Mr. Wright

Don’t let Villanova basketball coach Jay Wright’s handsome face and sharp wardrobe fool you. Beneath it all, he’s as old-school Philly as they come

Madison Square Garden, October. An annual loose-ball scrum called Big East Media Day. Each of the 16 basketball teams in this college athletic conference has a small table, and reporters cluster around the teams’ stations like ants on jellybeans.

The biggest crowd surrounds Rick Pitino of Louisville. You know Coach Pitino — he’s got the News-at-11 hair, the uniform by Armani, the follow-the-money résumé. Last summer, Pitino, author of Success Is a Choice, a married father of five known to have a priest sit on his bench, reportedly admitted he paid for an abortion for a woman he’d had sex with in a restaurant, after hours.

“The best thing for me is to put it behind me,” he tells the reporters.

Across the room, the second biggest swarm is around Jay Wright, head coach of Villanova. He looks the part. He’s tall, dark, George Clooney handsome. Salon-perfect hair with a touch of gray. (He’s 48.) Wright has a clothing deal with Gabriele D’Annunzio, a Newtown Square -tailor. Today he wears a charcoal pinstripe three-piece suit with a gray pocket square. But, surprise, he’s not that guy.

Although at the moment Wright, too, is trying to get the media to move beyond recent developments. A poster board in the lobby announces that Big East coaches have ranked Villanova number one in the conference in a preseason poll, thanks to the school’s trip to the Final Four of the NCAA tournament last spring. But Wright has a roster filled with freshmen, and he’s trying to tame expectations. “Everything that happened last year is in the past,” he’s telling his pack of reporters.

Mike Kern of the Daily News and Terry Toohey of the Delco Times are smooshed up front, and Kern gathers his papers.

“Thanks for making the trip, Mikey,” Wright says. “Terry, I know you don’t mind coming to our press conferences, but Mikey — you get him out of Philly and he’s like ‘Get me back for a cheesesteak and a Phillies game!’ Ha!”

Shannon Ryan, a Chicago Tribune sportswriter who covered Villanova for the Inquirer from 2004 to 2007, finds a lane and steps toward the table. “Shannon!” Wright says, giving her a fist bump.

Later, when I meet Wright briefly, he greets me by name, shakes my hand, reaches his big left hand out and cradles my triceps. He asks where I’m from, if I have any kids, makes a joke, then pardons himself as Villanova’s PR guy pulls him away to do a TV interview. What just happened? The second time we meet, a few days after this one-minute encounter, he puts his arm around my shoulders like we’re old buddies.

The consensus is that Jay Wright just may be the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being ever. I do not mean this as an insult. He inspires his players, respects his elders. Happy family. Still in touch with high-school buddies from Council Rock High in the late 1970s. He’s returned Villanova basketball to glory unseen since its 1985 national championship, and has resisted big-bucks offers to coach elsewhere, including the 76ers. Dirt? Reporters who have covered him for years can’t find lint.

“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.

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.

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.

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.

Published in the January 2010 issue of Philadelphia magazine.