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The Wright Stuff

by Bill Donahue; Photo by Jeff Fusco

Villanova coach Jay Wright dishes on his jump shot, his love of the Jersey Shore, and the evolution of Wildcat basketball.

Although he’s most famously known as head coach of the men’s basketball team at Villanova University, Jay Wright is many things: a part-time South Jersey resident who grew up playing hoops and other sports on the blacktop of schoolyards and youth centers; a style icon who routinely finds his name on various best-dressed lists (a designation for which he can’t—and won’t—take full credit); and, interestingly, something of a prodigal son who came “this close” to never returning to the Philadelphia area after his coaching career took him and his family to other colleges in other towns throughout the United States.

South Jersey Magazine caught up with Wright during this uncharacteristically up and down year where his roster full of underclassmen doesn’t include one single senior. Nevertheless, the 50-year-old is confident about the team’s chances of moving toward March Madness and beyond. Here, he talks about his optimism for the future, the weight of expectations and how his career at the storied Main Line university almost never was.

South Jersey Magazine: Looking at your record dating back to when you first started coaching, every team has evolved from not the best team to a real powerhouse—a real winner. Obviously, it’s the talent, but it’s also systems, recruiting, etc. What’s the formula?
Jay Wright: I do think the formula is putting together good people who are very passionate and very committed, and that’s your staff, that’s players, that’s the alumni and the administrators you have around you. You either have to bring them in from the outside—players, coaches, administrators, staff—or you have to educate. … It’s the part of just educating people around you as to what you believe the culture is, and then making sure the culture of your program fits the university. That’s where I’ve been really lucky, especially here.

I learned everything here under Rollie Massimino as an assistant, so when I went to Hofstra, it was kind of transforming their basketball culture into the Villanova culture. Now we’re at an interesting time because I’ve never been anywhere else for 11 years, so we’re kind of now at a point of reinventing ourselves. You’ve come full circle. You’re here long enough so everything changes, so you have to reevaluate how you do things in a good way. My wife [Patty] and I are really enjoying this. When we came in here, we had to prove ourselves, and there was a lot of doubt. We’ve got to prove ourselves all over again here, but there’s less doubt. There’s still doubt, but there’s less doubt.

SJM: With your career taking you to UNLV, to Hofstra, was the plan always to come back here—to Villanova?
JW: The plan was never to come back here. If you look at Villanova’s history, Villanova’s had only five coaches or something like that in 100 years. You don’t leave here, and they don’t change coaches; they’re very loyal. When I was at Hofstra, we were very close to taking another position. The day that [former Villanova coach] Steve Lappas left here, we were two days away from taking the Rutgers job. … The Rutgers athletic director at the time was a Villanova alum who I knew from Villanova, so I had already met him a couple of times. It was a Friday afternoon and I was scheduled to meet with his president on Sunday to finalize it. It was unbelievable. … Then I get a call from Joe Jones, who was my assistant and who was assistant here at the time Steve Lappas coached here, and he said, “Steve’s taking the UMass job.” Then I called Steve, and he said, “You should take this job; it’s a good job.” I said, “You don’t have to tell me.” And they called me the next day and offered the job. It was that simple.

We loved Hofstra; we loved New York, and that kind of surprised us, Patty and me. Not that we didn’t think we would like it, but we didn’t know anything about Long Island, and we just loved it.

SJM: I understand you’re a big fan of the Jersey Shore. A little bird mentioned you have a summer house in South Jersey.
JW: That is heaven to me. I love it down there. We lived in Las Vegas, and you could go to Huntingdon Beach and La Jolla [in California] and everything. We lived in Long Island, and we had the chance to go out to the Hamptons all the time, but the South Jersey Shore is the place we love. When I coached in Las Vegas, we would come back just to go to the South Jersey Shore. When we lived out in Long Island, we would come back down here just to go to the Shore. One of my absolute favorite places in the world is Twisties On the Bay—a spot in Strathmere most people would not know about. It’s actually owned by a Villanova alum from Bucks County, and it’s a little dive shack on the bay. You would never even know it’s there, but they have great food, it’s right on the water, and you can watch the sunsets from there.

SJM: As the basketball coach, it’s really about the game, but there are a lot of things in addition to the fundamentals you’re imparting to them. How do you see your job in that regard?
JW: My favorite part of the job, believe it or not, is the relationship you have with [the student athletes] and helping them grow into men and go out into the world. I love that, and again that’s what makes the Villanova job so special. Our president and our board of trustees, they make it clear that that’s an important part of the job, not just winning and losing. They make it very clear that the development of these young men—as students, as members of their community, the way they represent Villanova University, the way they represent the student body—is very, very important. It’s equal to winning and losing. A lot of people say that, but they really live it here.

Mike Nardi played [guard] for us on our ‘06 Big East championship team. He’s playing professionally in Italy, and he hurt his ankle, so he comes back to see our trainer, our team doctor, and he’s staying at my house. I love that. [All-American guard and Villanova alum] Scottie Reynolds comes back here to work out, and he stays at my house or he’ll stay with other former players, but they all come back. Every one of them graduated on time—every single one, 100 percent—and even a couple of guys who transferred still stay in touch with us, still come back. This place, this community here at Villanova, is really special whether you’re an athlete or not, and you stay connected to it.

SJM: Has your approach to recruiting changed in terms of what you look for over the years?
JW: It’s kind of changing now. The one thing that’s consistent is that this is a very unique environment here. We don’t recruit by saying, “We want our point guard to be like this, we want our two-guard to be like this.” We can’t define guys’ positions, because if they don’t fit the culture here at Villanova, they’re not going to be comfortable. We find people that fit the culture here, and then we adjust our playing style. It’s more finding someone that’s going to want to get their degree. We take great pride in the fact that everybody graduates on time. Our professors do a lot of work with our guys, but you’ve got to have the guys that want to do that. We’ve missed out on some of the one-and-done guys, not because we don’t want them. They look at the culture here; there are no easy classes, and you’ve got to go to class. … We have to find a unique kind of guy.

SJM: You’ve been recognized many times over for being a sharp dresser. How do you feel about that distinction?
JW: I have a tailor, and his name is Gabriele D’Annunzio. He makes my suits, and I love them, but I probably spend less time on them than most people would believe. But I like it, though; I can appreciate nice clothes and nice shoes. … [D’Annunzio] does a real nice job. He makes them for me, I let him pick them and make them. He deserves the credit.

SJM: How’s your jump shot these days?
JW: Terrible. I’m at the point where I don’t play much basketball anymore. It’s more golf and working out, up until about a year or so ago. I played my son one on one—my son’s a freshman in college—last summer in Ocean City and beat him, like, 21 to 19, and I said, “I will never play you again.” I almost killed myself to win that game and I was so exhausted, and I know I could never do it again so I was going to retire on a victory. I don’t think I’ve played since. … I literally could have died after that game, and he was like, “Come on, let’s play again.” I told him, “I will never play you again—ever.”

SJM: You just turned 50. What happens next?
JW: I just love where I am. I feel like we’re starting over here; I really do. We’ve got a young staff, a young team, a new era in the Big East. I feel like we’ve got a fresh start. … We’re kind of reinventing ourselves here, and I’m having a great time with it. The other thing that’s really interesting right now, a lot of our older players are getting older and getting married and moving on to the next phase of their lives, and I’m really enjoying being part of all that.

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 12 (March, 2012).
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