Back in 1994, when Jay Wright took over as head coach at Hofstra University, the Flying Dutchmen—as they were then known—were downright rotten. “We were ranked something like 310th out of 320 teams,” Wright recalls.
Then-assistant coach Tom Pecora sums it up better: “The running joke was that, during the first year, all of Jay’s halftime adjustments involved his tie, hair and handkerchief. There was nothing we could do with that team.”
That first season, Hofstra traveled to Notre Dame University. “Before the game, Jay tells the team, ‘The officials are going to put it to us, but we can’t lose our composure,’” says Pecora.
Hofstra responded to the challenge by playing its best first half of the year. The Dutchmen stayed close, but fell behind at the half when the Irish went on a late run. Just as Wright predicted, the referees were creative in their interpretation of the rules. As the teams left the court, Pecora looked for Wright but couldn’t find him. He finally saw him—yelling at the refs. Villanova University’s future men’s basketball coach was doing exactly what he had told his players not to do.
When they reached the locker room, Pecora asked Wright, “What are you doing? We told the kids not to do that, and you’re screaming at the refs.”
Wright was still so angry that he’d thrown his coat against the wall. “I’m a competitor, Tommy!” he shouted.
Now the head coach at Fordham, Pecora can’t keep from laughing at the memory. “Nobody calls me Tommy but my mother,” he says.
So, every once in a while, when Pecora sees Wright yelling at a ref on TV, he’ll send a simple text message to his friend, Jerold Taylor Wright: “I’m a competitor, Jerry!”
We see the impeccably tailored suits, the tie knotted just so. We see the hair—now dappled with a distinguished gray—obeying its owner’s command to remain still. We see the dark eyes, the bright smile. Perfection.
Others see something different. They see the sweat suit, the ball cap worn to cover an uncoiffed mop of hair. They see glasses, because there was no time for contacts. They see the lines of worry and wear that come from little sleep.
That’s the problem with looking like George Clooney and out-dressing the competition. People begin to think your GQ self is the whole package. Look too good, and you can’t possibly have anything else going for you.
Granted, some might consider that a burden they wouldn’t mind shouldering. They’ll handle the wisecracks from friend and foe alike. They’ll suffer the criticisms from those who think the polish is a bit too bright. All for the sake of perfection?
Wander into a Villanova practice after a poor performance, and there isn’t anything perfect about anybody—particularly Wright. On those days, he’s less the fashion plate and more the weary coach, searching for answers. Gone is the pleasant demeanor that can turn even the most skeptical alumnus into a pennant-waving, check-writing disciple. “Any time he wears a hat to practice, he’s ready to get after it,” says Billy Lange, a former Wright assistant at Villanova and most recent head coach at Navy. “After a loss, I’ll text him and say, ‘I know you have a hat on.’ If he’s wearing a hat, he’s been up all night watching tape and is ready to go.”
Returning to Villanova next season as an assistant coach, Lange remembers the time early in Wright’s tenure at Villanova when he ran full-speed after a ball and dove for it during a drill. The gym went silent, largely because everybody was wondering if Wright would get up. When he did, everybody laughed and clapped. “We knew he meant business,” Lange says.
That’s the thing about Wright: He does mean business. Since he took his first coaching job, ambition and drive have defined his essence as much as his appearance has defined his persona. “He looks like a movie star, dresses to the nines and is almost too nice at times,” Pecora says. “But he has a competitive edge, and that competitiveness allows him to succeed.”
And succeed he has. Pay no attention to that six-game slide that brought the 2010–11 season to a gruesome halt. Wright has taken Villanova basketball from afterthought status to the top of the Big East, still the nation’s best college hoops conference. He’s weathered early troubles both on and off the court to lift the program to heights few could’ve imagined. Without Wright, there’s no way the Wildcats’ state-of-the-art practice facility would’ve risen from the parking lot macadam. Without Wright, Villanova wouldn’t be selling out the Wells Fargo Center six times a year, and drawing another 12,000 or so for a tune-up game. He took the Wildcats to the Final Four in 2009. He brought them to the Sweet 16 on three other occasions and the Elite Eight once. His players have made it to the NBA.
Oh, and they graduate.
It was the kind of snowfall that makes you want to hunker down at home and lay into the provisions. University of Rochester basketball coach Mike Neer didn’t want his young assistant to make the seven-hour ride into the Adirondacks. “Take the Thruway past Utica and into ‘Hansel and Gretel’ country,” as Neer describes the trip.
Wright was undaunted. He was heading north to scout a smart 6-foot-7 kid who was perfect for Rochester, a Division III school where the term “student athlete” actually applies. It was Wright’s first basketball job, and he was approaching it with gusto. It took him about 12 hours to make the trip through nearly 10 inches of snow. The next day, he returned with a report. “He said, ‘The mom loved me,’” Neer recalls with a laugh. “I said, ‘Surprise, surprise.’ He said the kid was bright and wanted to be a doctor. He came to Rochester, and it worked out well.”
