The Man Who Loves Villanova

The calls started coming in 2006 before Jay Wright signed his first $1 million contract at Villanova. He would hear about them from third parties like his agent or close friend and network analyst Bill Raftery, who would casually ask if he would be interested in talking to a bigger state school that could offer him a more lucrative salary and bigger budget.

Brand name Big Ten schools, half the Atlantic Coast Conference, a blue blood SEC school, a powerhouse Big 12 school with an unlimited budget. Over 30 schools and NBA franchises have done their due diligence and contacted him.

The phone is constantly ringing, but Wright rarely returns calls.

He just has his agent Carl Hirsch call back and say, “No thank you.”

Wright is happy with the way his life turned out.

He is following in the footsteps of Philadelphia Big 5 legends Kenny Loeffler of La Salle, Harry Litwack of Temple and Jack Ramsay of St. Joseph’s, all Naismith Hall of Fame inductees. This has always been a college coach’s town, with five Division I programs– Villanova, Temple, La Salle, St. Joseph’s and Penn– that have sent teams to the Final Four. Current Big 5 coaches Phil Martelli of St. Joseph’s, Fran Dunphy of Temple, Steve Donahue of Penn and Wright all grew up in the local area and made the pilgrimage to watch Big 5 teams play doubleheaders in the Palestra. For them, it is a tug of the heart strings.

“If you grew up in Philadelphia and you rooted for the Big 5 and you think you’re going to be one of those guys, it’s amazing,” Wright said. “That’s why it’s so emotional. You think think you’re going to be in that spot.”

Wright was all but signed as the next Rutgers coach. When word came down that Steve Lappas was resigning, Wright knew what would happen if he got a call from Villanova athletic director Vince Nicastro. The call came Saturday.

There was no job that was going to compare to Villanova ever for me,” he said. He told Rutgers athletic director Bob Mulcahy (a Villanova grad) and Tennessee AD Doug Dickey, “If Villanova wants me, I’m going.”

When Wright arrived at this suburban Philadelphia Catholic university in 2001, he was the hot young coach in America.

Wright was the whole package, a then 39-year-old George Clooney clone who looked good in Italian suits and had just coached Hofstra to two straight NCAA appearances. He had a pretty wife Patty–a former Villanova cheerleader with a law degree from the university– and a growing family that included two sons, Taylor and Colin; and a daughter, Reilly. He also had a core set of values that mirrored the administration’s philosophy of winning with class and continuing former coach Rollie Massimino’s tradition of graduating 100 percent of the players who stayed in his program for four years.

“I always wanted to coach in Philadelphia,” Wright said. “It’s my hometown. Patty and I have family here. Our kids like it. And Villanova was my favorite school growing up. The administration’s philosophy mirrors mine. I believe you can win with good players who stay in school for four years, get better and graduate.”

He speaks with the voice of a young Joe Paterno, the late Penn State coach who was one of his heroes as a kid.

”The school wants to compete for championships, but there is no stress to get to the Final Four every year,” Wright said. “They’re more concerned about the players representing the university with dignity. I wanted to be at a school where the basketball program could have an impact on the community.”

Wright created Nirvana on the Main Line where he has become the most popular person on campus with students, administrators, professors and alums. Wright is on a roll. He has won the first three new Big East regular season championships, coaching the Wildcats to 11 NCAA appearances in the past 12 seasons, selling out home games on campus and playing before near sellout crowds of over 18,000 at the Wells Fargo Center.

He has made Villanova a Top 10 program and led the Cats to five Sweet Sixteens, three Elite Eights and a second Final Four after Saturday night’s 64–59 upset over top-seeded Kansas in the NCAA South Region championship game at Louisville. The Wildcats will play Oklahoma in the national semi-finals Saturday in Houston.

Wright has upgraded the program, raising funds through friends at the New York Financial Club, who pay for private charter flights and financed the bulk of the Davis Center, the school’s new men’s and women’s practice facility located across the street from the Pavilion.

He has become one of, if not the most romanced coach, in college basketball.

Wright is currently making an annual salary of $2.5 million. There is little question he could make more elsewhere.

And Wright will admit he was in intrigued by two job opportunities in the past.

In 2007, after Wright had coached Villanova to a No. 1 seed and the NCAA Elite Eight, he went on vacation with his family in Clearwater, Fla. after the Final Four in Atlantia to watch Phillies’ spring training. Tubby Smith had resigned from Kentucky to take the Minnesota job and Wright’s agent received a call about the job. He was interested enough to consider visiting campus, but never got on a plane.

Then, In 2009, right after he had coached Villanova to its first Final Four since 1985, he got a call from Eddie Stefanski, the general manager of the Philadelphia 76’ers, asking if he would consider taking the head coaching job. “That would have been the perfect situation,” he recalled. We had just gone to the Final Four. Ed Stefanski was a guy I really liked and respected. And it was my hometown team. I seriously thought about it, then decided I just didn’t want to leave Villanova to do that. I was thinking, ‘If it doesn’t work out, what would I want to do? And the answer was go back to Villanova.”’

Wright has become the face of the university

In an age where coaches are constantly changing addresses, Wright is happy, nestled away in a big farm house in Newton, Pa.

Wright has never had a one and done player. He has only had one player– future NBA All Star guard Kyle Lowrey– leave after his sophomore year.

Most of his players stay four years and develop. This particular Villanova team is filled with unselfish upperclassmen like senior guard Ryan Arcidiacono and center Daniel Ochefu, who have played together on teams that have won 115 games during their careers and are 66–8 over the past two years. Arcidiacono, who like Wright grew up Bucks County, epitomizes the personality of this team. “I don’t care if I score zero points, as long as we win,” he said.

Wright has made sure to share his success with friends from Council Rock High School, Bucknell, where he played college basketball; and former Villanova players and coaches. When Massimino– who coached Villanova to its only national championship in 1985, suddenly bolted for the Vegas job in 1992, he alienated most of the Nova nation. Wright, who was one of his assistants, has embraced him and brought him back into the fold. He has also opened his arms to all former Villanova players. Last year, at the team’s annual banquet at the Pavilion, he invited all of them back and had over 100 parade as he announced their names.

Wright will continue to be mentioned for job openings as long as he coaches here. But every time he thinks about leaving, he remembers a late night conversation he had with Massimino and the late Jim Valvano at an Atlantic City restaurant.

“Jim told me he should have never left Iona because he loved New York,” Wright recalled. “And this was after he won a national championship at NC State. ‘Never mess with happy,” he said to me.”


Originally published at coachgeorgeraveling.com on March 31, 2016.