Editor’s note: During the next five weeks, we will reveal the top 50 coaches in college basketball, as decided by our ESPN Forecast panel. Today we unveil No. 19: Villanova's Jay Wright. On Wednesday, we release No. 18.
There are people who are exactly who you think they are.
And then there is Jay Wright.
He is exactly what you don’t think he is.
The expensive suits with the perfectly matched pocket squares imply a man who dresses to impress, who cares deeply about how he is viewed and thought of.
The truth about Jay Wright? He doesn’t give a fig about any of that.
There are about 15 guys he’d like to impress, and they all gather at the Davis Center on the Villanova campus for practice each season.
Outside of that, he just doesn’t care that much.
“The perception is he’s the handsome guy that wears the $5,000 suits,’’ said Patrick Chambers, the coach at Penn State who spent five years as Wright’s assistant coach at Villanova. “But so many people are out there trying to impress other coaches with how smart they are and what they do. Jay isn’t into any of that. He’s so comfortable in his own skin.’’
Some of that comes with time. Wright has been at this head-coaching gig now for 19 years, the last 12 at Villanova. He knows the game, as in basketball, and he knows The Game, as in the business of basketball.
But so much of his talent is innate. In his first year at Villanova, he attracted a highly skilled recruiting class and most everyone expected immediate results. Immediate instead took a backseat to two painful years in the NIT. Yet when everyone -- including those who now count themselves as die-hard, lifelong fans -- wanted Wright out for lack of production, he didn’t blink.
I covered the Wildcats then for the Philadelphia Daily News. We went out to breakfast to start the season and I mentioned that he was on the hot seat.
“I deserve to be,’’ with a chuckle.
That year Villanova went to the Sweet 16.
“He has such confidence in what he does,’’ Chambers said. “A lot of people will panic and say maybe it’s time to try something different. That’s not Jay. He stays true to himself and what he believes in.’’
Quietly, Wright’s sense of purpose has led to a pretty nice resume. In 19 years as a head coach at Hofstra and Villanova, he’s reached 10 NCAA tournaments; at Nova he’s eight for 12, including the 2009 Final Four.
With Wright at the helm, Villanova has managed to stay relevant despite a Catholic-school budget amid the world of football-greased pockets. The university’s name always will be synonymous with an improbable title run in 1985, but thanks to Wright, Villanova is more than a one-trick pony etched in the history books.
“I don’t think he gets enough credit as an X-and-O coach,’’ Chambers said. “He’s a genius because he tailors everything to the team he has. When he had Randy Foye and all those guys, they played four guards and won. When he had Dante Cunningham, he made him the focal point and won, but nobody talks about that.’’
Probably because Wright doesn’t talk about it.
You’d have an easier time convincing him to wear off-the-rack Target than getting him to talk about himself (there's a reason I called Chambers for this blog).
His job now is getting harder, not easier. Villanova and its Catholic-school brethren did the wise and prudent thing by joining forces to form the new Big East, but with an autonomy vote coming down the pike and threats of a Division IV, it’s hard to know what will happen next.
Consequently, Wright’s name keeps surfacing on coaching vacancy rumor lists -- most notably, and strangely, at Missouri. No doubt there are places where he could make more money and enjoy more notoriety, but five years ago he said no thanks to Kentucky. The idea of the fish bowl of that job didn’t interest him then, nor does the lure of such a spotlight attract him now.
“I love Nova,’’ Wright said via text to squash the Missouri rumors. “I’m not going anywhere.’’
Which, of course, is the exact opposite of what you might think he’d say.