Wright ended up at Rochester in 1984 because Neer’s first choice, Pat Flannery, decided to remain an assistant at Drexel University. Flannery suggested Neer speak to Wright, who’d played ball at Bucknell University while Flannery was on staff there. At the time, Wright was selling tickets for the Philadelphia Stars of the now-defunct USFL. He’d never coached basketball before.
Wright went up to Rochester and impressed Neer with his drive. “I asked him if he had actually made any sales for the Stars,” Neer says. “He told me, ‘We get a group here and a group there.’ I said, ‘If you can sell tickets to that team, you can sell people on Rochester.’”
Wright spent two years at Rochester learning from Neer, who lasted 34 there. “Jay was like a young pup then,” Neer says. “He was like a golden retriever.”
An aggressive recruiter, Wright thrived on responsibility and was constantly asking questions. In 1986, he spent one season on the late Eddie Burke’s Drexel staff. From there, it was on to Villanova for a five-year stint under Rollie Massimino.
Talk about a perfect gig. Here was a Bucks County native joining the staff of a team that, just two years before, had won the national title. His family was close by; his girlfriend (now his wife), Patty, had been a Villanova cheerleader. Wright quickly formed a tight social circle that included 76ers players Charles Barkley and Mike Gminski, both young, single Main Line denizens who enjoyed the nightlife. They were all regulars at the dearly departed Al E. Gators in Haverford and Smokey Joe’s in Wayne, along with the Yorkshire, a defunct after-hours joint in Bryn Mawr. “I always told the players they couldn’t go to Al E. Gators,” Wright says with a laugh.
Although Wright’s five years at Villanova featured Massimino’s surprising fall from grace, they were extremely formative for the young coach. “We hired him because of his leadership qualities, his enthusiasm and his meticulous way of doing things,” Massimino says. “He ran our camp for a couple years, and I just felt he would be a tremendous addition. He also had an ability to be around kids and teach them.”
When Massimino left Nova, he went west to University of Nevada, Las Vegas in one of the oddest basketball marriages of all time. Here was the quintessential Northeast paisan, heading to Glitter Gulch to take over a program reeling from myriad NCAA violations under former coach Jerry Tarkanian. Wright went with him, although somewhat reluctantly. He was an East Coast guy who wanted to get back home—or at least close to it.
So when the Hofstra job came open, he ran to it—even though the program was destitute. The first thing Wright realized was that he didn’t have to recruit anywhere other than nearby New York City and its surroundings. “It would be crazy to look anywhere else,” he says.
To develop the trust necessary to navigate the Byzantine world of New York hoops successfully, Wright had to genuflect at the altar of the City Game. That meant no crowing about the Palestra’s greatness (in NYC, it’s all about the Garden) and cultivating a persona that was deferential to the city’s high school godfathers. More than anything else, he had to do right by the kids he brought to campus. “The high school coaches would give you their kids, but you had to take care of them,” Wright says.
Even then, it wasn’t easy for Wright to make his way. That’s why it was so valuable to have Pecora on his staff. “I was introducing Jay to people, and nobody’s more charming. But I had to convince a lot of people that he’s genuine,” says Pecora, a Queens Village guy Wright had met while working at a basketball camp in the mid-’80s. “They don’t trust anybody up there, and I had to tell them, ‘No, he’s not full of shit.’”
Before long, everybody knew Pecora was right. And thanks to players like Speedy Claxton and Norman Richardson, Hofstra became a powerhouse in the America East Conference, winning two titles and advancing to the post-season three straight years. It didn’t matter that Hofstra lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament the two times the team appeared (the Dutchmen played in the NIT in 1999). Wright had turned a loss leader into a winner. In the spring of 2001, when Villanova grew unhappy with Steve Lappas, Massimino’s successor, they looked to Wright. So did Rutgers University, which was searching for a coach at the same time.
Wright received the call from Villanova athletic director Vince Nicastro on a Saturday morning, a day before he was scheduled to visit Piscataway, N.J., to lock up the deal with the Scarlet Knights. He and his agent met with Nicastro and then-Villanova president Father Edmund Dobbin that day at Olga’s Diner in Marlton, N.J. “I took it on the spot,” Wright says. “I grew up here; Patty grew up in South Jersey. It’s Villanova.”
He tried to call Rutgers’ then-athletic director, Bob Mulcahy, to tell him about the offer, but he couldn’t reach him. So, a day after accepting the Villanova gig, Wright drove to Rutgers for what was supposed to be a perfunctory meeting with Mulcahy and the school’s president, Francis Lawrence, to finalize things. When he arrived, there was a surprise waiting for him: Rutgers football coach Greg Schiano, a fellow Bucknell alum. Mulcahy wanted the two to get acquainted before the school announced the hiring of its new men’s basketball coach. “I tell Mulcahy, ‘I have to talk to you,’” Wright says. “He says, ‘No, meet with Greg first.’”
Wright walked into the room, shook Schiano’s hand and said he was going to Villanova. The two talked for a bit, just to keep up appearances, before Wright delivered the news to Mulcahy. He was going home.
