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Cooney: Wright's 'Nova journey 'meant to be'

04/20/2022, 10:15pm EDT
By Kevin Cooney

Kevin Cooney (@KevinCooney)

This is where it was meant to happen.

Back on that spring day in 2001 when Villanova athletic director Vince Nicastro and the Rev. Edmund Dobbins swooped into Jay Wright’s world right before the Hofstra head coach had agreed to become the head basketball coach at Rutgers, there was a belief that this is where the Council Rock graduate and former Wildcats assistant belonged.

Jay Wright

Jay Wright (above) is retiring after 21 seasons at the helm for the Wildcats. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)

And yet, nobody could have possibly seen where this all would have headed. After all, the Villanova of 2001 – playing in a charmless building, in a brutally tough conference without football and 13 years after its last real taste of NCAA Tournament success - could not have been dreamed of in the same way that we look at the Wildcats now.

And that’s all because of Wright, whose 21 years at the helm officially ended on Wednesday night with a stunning retirement at the age of 60. 

Two NCAA Titles. Four Final Fours. A .725 win percentage on the Main Line. Eight regular season Big East titles. Five conference tournament titles. A Hall of Fame induction. And perhaps the most remarkable thing of all: making Villanova basketball likable to the masses for a city that didn’t always get all warm and fuzzy towards the program on the Main Line. (And yes, it isn’t a universal love among Temple and St. Joe’s fans, but the venom has certainly been muted with respect.)

So the logical question is: why now? Why at the apex of his power - with the mantle of being the defining coach of the sport likely to be passed down from Mike Krzyzewski to him - would Wright step aside?

That will be the main focus of speculation, but friends who know him doubt that he will go to an NBA team or another college program. “That’s not his style,” one said. Wright is set to transition to a new role as special assistant to the president, according to the university’s press release, a role in which Wright “will be involved in fundraising, advising, education and more.”

After Friday morning’s press conference, we should know more. But we’ve also just come through an extremely difficult two-plus year stretch for the sport and Wright himself. The COVID restrictions sapped a lot out of every coach. Add in his Olympic experience in Tokyo last fall and it is another layer of fatigue of the sport. Plus, the landscape of college basketball coaching itself transformed with NILs and transfer portals entering the lexicon. Many college coaches blanch at the thought of those topics, but they are the new reality for those who want to stay in the game.

Jay Wright

Wright (left) transformed the Villanova men's basketball program into a national powerhouse in his tie on the Main Line. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)

But the thing is, Wright didn’t have to stay in the game. He’s made more than enough money to retire at 60. He can make a ton more doing analysis on CBS, Turner, Fox or ESPN next year as a lead analyst. (Would it stun you if Wright is sitting next to Jim Nantz at the Final Four in Houston next year? Not me.) If that stuff did bother him- and it is purely speculation on my part that it could have- then walking away now is probably the absolute right move.

After all, what else does he have to prove? Would the statue on Lancaster Avenue feature an extra sharp suit with a third National Title trophy? Does it really matter if he gets to a fifth Final Four or wins the Big East again? 

Wright always talked about the fact that he had it better than anyone else in college basketball. He coached at a school he loved, in a region he grew up in, for people who respected him. And he also did it in a market that didn’t hang on every move that he made – seeming to joke about enjoying the lack of attention that the region paid to the Wildcats until the Eagles’ season was over. 

If you want proof of how far things have come under Wright, go to where the acres of parking lots were on the opposite sides of Lancaster Avenue. Now, it is sparking development. The Pavilion went from woe-be-gone to one of the nicer small gyms in the region. The Davis Center is among the best practice facilities you will ever find. 

It all sprung up in the 21 years since Wright found the place that he belonged. And he, Villanova and Philadelphia basketball should be thankful every day for the way it worked out.

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