PHILADELPHIA — Looking back, you could see it in Jay Wright’s smiling, hazel eyes.
Wright always hated to speak negatively but his eyes always betrayed him. Angled. Honest. True.
So, over the past few years, as his tailored shirts and suits and his perfect hair told a story of status quo, of endless contentedness to be Villanova’s greatest basketball coach, his eyes began to tell truths about his professional life that he didn’t have to speak.
Truths about how the college basketball game had changed. How it had become less about teaching proper pick-and-pop techniques, less about posting his point guards on the blocks, less about frenetic help defenses whose clockwork rotations made five decent athletes elite team defenders against the best the NBA would have to offer in that June’s draft.
More about one-and-dones. More about name, image, and likeness (NIL) negotiations. More about transfer portals, and which player would enter the draft, and when. When those topics arose, Wright’s eyes grew narrow, and squinty, and hard.
When he speaks about why he retired, as reports Wednesday indicated he will do, he surely will say that he needs more time with his family, and there might be other reasons. Wright admitted at the Final Four last month that, “You think about it after each year.”
And each year, things get less soulful. Less pure. Some of the joy of coaching has left Wright’s game. You can see it in his eyes.
Speak with him about defensive theory, pace, and transition defense, his eyes looked like George Clooney’s.
Speak with him about the paradoxical business of amateur sports, his eyes looked like George Kennedy’s.
And then there was the nostalgia. The emotion. The angst.
As he stood on the court next to Jermaine Samuels after beating Houston in the Elite Eight to earn his fourth Final Four berth and his third in the last seven years, Wright couldn’t make it through the interviews.
“I get emotional when talking about these guys,” Wright said, tousling Samuels’ hair and walking off the screen.
He probably knew, right then and there, that he might be done. A little more than a week later, after a loss in the Final Four, he was. He reportedly has hand-picked his successor, Fordham coach and longtime Wright assistant Kyle Neptune.
At 60, he’s done as well as any coach of his generation.
“No one in the country better represented his school,” texted surprised Michigan assistant Phil Martelli, Wright’s former Big Five foe at St. Joseph’s.
A Churchville, Pa., native, Wright played at Bucknell, assisted at Rochester, Drexel, Villanova, and UNLV, and led Hofstra to relevance before landing at Villanova in 2001. He won 642 games and was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame in 2021, having won the Naismith College Coach of the Year in 2006 and 2016.
His finest hours came in 2016 and 2018, when his point guards captured the hearts of the nation. Ryan Arcidiacono, then Jalen Brunson, pushed the best-coached teams in the country to national championships.
How well did those teams function? Wildcats guard Donte DiVincenzo was named the 2018 Most Outstanding Player of the 2018 Final Four. DiVincenzo was Wright’s sixth man.
He’s got a face and a smile and a wardrobe made for a television studio, and there’s little chance he doesn’t wind up breaking down Kansas’ defense during next year’s NCAA Tournament, only this time he’ll use a telestrator, not the grease board he used on the sideline of the title game against the Jayhawks earlier this month.
As for any speculation concerning the NBA and its riches, consider them moot. Wright has been college’s most sought-after coach since 2016, but he’s always shrank from that spotlight. He has said, repeatedly, he has no interest in that grind. He has meant that he has no taste for that culture.
Coaching, to Wright, is about getting players to sacrifice personal accolades for greater good. It is about the whole being so much more than the sum of its parts. How else could ‘Nova point guard Collin Gillespie win Big East Player of the Year — twice?
That sort of coach can appreciate the NBA for its magnificence but he could never compromise his process and procedures. Between the load management and the MVP campaigning and the weekly social media embarrassments and the fan/player altercations, Wright wouldn’t last a week in today’s impure NBA.