It was almost a decade ago, late at night in the bowels of Madison Square Garden. Following a humiliating loss to South Florida in the second round of the Big East Tournament, Jay Wright walked out of the building. Villanova’s Final Four run three years prior seemed an eternity ago, especially after a second-round tourney exit in 2010, a 9-9 league record in 2011 and a miserable 13-19 campaign that had just mercifully concluded.
Wright didn’t rant and rave as he strolled down the hallway into the elevator. He was methodical in his words, knowing exactly what went awry shortly after the magical Final Four run in 2009.
“The culture,” he said. “We need to get the culture back.”
And that’s exactly what he did.
He’ll be the first to tell you there was some luck along the way, that he never could have foreseen Ryan Arcidiacono not only becoming the player he developed into, but also forging Villanova into a near-decade long run in which it’s been the most successful program in college basketball.
Name me another men’s hoops program that’s won multiple national titles in the past 10 years.
Villanova stands alone.
And Wright did it at a place that fit him perfectly. He was a Philly guy and didn’t want to go anywhere else. Sure, he flirted with leaving for the Philadelphia 76ers, but his kids were young and he didn’t want to go through the grind of the NBA lifestyle at that point in his life. He never even gave Kentucky a thought when the bluest blue blood came calling because he didn’t want the fishbowl of Lexington.
Wright always knew who he was, and never strayed from it. Sure, he got a little more fiery with the referees over the years, but he was still a true gentleman and someone that was never on the receiving end of stray verbal barbs in a sport that is full of locker-room chatter.
“He’s just so authentic,” Arcidiacono said. “Just so real every single day. He practices what he preaches.”
Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu came along just months after that brutal loss to South Florida, one that concluded a Big East season with just five total conference wins. This wasn’t Villanova basketball. This had become about recruiting a bunch of kids who couldn’t get out of the Main Line quick enough, many of which cared far more about the names on the back of their jersey than the one on the front.
“They were the ones who got us back,” Wright would freely admit to me and just about anyone who asked about Arch and Ochefu’s impact on the program.
“He was actually the one who got it back,” Arcidiacono told me just hours after Wright decided to retire.
Arcidiacono was a top-50ish player, but Wright had no clue what to expect from the heady point guard after he had missed his entire senior season at nearby Neshaminy High due to a back issue. Ochefu was also ranked nationally in the 50 range, but no one expected him to help trigger a complete rebuild. Both finished their college careers at Nova snipping nets in Houston after arguably the most exciting conclusion of a national championship game when Kris Jenkins took Arcidiacono’s pass and sunk a buzzer-beater to beat North Carolina.
The narrative quickly began to change on Wright, from the guy who was on thin ice after six consecutive seasons without getting past the first weekend of the NCAA tourney to one who now had a national title on his résumé.
Arcidiacono left, but he passed the torch to Jalen Brunson, who then handed it to Collin Gillespie. And now, after an incredible 10-year run, Wright has left the sport as a Hall of Famer, and he’s basically left at the top of his game just weeks removed from a Final Four appearance.
Wright won 283 games since the 2012-13 season — eight more than Coach K and 20 ahead of John Calipari.
Those coaches each have one national title in that span. Wright has two on his résumé.
Wright didn’t just own the new Big East; He basically saved it. After the conference reconfigured into a basketball-centric league in 2012, there was concern whether or not it would become an afterthought nationally. Instead, Nova became the Big East’s flagship and made certain that the Big East maintained its credibility and relevance.
We still haven’t heard from Wright yet on exactly why he opted to go out now, but in talking to enough people close to the 60-year-old Wright, it was more about a lifestyle change, wanting to spend more time with his family, not dealing with the new-age college basketball world that includes NIL and the relentless transfer portal.
Wright and his peers used to be able to take a family trip to the beach in May and June, but now the portal is still humming in May, and even June is a month of roster construction for many. It’s become a year-round job, especially when name, image and likeness has been added to the equation.
Wright’s departure from the game is a significant blow to the sport, especially on the heels of Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski calling it quits. But K is 75, and Roy was nearly 70 when he walked away. Wright is 60, but most would guess that he’s significantly younger.
The sport will move forward without K, Williams and Wright. It’ll survive and other coaches will step to the forefront. That’s how it always works. Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim is still coaching at 77, Bill Self just won his second national title, Mark Few has built a powerhouse in Spokane, John Calipari is still at Kentucky and Tom Izzo is in East Lansing last I checked.
But this one stings.
Wright had more to give to the game. He was smart, well-liked by everyone and had re-established a culture that every other coach envied.
“That’s who we strive to be,” Baylor coach Scott Drew told me recently. “I think that’s who everyone strives to be. What Jay has done with that program is remarkable.”
What Wright did was recruit high-character kids who fit the program. Brunson recently laughed when I called Villanova’s players robots. He and Gillespie took it as a compliment. The players never hung their head after a bad play, never complained to the officials and seemingly always shared the ball and turned down good shots in favor of a teammate getting an even better one.
“It’s Villanova basketball,” Gillespie said.
“The Villanova way,” Brunson added.
And now that way won’t include Jay Wright.