The single-syllable, dead-solid-pure utterance that capped Jay Wright’s arrival at the summit of college basketball also serves as his departure line. Sudden, breathtaking, startling.
That was the word Wright mouthed on the sideline, with preternatural calm, when Kris Jenkins hit arguably the most dramatic shot in men’s NCAA tournament history to deliver Villanova the 2016 national championship. Having won another title since then and taken his fourth ‘Nova team to the Final Four this month, his abrupt exit from the stage arrives with a similar thunderclap. Nobody saw this coming.
Word escaped Wednesday that the Villanova coach will retire, at age 60, at the top of his game, seemingly at the peak of his powers. He’s hardly the first to go out with what appeared to be 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 an odd time when there are more star players—like Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe—hanging around the college game than college coaches.
Quite frankly, college basketball needs more leaders with Wright’s class, decorum, coaching prowess and gravitas. Roy Williams, Mike Krzyzewski and Wright stepping down within 13 months’ time 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 tumultuous time to be a coach in a college revenue sport; whether that’s a connective tissue between these three massive departures is open to conjecture.
Let’s be real about the demands of the job as it currently exists, and Wright’s current life station. He’s made plenty of money to live securely ever after. His children of him are all grown. He loves his offseason time on the Jersey Shore. Most importantly, he’s never been in it for the accolades or the hosannas or the all-time leaderboard.
If Wright were coaching to stoke his own ego, he would have left Villanova for some of the many jobs that were offered. The NBA called, Kentucky called, many others with more money and more cache than Villanova called. He’s turned everyone down for 15 years or more, becoming arguably the greatest current coach in the game.
He was a brilliant leader in his happy place, and he 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 from within. “Culture” is a vague sports term that is more easily recognized than defined, but you can make the argument that Wright’s Villanova culture over the past decade-plus surpasses anything else in the sport.
Since 2009, ‘Nova went to four Final Fours and won two national championships, with a single losing season in that time. The Wildcats averaged 26.6 wins, just 8.1 losses. They earned a No. 1 or 2 NCAA tournament seed seven times in 13 seasons, a rock of consistency in an increasingly transitory sport.
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Along the way, Wright developed a unique style of play. Post-up guards and five three-point shooters—they basically turned the old offensive tenets upside down. Wright’s ‘Nova teams played deliberately but passed willingly, nobody concerned about where the next basket was coming from as long as it was someone on their team.
It was beautiful, but it wasn’t easy. Especially not easy to recruit. He’s Wright and his staff had to work hard to find just the right players, then develop them to be just the right teammates. There was no rolling the balls out at Villanova and letting overwhelming talent take over.
Perhaps that took a toll on the architect. Wright always looked suave on the sidelines, but he sweated every detail—as many great coaches do. By this past NCAA tournament, I have started to look at his age. It had been a grind of a year.
Wright was an assistant coach on the USA Olympic team, an experience that drained everyone even more than the customary international obligation. The experience in Japan was both a privilege and a massive chore, and diving into a college basketball season upon return from that would be a bracing challenge. Wright did it, and then led yet another great team to yet another 30-win season and a Big East tournament title.
Villanova had the earmarks of a potential national title winner until the final minute of its regional final game against Houston, when star player Justin Moore tore his Achilles tendon. Without him, a thin and undersized team was doomed against eventual champion Kansas in the semifinals. The Wildcats were laudable losers, but Wright looked older and more worn leaving the Superdome floor in New Orleans than he ever had.
Following the recent trend where giant coaches have departed, Wright will hand off the job to a former assistant. Kyle Neptune, 16–16 in a single season at Fordham, will make the quantum leap up to the best job in the Big East. How it works out is anyone’s guess.
Hubert Davis turned out to be a smashing successor to Williams and North Carolina, and Jon Scheyer is recruiting like an absolute tornado as the successor to Krzyzewski at Duke. Neptune might well be able to sustain the culture Wright built, but those answers are years away.
As for Wright himself? He could be a sensational TV analyst, possessing a storyteller’s charm and a great coach’s insight. Or perhaps he chills for a season, rekindles the fire and finally takes a spin on a new ride—NBA or NCAA, he’d be in demand.
But he also could be done. Wright has never hungered for the spotlight as much as the purity of the competition—and if there are no more lands left to conquer competitively, it could simply be time to walk away and enjoy the rest of life.
The ability to retire 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 Jay Wright Coverage:
• College Hoops World Reacts to Jay Wright Retirement
• Report: Wright Looking Into Broadcasting Career
• Again, With Attitude: Inside Villanova’s 2018 Title