The one-syllable utterance, solid and pure, that capped Jay Wright’s rise to the top of college basketball also serves as his starting line. Sudden, breathtaking, surprising.
That was the word Wright said on the sideline, with unearthly calm, as Kris Jenkins landed the most dramatic kick in NCAA men’s tournament history to hand Villanova the 2016 national championship. Having won another title since then and taken his fourth ‘New team to the Final Four this month, their abrupt exit from the stage arrives with similar thunder. Nobody saw it coming.
Word leaked out on Wednesday that the Villanova coach will retire, aged 60, at the top of his game, apparently at the height of his powers. He’s not the first to come out with what seemed like a long runway of continued success ahead of him — John Wooden, Al McGuire, etc. – but this comes at a vulnerable time for the sport.
It’s a strange time when there are more famous players — like Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe — hanging around the college game than there are college coaches.
Frankly, college basketball needs more leaders with Wright’s class, decorum, coaching prowess and seriousness. Roy Williams, Mike Krzyzewski and Wright stepping down within 13 months is a massive brain drain and a leadership vacuum in the sport. There are 10 national championships and 25 Final Fours between three men. There has never been a more tumultuous time to be a coach in a college sport; whether this is connective tissue between these three massive departures is open to conjecture.
Let’s get real about the demands of the job as it currently exists, and Wright’s current station in life. He earned a lot of money to live in safety forever. His children are all grown up. He loves his offseason time on Jersey Shore. Most importantly, he was never in it for the accolades or the hosannas or the all-time leaderboard.
If Wright had been training to feed his own ego, he would have left Villanova for some of the many jobs that were offered. The NBA paid, Kentucky paid, many others with more money and more cache than Villanova paid. He turned everyone down for 15 years or so, becoming arguably the greatest current coach in the game.
He was a brilliant leader in his happy place and was smart enough to recognize it. Villanova is a basketball school with a strong tradition, but not all the money and fame available elsewhere. He never tried to climb the ladder beyond where he was.
Instead, he built it from within. “Culture” is a vague sporting term that is more easily recognized than defined, but you could argue that Wright’s Villanova culture over the past decade trumps anything else in sport.
Since 2009, ‘Nova has gone to four Final Fours and won two national championships, with a single losing season in that period. The Wildcats averaged 26.6 wins, just 8.1 losses. They’ve won NCAA tournament number 1 or 2 seven times in 13 seasons, a rock of consistency in an increasingly transitional sport.
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Along the way, Wright developed a unique style of play. Post-up guards and five three-pointers – they basically turned the old offensive principles upside down. Wright’ Nova’s teams played deliberately but passed willingly, no one worrying about the next basket as long as it was someone on their team.
It was beautiful, but it wasn’t easy. Especially not easy to recruit. Wright and his team had to work hard to find the right players and develop them to be the right teammates. There was no way to throw the balls at Villanova and let an overwhelming talent take over.
Perhaps this affected the architect. Wright always seemed smooth behind the scenes, but he took care of every detail – as many great coaches do. By this latest NCAA tournament, he’s started to look his age. It was a yearlong routine.
Wright was assistant coach for the US Olympic team, an experience that exhausted everyone even more than their usual international obligation. The experience in Japan was both a privilege and an enormous task, and diving into a college basketball season after that would be an exhilarating challenge. Wright did that and then led another great team to another 30-win season and a Big East tournament title.
Villanova had the marks of a potential national title winner until the final minute of his final regional game against Houston, when star Justin Moore tore his Achilles tendon. Without him, a lean, undersized team was doomed against eventual champion Kansas in the semifinals. The Wildcats were commendable losers, but Wright looked older and more worn out leaving the Superdome floor in New Orleans than ever before.
Following the recent trend of giant coaches leaving, Wright will hand the job to a former assistant. Kyle Neptune, 16-16 in a single season at Fordham, will take the quantum leap to the best job in the Big East. How this works is anyone’s guess.
Hubert Davis turned out to be a crushing successor to Williams and North Carolina, and Jon Scheyer is recruiting like an absolute tornado as Krzyzewski’s successor at Duke. Neptune may well be able to sustain the culture that Wright built, but those answers are years away.
As for Wright himself? He could be a sensational TV analyst, possessing the charm of a storyteller and the vision of a great coach. Or maybe he relaxes for a season, reignites the fire, and finally takes a spin on a new ride – NBA or NCAA, he would be in demand.
But it could also be done. Wright has never craved the spotlight as much as the purity of competition – and if there’s no more land to conquer competitively, it may simply be time to walk away and enjoy the rest of your life.
The possibility of retiring at age 60, hopefully in good health, is a blessing. It’s the sport Jay Wright leaves behind that we need to worry about.
More coverage from Jay Wright:
• College Hoops World reacts to Jay Wright’s retirement
• Report: Wright looking at a broadcasting career
• Once again, with attitude: inside Villanova’s 2018 title