Jay Wright created the best culture in basketball, and the game still needs him

In 2000, I remember calling Delaware head coach Mike Brey and asking him what maybe I was missing in his league, America East. Brey said: “You have to check out Hofstra. They have a few pros and their coach is the real deal.” Brey was talking about Speedy Claxton and Norman Richardson, and their young coach, Jay Wright. I started watching Hofstra and was drawn to Wright.

The following season, after Claxton graduated, Hofstra entered the NCAA Tournament and played at UCLA in Greensboro, North Carolina. I took a busman vacation and went to see Wright up close, from the court. UCLA beat Wright’s Hofstra team, and I looked for Wright after the game, the first time we met and really talked. I was immediately impressed. He was, indeed, the “real deal”. Once you saw it up close, you couldn’t miss it.

In his early days at Villanova, sledding was tough to take the Wildcat program to the next level, and Wright was optimistic and humbled by the challenge. Villanova went to the NIT in Wright’s first three seasons. Following the 2004 season, Wright headlined a Villanova alumni event in Charlotte, North Carolina. My friend Mike Gminski and I went to the event to support Jay and then took him to dinner. Over an Italian meal at Primo, Wright reflected on the challenge of the job and if he could do it. Almost in disbelief, Gminski and I told him that not only could he do it, but that he would coach Villanova to multiple Final Fours during his time there. We were both believers.

Of course, that hardly made us Nostradamus. Jay Wright represented the best the coaching profession had to offer. He was incredibly gifted and competitive, but he had time for everyone. He projected an everyday Joe into the world, but had extraordinary ability in all the areas required of greats. He was humble, but also knew how good he was and how good his program was. He found the best balance of all the coaches in the game. Nothing seemed to bother Jay Wright. He didn’t even seem to be sweating.

After reaching his first Final Four in 2009, Wright was in for the best of the best when it came to recruiting. Villanova was attracting some of the top-rated rookies, but the adjustments weren’t perfect for his path at times. During a particularly difficult season in 2012, Bill Raftery and I were walking by the Villanova team meal in South Bend when Wright waved us in after the team had left the room. Wright and his team were planning scenarios of missing the Big East tournament or playing on day one, which was unthinkable for us. Still, Wright knew. He told us he was making changes in recruiting and that his next group was going to have the grit and tenacity that Villanova had unwittingly let slip. From then on, the Wildcat program would have a different focus and attitude, and we would see results over time. Boy, was he right.

Over the next few years, Jay Wright built the best culture in all of basketball at Villanova. It wasn’t just the NCAA titles in 2016 and 2018, it was the culture results. At Villanova, the “attitude” was the culture. It was a “we first” value system, and every player not only bought into it, but lived it. The older guys taught and mentored the younger ones and raised them the Villanova way. There were programs for parents, and it was a family atmosphere on and off the field. They went into battle and fought like a biker gang on the ground, but were scouts off the ground and did absolutely everything the right way. There was a pride in the program that didn’t need to be talked about or sold to anyone. You could see it, and you could feel it. It wasn’t a speech, it was real.

Whether it was USA Basketball or Villanova, Wright was the superstar with the common touch. Name me one person who had a negative word to say about Jay Wright, and I’ll name you one person who was just wrong and didn’t know Wright or just didn’t understand him. Jay Wright is what a true competitor looks like. He fights like hell to win, but always humbly gives credit where credit is due, to his team and his opponent. Still. He is demanding of his players and staff but takes care of them on every level imaginable. He is what a coach is supposed to be, but few can operate at his level. I couldn’t have more respect or admiration for a coach or a person than I have for Jay Wright, and I promise you I’m not the only one. Bill Raftery and I used to keep a list of coaches we’d like to have a drink with after a loss, which was our list of best guys in the game. Jay Wright has always topped the list. Everytime.

Wright holds a very special place for me, and I am Of course he ranks up there with his induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Wright was the very first guest on “94 Feet.” It was before Villanova played Virginia, and I pitched the concept to Wright, and he immediately said yes. On our first walk, I asked him, “What was your favorite TV show when you were a kid?” Wright laughed and said, “Wow, that’s a good question.” He then repeated the question and pondered it until we reached the opposite free-throw line. “God, Jay, you crossed out everything on one question?!” He doubled over laughing, and we had to do it again, the only time we did multiple takes of a 94-foot segment due to a mistake. We played the feature and the exit while it aired, and it still makes me smile to think about it. Jay Wright is one of the few who can laugh so hard at such a thing, especially before a game.

Wright also has tremendous empathy. When a coach was out of work, you could find him at a Villanova practice, watching Wright work, and Jay always wanted to know that coach’s thoughts. Always accommodating and always thinking of others. Wright has uncommon good sense and has never lost the sensibility of a young coach who scratches and pushes his way through, almost amazed and grateful to have the opportunities many of us may take for granted.

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Jay Wright expresses his gratitude for being elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame.

At 60, Wright looks too young, too dynamic and too vital to the fabric of the game to retire. This one caught me off guard. I knew it was coming with Mike Krzyzewski because he was 75 and had been at Duke for 42 years. It felt natural and orderly. Jay Wright’s retirement is a blow to the game and to those who love him. I expected Wright to be the game’s standard bearer for the next decade, and when I heard the rumblings early Wednesday, I was floored. This simply cannot be true. But he is.

On some level, I hope Wright is just happy with the decision to move forward with the next phase of his life. Nobody deserves it anymore. On a selfish level, I hope Wright isn’t done with the game, whatever ability he might choose in the future. Losing someone of the quality and caliber of Jay Wright leaves a very real void, at Villanova and in the basketball landscape. It shakes you, in a very real sense. He’s so important to the game. We all owe Jay Wright a debt of gratitude for what he’s done in the game, for the game, and for all of us. For me, personally, Wright has been a wonderful friend, a sounding board, and an example of how a person should behave in all situations.

With Wright’s retirement from Villanova, we are witnessing the end of one of the finest careers and one of the best coaching jobs of all time. It’s shocking because we all love him, because Jay Wright is, always was, and always will be the “real deal.”

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