VILLANOVA CAMPUS, LATE October. A dozen players are stretching on the gym floor, about two weeks before ’Nova’s opening game. Preseason polls have Villanova anywhere from number four to number eight in the country, but there are issues. This team features six new guys, five of them freshmen and one, Taylor King, a slick-shooting transfer from Duke. (Yes, now basketball players transfer from Duke to Villanova.)
Wright has the team running through his signature offense, which puts four guards around the perimeter of the three-point arc and one big man near the basket, then has players swap positions in a dizzying fire drill of sneaker squeaks.
“Cheek-o!” he yells to Dominic Cheek, a freshman guard from Jersey City. “Do you think it would be better if you step up to the slot and shorten the pass?”
“Think shot!” he says to Wayns. “If you’re thinking pass and you’re open, by the time you take the shot, you’re not going to be open anymore.”
This workout is easygoing. When the season gets serious, Wright gets intense.
“He’s two totally different people on and off the court. Jekyll and Hyde,” says Speedy Claxton, a former 76er who starred for Wright at Hofstra, Wright’s first head-coaching job. “He gets angry, curses, all types of stuff. That’s what shocked me the most about him when I got there. I was like, wow. At first it was bad. It became good.”
WRIGHT DIDN’T WANT to go to Las Vegas in 1992. He’d been assistant to Massimino at ’Nova for five years, and Coach Mass was leaving for UNLV. Patty Wright was pregnant with their first child at the time. Villanova’s president, the Reverend Edmund Dobbin, called Wright to his office and tried to persuade him to stay. But Wright felt loyal to Massimino and followed. The detour didn’t last long. After two seasons, Massimino moved on, and Wright got an offer to be head coach at Hofstra, on Long Island. There were 302 teams in Division 1, and Hofstra was ranked 297. He knew he could get fired immediately, but he figured at worst, he’d get back East. In retrospect, he figures wanting the job proved he was an East Coast guy.
For the first years, Hofstra lost more than it won, and its gym was a mausoleum. “I wasn’t a great coach in the beginning, and I made mistakes,” Wright admits. But in 1998, Hofstra finished with a winning record. By 2001, it had made its second straight NCAA tournament, and fans were scalping tickets at a new arena.
Following that season, Wright got an offer to come home. At that point, Villanova wasn’t even getting into the NCAA tournament and was barely advancing in the booby-prize bracket called the NIT tourney. You want bad days? December 10, 2002: “Penn blew us out” in front of 12,000 fans at the Wachovia Center. February 3, 2003: St. Joe’s outscores ’Nova 51-23 in the first half, in a humiliation at the sold-out Palestra. “People were asking: What’s wrong with our program?” March 8, 2003: Villanova suspends 12 basketball players for using a staff member’s account to make long–distance calls. ’Nova loses six straight to end the season.