs behind each basket at Villanova’s practice facility. When the Wildcats break each huddle, they shout: “1, 2, 3 attitude!”
“Any time we had a humbling experience, we’d lose a game or be struggling, that’s what he would say: ‘Attitude,’ ” Arcidiacono said. “It didn’t matter what the situation was, if we were number one in the country or whatever. Be humble. Be hungry. He didn’t change that.”
Even in that loss to Columbia and the next one to La Salle, he could say to his assistants: Watch them play. Watch them dive. They get it.
Their next game, they won at Vanderbilt.
Eventually, that same group produced wins back-to-back over third-ranked Syracuse and fifth-ranked Louisville. That team squeezed into the NCAA tournament, and then pushed North Carolina in a first-round game. Even with the loss, Wright believed: We’re back. Not back to the Final Four.
But back to who they were supposed to be.
“There’s less fear of failure than when you’re building a program the first time,” Wright said. “We thought, and we talked about it as a staff: If we fail, we’re going to fail our way with good guys that believe in Villanova. We’re not trying to emulate Kentucky or Kansas. . . . It was kind of cathartic.”
By the time junior forward Kris Jenkins pulled up from 30 feet in the final seconds of last year’s national championship game against North Carolina, Wright had done it all: worked as an assistant, built up Hofstra, built up Villanova, torn it down and built it back up again. The vagaries of one shot don’t determine the value of a career.
“That doesn’t go in, I’m not a bad coach; these aren’t bad guys,” he said. “We win it, that doesn’t make me a great coach either. Now, my next challenge is: We better be humble about this and understand it’s not just us.”
Much was made about Wright’s reaction to Jenkins’s one shining moment, which was, essentially, as if he watched a 40-something guy make a layup to hold the court at the Y. But that was an extension of how he teaches his players to think: What’s your attitude, and what’s next? When Wright got his team to the locker room, he reminded each player: Let’s make sure the ring you get from this championship isn’t the most important thing you do in life.
“He always told us the end goal isn’t the Sweet 16, the Final Four, the national championship,” Arcidiacono said. “He wanted us to be the best team we could be. And that’s what he wants for you after basketball: Be the best person you can be.”
In the fall, Neer, the old Rochester coach, showed up on media day, when the now defending national champions could preen for the cameras and boast about going for a second title. Arcidiacono had graduated, but Jenkins, the hero, was back, and so was Josh Hart and Jalen Brunson and others. After they met the media, the Wildcats practiced. Neer watched.
“Normally, everybody’s in pose mode, and that’s a wasted practice,” Neer said. “But they get out there and they play hard. They make the extra pass. They’ve got buy-in from everybody.”
As the clock wound down Saturday evening at Madison Square Garden, and the Wildcats idly dribbled near midcourt with the Big East title game victory over Creighton in hand, Wright stood in front of his bench, almost expressionless. Not long after, Jenkins ran toward the Villanova band with a giant placard proclaiming the Wildcats as Big East champions, leaping up and down. Wright stood to the side with his family, smiling but subdued.
“It feels a lot better than I’m probably showing,” he said afterward.
Someone handed him a Big East championship hat. He looked at it and handed it off. The pep band played. He is secure in his job, secure in his profession, secure in his life. And yet . . .
“One of the things I’ve learned along the way,” he said last month, “is how fragile this all is.”
He found out, after 2009. Now Jay Wright has two additional experiences in his rearview mirror: a national championship and 13-19. With Villanova poised to make another run, it’s hard to say which is more important in determining how Wright will handle each step going forward.