“You wonder, does Jay Wright ever have a bad day?” Ryan says. “Has anything ever gone wrong for him? Did a girl ever break up with him? Did he ever have a pimple?”
MORE THAN ANY other big-time sport, college basketball is about the coaches. The athletes have the shining moments, but in the end, they’re playing cards in a deck, dealt anew each season. The dogs at the table are coaches. And as much as every coach says it’s not about him, a college basketball program really is about the coach’s way, the approach he instills into his players year after year, not just the X’s and O’s but all the overworked clichés like attitude and responsibility on and off the court.
At the big coaching table are certain archetypes. There’s the legendary ego with the Mad Men wardrobe and perhaps a tarnished reputation (think Pitino, John Calipari). There’s the Lou Grant model, who burns pure heart as his fuel. We collect them here in Philadelphia: Phil Martelli at St. Joe’s, Fran Dunphy at Temple, ex-Villanova coach Rollie Massimino. In between are other familiar types: The crank with the soft spot — John Chaney. The loose cannon — Bobby Knight.
Jay Wright doesn’t quite fit any mold. He’s got those Rat Pack looks, yeah, but behind the threads and the manicured eyebrows is a chatty Philly guy who doesn’t have a parking space on the Villanova campus and thinks that makes him as much of a role model as his winning percentage. Now in his ninth season as Villanova’s head coach, Wright has inflicted his look-good-but-work-for-it approach upon his program. You might say the secret of Jay Wright’s success is that he doesn’t act like he’s pretty.
VILLANOVA CAMPUS, OCTOBER. Searchlights cut through a drizzly night sky on Lancaster Avenue outside the Pavilion, Villanova University’s basketball arena. Inside, 5,000 students are assembled for Hoops Mania, a pep rally to kick off the 2009-’10 season and celebrate last spring’s Final Four appearance. It’s a disco-ball-and-Black-Eyed-Peas-booming kind of night. A limousine pulls into the gym and parks on a red carpet. The third man out is Wright, and the students chant: “Jay Wright, Jay Wright!” He’s wearing a striped blue oxford shirt, untucked, over jeans, with black suede boots. A procession of his assistant coaches comes next; almost to a man, they’re also wearing untucked dress shirts over jeans.
Wright stands beneath a basket as his team’s returning players from last -season — Scottie Reynolds, Corey Stokes, Corey -Fisher — strut the length of the court to receive victory rings. Wright hands each player a black felt box, then leans in to say something to him. I assume he’s telling his guys how proud he is. Then I read his lips. He’s saying: “Hold it up for the crowd.” Each player shoots his arm up like the Statue of Liberty, and ’Nova Nation erupts.