You build a college basketball program by recruiting. It’s a virtuous cycle if done properly: Get the most talented, coachable players you can and guide them toward glory, and their success woos more recruits. Wright’s social ease served him well.
“Other college coaches who came, it kind of seemed like business,” says Claxton. “He sent me a letter every other day. Handwritten, a card with a quote or something like that. He was cool. He almost seems like he’s one of your boys — until that first practice.”
At ’Nova, Wright won prized East Coast ballers — Allan Ray from the Bronx, Newark’s Randy Foye, Philly’s Kyle Lowry. His recruits took the Wildcats to the NCAA Elite Eight in 2006. That attracted the team’s current star, Scottie Reynolds, a guard whose last-second drive to the hoop beat Pittsburgh 78-76 last April, putting Villanova in its first Final Four game since 1985. Now Reynolds is attracting the next generation.
“Nothing is beyond the realm of possibility,” says Pat Chambers, an assistant to Wright at ’Nova for five years before becoming head coach at Boston University last year. To recruit Mouphtaou Yarou, Chambers says, he and Wright flew 20 hours each way to the Republic of Benin to meet in an impoverished village with Yarou’s parents. “We landed back in the U.S. at two or three o’clock, and we had an alumni reception at six o’clock at Tiffany in the King of Prussia mall.” (Yarou is now sidelined for the season with hepatitis.)
Once players are in the fold, Wright sends them text messages constantly: observations about life, little koans of inspiration about how Chase Utley hustled down the line at the Phillies game. He insinuates his attitude into them. “We used to count how many times the players would say ‘Villanova basketball.’ As in ‘We just have to play Villanova basketball,’” says former beat writer Ryan. “That was from Jay. We’d be rolling our eyes by the time the season was over. When a player at Duke or North Carolina says that, you say okay. But ‘Villanova basketball’? They really bought into that. And now they’re an elite program again.”
AND WRIGHT IS a big fuzzy star. Last March he was on the short list when Kentucky needed a new coach. He turned that down before hotshot Calipari got it — at about $32 million for eight years. Don’t feel too bad for Wright. The most recent Villanova financial statement available, for 2007, has his pay at about $2 million a year, including deferred compensation.
The 76ers coaching vacancy last spring was a different story. “In a way, I hoped [Sixers GM] Ed Stefanski wouldn’t call, because I didn’t want to have to make a decision,” Wright admits. “That would have been the perfect situation. We had just gone to the Final Four. Ed Stefanski is a guy I’ve always respected. And it’s my hometown team. So I seriously thought about that. I just don’t want to leave Villanova to do it.”
At the same time Wright was in the news about maybe leaving Villanova, his star player Reynolds announced in April he was entering the NBA draft. Then in May, Wright said he had pulled his name from consideration by the 76ers and was staying put. In June, Reynolds followed his coach’s lead, deciding to play for ’Nova this season. He’s on the cover of Villanova’s media guide with returning upperclassmen Corey Stokes, Antonio Pena and Corey Fisher. They’re pictured, not in uniforms, but in exquisitely tailored -charcoal-gray suits.