It wasn’t that long ago Jay Wright’s days at Villanova seemed to be numbered.
The man who could dress with the best of them and had posted seven 20-win seasons along the Main Line, including a 2009 Final Four appearance, had lost his touch — Wildcat boosters were thinking. The Cats had dipped from 30-8 that 2009 season, to 21-12, to an unimaginable 13-19 in 20012. Perhaps it was time for a change.
Back then probably not even Wright himself could’ve imagined six years later he’d be at the top of his profession, mentioned in the same breath as Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, Tom Izzo and John Calipari. Not even the guy whose philosophy was to slowly bring his players along rather than go for the quick fix with one-and-dones could’ve foreseen Villanova joining the game’s elite.
But with two NCAA Championships in the last three years, following their 79-62 romp over Michigan in the title game Monday, there’s no doubt Nova and Wright have reached the pantheon. With super sixth man Donte DiVincenzo erupting for 31 points, the Wildcats dispatched the Wolverines in the same kind of routine fashion as they did the vast majority of their other 35 victims.
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The fact DiVincenzo came off the bench to lead the way, just as Phil Booth did in their 2016 thriller over North Carolina punctuated by Kris Jenkins’ 3-point championship winning buzzer beater, is further testament that the man in charge knows how to the push the right buttons. Which is just one reason why this weekend he’ll receive the John Wooden Legends of Coaching Award in Los Angeles in recognition of his accomplishments. It’s an award that has nothing to do with what took place this weekend in San Antonio or based on Villanova’s impressive run through the field, winning by an average 17.7 points.
In fact, the 56-year-old Wright has been saving the date since Oct. 10 when it was first announced, though it’s remained on the back burner until now. According to the steering committee which created the award in 1999, the annual recipient goes beyond the won-lost record.
“The Award recognizes the lifetime achievement of coaches who exemplify Coach Wooden’s high standards of coaching success and personal achievement,” it says on their website. “Honorees are selected based on character, success on the court, graduation rate of student-athletes in their basketball program, coaching philosophy and identifications with the goals of the late John R. Wooden.”
As much as Wright’s always prided himself on having his team prepared to play “Villanova basketball,” a catch-phrase all his players use, he’s made it a point to do it “the right way.” You’ll never see the Wildcats trash talking an opponent or acting out inappropriately. Like their coach, their outward demeanor remains businesslike from the start, almost belying his — and their — level of excellence. To hear Wright tell it, though, he’s merely the architect. They’re the ones doing the heavy lifting.
And not only on the court.
“We recruit guys that just want to be in college,” said Wright, who could lose as many as three players with eligibility remaining to the NBA now that DiVincenzo may follow Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges out the door. “We want them to enjoy the college experience. You've got to care about what kind of student you are, what kind of person you are. And I think our guys understand that. “We take great pride in their development as men, as students. So we really spend probably more time in that area than we do on basketball because the basketball part is easy.”
The Wildcats have certainly made it look that way, going an outrageous 165-21 with two National Championships in the last five years. They haven’t lost back-to-back games since falling to Louisville in the Big East title game, followed by North Carolina in their NCAA Tournament opener to close out their 20-14 season in 2013. And suddenly the coach who once feared for his job security in his early years at Hofstra, then may have had some sleepless nights back in 2012, is in great demand. While he says he’s got the best job in America the lure of coaching an NBA team might prove irresistible now — or maybe not.
Once thing’s for sure though, Wright, with 544 career wins on his resume including a school record 422 at Nova, ultimately will make one other stop down the road: Springfield, Mass, home of the Basketball Hall of Fame.
On that day the man who used to just be known for his fancy suits will take his place dressing with basketball royalty, who’ll welcome him with one thought in mind. It’s perfectly Wright.