Then there’s an intra-squad scrimmage, to give fans a first glimpse of promising freshmen like Maalik Wayns, from Philly’s Roman Catholic High, and Mouphtaou Yarou, a forward from the Republic of Benin. Wright sits up on a platform, describing the game for fans over the arena’s PA system.
“Tuck the shirt in, Mouph,” he says on the mike, and Yarou, while playing on the court, tucks in his jersey. The job of big-time college basketball coach is part rock star, part CEO, part surrogate mom. Tonight, Jay Wright is all three.
LET’S GET THIS out of the way. A girl once did break up with Jay Wright. He was a sophomore in college, dating a senior, and she dumped him. Does that even count?
Wright grew up in Churchville, Bucks County, the oldest of Jerold and Judith Wright’s two boys and two girls. Circumstances repeatedly conspired to turn him into Coach Wright, though he didn’t know it. “I was definitely the classic oldest,” he says. “My brothers and sisters used to joke about ‘Mom’s favorite,’ ‘The Golden Child,’ and all that stuff. Every time I went through something, it was the first time for my parents and me. I think that’s where I got the confidence to try anything.” Still, his parents were “humble people from Northeast Philly,” Wright says. “They weren’t overly impressed with people who were really popular. My mom would talk a lot, to anybody, at length, about anything. It used to drive us crazy.” Her Philly-style social ease rubbed off.
At Council Rock, in Newtown, Wright led the basketball team in assists and on-court play changes. His coach, Mike Holland, would design an in-bounds play during a -timeout, then Wright would get his teammates together and change the play to something he thought would work better.
As if checking off items on a basketball coach to-do list, Wright was also voted Best Dressed by his high-school peers. “Coach required us to have a shirt and tie when we went to games,” remembers Buff Radick, Wright’s teammate, now an assistant principal at Council Rock South. “Jay would come walking in with a three-piece suit.” Of course, not every day was game day. Says Radick: “In 1979, he thought he was John Travolta from Grease.”
At Bucknell, Wright was team MVP in his junior year but rode the bench unhappily much of his senior season. Wright has a way of looking at past events and figuring out, in retrospect, what they proved. “It gave me a great perspective about how important everybody is on the team, and every kid’s feelings,” he says.
After college in 1983, he ended up in the marketing department for the Philadelphia Stars of the now-defunct USFL. It’s where he met his wife, Patty Reilly, a former Villanova cheerleader. One day the team was doing a promotion in 30th Street Station, and the mascot didn’t show up. Wright had brought the outfit with him from the marketing department. So he put it on. “It was a big fuzzy star,” he says.