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All the Wright moves pay off at Villanova

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Associated Press
April 1, 2009
— With his graying hair coifed to perfection, his tasteful designer suits worn without a wrinkle and shoes more polished than his recruits, Jay Wright always looked like he could pose for a GQ layout as easily as a team photo.

For a guy who knows his labels, here’s one Villanova’s 47-year-old dapper dandy might enjoy more than the Hugo Boss name stitched inside his jacket: Final Four coach.


At a Final Four that boasts national championship winners Roy Williams, Tom Izzo and Jim Calhoun, Wright’s career resume could seem as out of place as a circus clown on a best-dressed list, but the man who’s always dressed for success has found it in convincing fashion the past five years at Villanova.


When Wright shakes hands with North Carolina’s Williams before Saturday night’s national semifinal game, he’ll be only the fourth coach in Villanova history to lead the Wildcats to the Final Four and first since the rotund and rumpled Rollie Massimino in 1985.


Look beyond the looks—Wright is married to a former Villanova cheerleader, after all—and it’s easy to see why he’s become such a hit with fans from the ritzy suburban Philadelphia crowd to his own local peers who now routinely take an “L” when the Wildcats show up for their date on the schedule.


Five straight NCAA tournament appearances, the second-longest streak in team history. Two regional finals in four years. Winners of 18 of their last 19 city series games. A 178-90 record in eight years at the Big East school. And now this, Villanova’s first Final Four since the 1985 national title team.


Wright brings much more than a fashion statement to the sidelines.


“He’s embraced Philadelphia and that’s made it easy for people to embrace him,” Saint Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli said. “I think coaching involves how you deal with your present team, how you deal with your future team and the public relations part of it. I don’t think you can get higher marks in any those areas than Jay gets.”


Wright has made it clear that Villanova is the only program he wants to coach. Wright last week immediately shot down any speculation he’d be interested in making the move to Kentucky because, well, he’s just a Philly guy at heart. He’s a Churchville native, was a teenager when Martelli coached him at summer camp, played at Bucknell, worked for the Philadelphia Stars of the USFL and spent five years as a Villanova assistant under Massimino.


When Massimino wore out his welcome at Villanova and left for UNLV, he wanted his top protege with him. Wright didn’t want to leave, but his allegiance to Daddy Mass was the deciding factor instead of staying on as an assistant under Steve Lappas. Former Villanova president Rev. Edmund J. Dobbin even made a personal plea for Wright to stay on the Main Line.


Wright called moving to the desert the greatest, smartest career move he ever made. He passed on the Northern Arizona job in 1994 (Ben Howland got that one) and accepted the head coaching job at Hofstra.


“The Hofstra job wasn’t a great job, but I wanted to get back east,” Wright said. “I would have never known that I was an East Coast guy. We went out there, we loved it, but after a couple of years it was, whew, we’ve got to get back.”


He led Hofstra to two NCAA tournaments in his final two seasons and was within hours of accepting the Rutgers job in 2001 when Dobbin swooped in again with an offer to come home. Wright was set to meet Rutgers’ president on a Sunday, only for Dobbin to call on a Saturday and tell Wright the Villanova job was waiting.


“First thing he says was, ’You’re not going to turn me down again, are you?”’ Wright said. “I said, ’Are you offering me the job?’ He said, ’Yes.’ I said, ‘I’m taking it.”’


Hired in 2001 to replace the unpopular Lappas, Wright only managed to take the Wildcats to the NIT in each of his first three seasons. Parts of two seasons came unhinged because of a phone-card scandal that forced the Wildcats to field a seven-man team and fall well short of March Madness, including a 15-16 mark in 2002-03.


Wright stuck with his plan of mining the fertile Northeast for talent, and soon landed gems like Randy Foye, Kyle Lowry, Curtis Sumpter and Jason Fraser.


Villanova ended its five-year break from the NCAA tournament in 2005 and has reached the second weekend in four of the last five years.


“Jay’s kind of taken it to another level,” Martelli said.


Martelli meant Wright’s designer duds as much as he was talking about Villanova’s rebirth as an elite program.


Wright’s dapper sense of style goes back to his high school years when he developed an appreciation for looking cool and dressing in a tasteful manner.


“I never wanted to be wild,” Wright said.


He prefers simple blue, gray or black suits. As he’s gotten older, Wright tells his personal tailor he’d rather wear three-button instead of four-button suits. And when Hugo Boss sends a snazzy suit more appropriate for a night on the town instead of a night against Georgetown, Wright saves it for a special occasion.


His former players know that it’s more than the clothes that make the man in college basketball.


“It’s not all about the suits,” said Foye, now with the Timberwolves. “He’d rather wear the same jumpsuit every day in practice than wear a suit every day. If coaches didn’t have to dress up and wears suits on the sideline, he wouldn’t do it.


“He’s street. He’s tough and he’ll let you have it.”


Wright and the Wildcats have earned plenty of style points for the way they bullied their way through the rugged Big East, then won their first four tournament games by comfortable margins. The Wildcats will finish the season without a two-game losing streak, an amazing feat playing in a conference that placed a record five teams in the Sweet 16.


He became the kind of coach that would get Larry Brown to visit almost every practice for a year and learn from Wright almost as much as the nomad would teach. Wright brought 1985 title team star Ed Pinckney back into the fold as an assistant for four years, and now has former ’Nova standout and NBA veteran Doug West at his side. Both moves were part of his commitment to the “Villanova Family,” a trove of former players and coaches that in many ways are as much a part of this year’s team as Scottie Reynolds and Dante Cunningham.


Only Villanova family members are allowed on the floor to watch practice at their sparkling 2-year-old facility.


“I just want our guys to understand how important Villanova basketball is to all the guys, even after they play,” Wright said. “Any time the ex-players are around, we’d like them to talk to the team.”


When it was time to step up the ladder and cut down the nets after the thrilling win against Pittsburgh, Wright offered Massimino a snip of the souvenir. Massimino has been a tournament regular behind Villanova’s bench and Jack Kraft, coach of the 1971 national runner-up team, also has been spotted in the crowd. Both will have prime seats Saturday in Detroit.


“It’s really cool,” Wright said. “I look up to those guys.”


Now, he’s in their class and has earned his place as one of the greatest coaches in Big 5 history. Winning the regional final cemented his spot as a Villanova great. All that’s left is the big one.


“I really thought I wasn’t going to be able to talk to the team in the locker room because I’m an emotional guy, and I was fine,” Wright said. “I was numb. It was amazing. I’m starting to get emotional now and it’s amazing.”



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