A child of the ’70s, Wright admits that he once owned a brown leisure suit. He even had the platform shoes and print shirt that went with it. During his days at Council Rock High School, his tastes ran mostly to neatly pressed jeans and clean sneakers with a sweatshirt.
When he arrived at Bucknell in the fall of 1979, Wright was surrounded by preppy kids. “I called home and told my parents, ‘I don’t fit in here,’” he recalls.
Eventually, though, Wright found his way. And when he graduated, he began building a wardrobe. Neer reports that his apartment in Rochester was a mess—except for the closet. “He had more shoes than Imelda Marcos,” says Neer.
While an assistant at Villanova, Wright bought a lime-green suit. Before the Wildcats played Georgia Tech in Atlanta, Massimino took him to Friedman’s, a famous shoe store. The assistant coach bought a pair of $300 green alligator shoes to go with the suit and wore the ensemble during the game. Afterwards, Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese came up to Wright and said, “That suit is banned from the Big East.”
Wright’s taste has improved considerably since then, and Massimino is more than willing to take credit sparking his transformation. “I took him to Friedman’s; I took him all over,” says Massimino. “Now, he wears good clothes. Before, he was wearing knockoffs.”
Credit also goes to his wife and his Newtown Square tailor, Gabriele D’Annunzio. “Patty would roll her eyes at some of the stuff I’d wear,” Wright admits.
Of course, with the fashion plate status comes a burden: Everybody is watching. Once, before a Big East tournament game at Madison Square Garden, ESPN broadcaster Bill Raftery—a good friend of Wright’s and a world-class ball-buster—came into the locker room to chat. As the men were talking, Raftery noticed that Wright was wearing the same shoes he had on the day before. “He started giving me a hard time about it,” Wright says.
Once the game began, Raftery and on-air partner Sean McDonough talked about how disappointed they were that Wright had committed the sin of wearing the same thing twice. All Wright’s New York friends called him about it.
Wright’s suave appearance serves Villanova in many ways. It still works with the moms—although he doesn’t always get their sons, as evidenced by his unsuccessful attempts to land local prep stars Wayne Ellington (who chose University of North Carolina), Gerald Henderson (Duke University) and Tyreke Evans (University of Memphis). But Wright’s successes have been far greater than his failures, and his 2012 recruiting class is already of the top-five variety.
When Wright took over at Nova, the school had gone from a perennial NCAA tourney team to one that couldn’t win more than a game in the NIT. The Wildcats weren’t getting top players from anywhere, much less Philadelphia, so Wright turned to his New York connections.
In 2002, he landed Randy Foye, Allan Ray, Curtis Sumpter and Jason Fraser, four stalwarts from the New York area. It looked like Villanova was headed for big things, until several of his players were found to have stolen an athletic department phone card and made thousands of dollars in calls. Villanova suspended the culprits, and Wright endured speculation that his charming manner and Vegas background were hiding something unsavory. “I volunteered to resign, rather than hurt this program,” Wright says.
Nicastro never entertained a thought about accepting the tender. It turned out to be one of the best decisions he made during his tenure at the school. The scandal was eventually viewed as nothing more than college kids acting poorly. Since then, there’s been hardly a whiff of impropriety around the program, and the Wildcats have enjoyed considerable prosperity. Villanova reached the Sweet 16 in 2005 and ’08, the Elite Eight in ’06, and the Final Four in 2009. The second half of last season, however, was pretty grim. After bolting to a 16-1 start and a top-10 ranking, Villanova lost its last six, including a first-round NCAA tourney game to George Mason University. Injuries to seniors Corey Fisher and Corey Stokes played roles, though Wright never made excuses, even when fans’ tempers flared and some called for his head. “That’s part of the job,” he says. “I have to accept the negative things, too.”
Despite last season’s slide and the attendant criticism, Wright didn’t lose his focus or positive attitude with the players. He may have yelled in practice, but his overall message remained one of togetherness. “Nothing changed for us [during the losing streak],” Stokes says. “We got better every day, even though it may not have seemed like that to people outside.”
As the Wildcats have prospered, Wright has seen his star rise. There was even a brief flirtation with the Sixers in 2009, when he talked hoops for four hours at the home of then-GM Ed Stefanski. “I didn’t think about going to the NBA,” Wright says. “I thought about going to the Sixers. It’s home.”
He turned down Stefanski. He also denied the University of Kentucky’s overtures and those of any other school that has contacted him. “I have a great situation,” he says.
And he’s a relatively normal guy. Last spring, when Patty was co-coach of daughter Reilly’s Radnor Township 12- and 13-year-old recreation softball team, Jay remained in the corner of the dugout while his wife directed the troops. Team parent Bernie Ward recalls arriving on the day of the league championship game and seeing a most peculiar sight. “We were supposed to show up at 10:15 for an 11 o’clock game, and when we arrived, there’s Jay, raking the infield, putting the chalk down and putting up the American flag,” Ward says. “That was pretty interesting. He’s a gracious guy.”
One who happens to look damn good in a suit.