The monosyllabic, utterly pure utterance that crowned Jay Wright’s arrival at the pinnacle of college basketball also serves as his starting line. Sudden, breathtaking, amazing.
That was the word Wright uttered on the sidelines with preternatural calm as Kris Jenkins pulled in what was arguably the most dramatic shot in men’s NCAA tournament history to give Villanova the 2016 national championship. Having since won another title and leading his fourth ‘Nova team to this month’s Final Four, his abrupt departure from the stage comes with a similar thunderclap. Nobody saw this coming.
News broke on Wednesday that the Villanova manager was set to retire at the age of 60 at the peak of his powers. He’s hardly the first to go ahead with what appears to be a long career of sustained success – John Wooden, Al McGuire etc – but this comes at a vulnerable time for the sport.
It’s a strange time when more star players — like Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe — hang out at the college game than college coaches.
Frankly, college basketball needs more leaders with Wright’s class, grace, coaching skills and gravitas. The resignations of Roy Williams, Mike Krzyzewski and Wright within 13 months is a massive brain drain and leadership vacuum in the sport. That’s 10 national championships and 25 final fours between three men. There has never been a more turbulent time to coach a collegiate sport; Whether this is a connective tissue between these three massive deviations is open to conjecture.
Let’s be honest about the demands of the job as it currently stands and about Wright’s current life station. He earned a lot of money to live safely forever. His children are all grown. He loves his off-season time on the Jersey shore. Most importantly, he was never about the awards or the hosannas or the all-time leaderboard.
If Wright was training to fuel his own ego, he would have left Villanova for some of the many jobs on offer. The NBA called, Kentucky called, many others with more money and cache than Villanova called. He declined every 15 years or more and became arguably the greatest current coach in the game.
He was a brilliant leader in his happy place and he was smart enough to see that. Villanova is a basketball school with strong heritage but not all the money and fame available elsewhere. He never tried to climb the ladder further than he was.
Instead, he built from within. “Culture” is a vague sporting term to recognize rather than define, but you can argue that Wright’s Villanova culture has surpassed anything else in the sport over the past decade.
Since 2009, ‘Nova has competed in four Final Fours and won two national championships, with a single lost season during that time. The Wildcats averaged 26.6 wins, just 8.1 losses. They’ve earned a No. 1 or 2 finish in the NCAA tournament seven times in 13 seasons, a rock of consistency in an increasingly ephemeral sport.
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Over time, Wright developed a unique style of play. Post-up guards and five three-pointers – they basically turned the old offensive principles on their head. Wrights’ Nova teams played intentionally but passed readily, nobody cared where the next basket came from as long as it was someone on their team.
It was nice, but it wasn’t easy. Especially not easy to recruit. Wright and his staff had to work hard to find just the right players and then develop them into just the right teammates. At Villanova there was no way to get the balls rolling and let overwhelming talent take over.
Maybe that weighed on the architect. Wright always looked polite on the touchline, but he sweated at every detail — like many great coaches do. It was at this last NCAA tournament that he began to see his age. It had been a trying year.
Wright was assistant coach of the US Olympic team, an experience that drained everyone even more than the usual international commitment. The experience in Japan was both a privilege and a daunting task, and diving into a college basketball season upon return would be an exciting challenge. Wright made it and then led another great team to another 30-win season and a Big East tournament title.
Villanova had the omens of a potential national title winner until the final minute of his regional final against Houston, when star player Justin Moore tore his Achilles tendon. Without him, a thin and undersized team was doomed to fail in the semifinals against eventual champion Kansas. The Wildcats were laudable losers, but Wright looked older and more exhausted than ever as he exited the Superdome floor in New Orleans.
Following a recent trend of giant coaches leaving, Wright will hand the job over to a former assistant. Kyle Neptune, 16-16 in a single season at Fordham, will make the quantum leap to the best job in the Great East. How it turns out is up to you.
Hubert Davis turned out to be an outstanding successor to Williams and North Carolina, and Jon Scheyer is recruiting like an absolute tornado to succeed Krzyzewski at Duke. Neptune may well be able to sustain the culture Wright was building, but those answers are years away.
And Wright himself? He could be a sensational TV analyst with the charm of a storyteller and the insight of a great coach. Or maybe he’s chilling for a season, rekindling the fire, and finally taking a spin on a new ride — NBA or NCAA, he’d be in demand.
But it could also be done. Wright has never hungered for the limelight as much as he does for competitive purity — and when there are no more countries to conquer competitively, it might just be time to walk away and enjoy the rest of life.
The possibility of retiring at age 60, hopefully in good health, is a blessing. It’s the sport that Jay Wright is leaving behind that we have to worry about.
More Jay Wright coverage:
• College Hoops World reacts to Jay Wright’s retirement
• Report: Wright looks back on broadcasting career
• With Attitude Again: Inside Villanova’s 2018 title