Villanova's slick coach proves he has the Wright stuff

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Wright's first job out of college was in marketing for the Philadelphia Stars of the newly formed United States Football League. Peddling spring-time football to a difficult audience, he spent most days cold-calling potential season-ticket buyers from an office in Veterans Stadium and visiting Knights of Columbus halls. This assignment was different, though. During rush hour, he joined team cheerleaders, including his future wife, Patricia Reilly, for a publicity event. The Stars' mascot failed to show up, so Wright donned the furry, gold costume and served as a one-man constellation, pressing brochures into commuters' palms.

"[I figured] no one was ever going to know," Wright said. "We were just selling."

The salesman in Wright, who left the Stars to take an assistant coaching position at the University of Rochester the next year, is very much alive. Over the last two decades, he has sold recruits on Rochester, Drexel, Villanova, UNLV and Hofstra. Wright, 46, has done everything from bridging gaps between AAU power brokers and high school coaches, to wooing recruits with the bells and whistles of the Wachovia Center to flying 14 hours to West Africa to meet a recruit's parents to eating KFC on former Wildcats guard Randy Foye's porch in Newark, N.J. "Jay can sell sand to an Arab or red, white and blue to Bin Laden," said Rochester's Mike Neer, the first coach to hire Wright. "You can't say no."

Adds Julius Evans, whose brother, Tyreke, was courted by Wright before committing to Memphis in April: "He never shook my hand. He hugged me every time."

Last month, Wright, coming off a career-best coaching effort in leading an inexperienced team to an unexpected run to the Sweet 16, signed three of the nation's top 60 seniors. Rated the Big East's best class, it draws from near (point guard Maalik Wayns of Philadelphia), far (forward Mouphtaou Yarou of Africa) and the mid-Atlantic (swingman Isaiah Armwood of Baltimore). Throw in Duke transfer Taylor King -- a 6-7, 215-pound forward who must sit out this season -- and the class resembles his 2002 haul -- which included Foye, McDonald's All-American Jason Fraser, Curtis Sumpter and Allan Ray.

"[Jay] builds relationships," said St. Joseph's coach Phil Martelli, Wright's Big Five rival. "He's engaging and interested in knowing you, whether you're a writer or a truck driver. We all should have that ability but we don't."


Not everything is as it appears with Wright. Shortly after Villanova coach Rollie Massimino hired him as an assistant in the spring of 1987, Massimino took the staff to dinner at his favorite Italian restaurant and introduced his minions to ownership as all paisan. Later, Wright informed Massimino that he is actually of Irish, German and French ancestry -- and not, despite what his dark perfectly-coiffed hair and complexion might suggest -- Italian. "Don't tell anyone that," Massimino said. "You're one of us."

No matter the heritage, there's toughness to Wright's olive skin. Born Jerold Taylor Wright Jr., to Jerry, a power tools pitchman and Judy, a homemaker, his family lived in Allentown, Pa., before moving to Churchville, outside Philadelphia, when he was five. Sheltered in the suburbs, he started going by Jay and broke out of the Bucks County bubble for runs at the Sonny Hill League in rugged North Philadelphia following sophomore year at Council Rock High. One day the passenger side door was stripped from his light-chocolate Capri; another time there was a bullet hole through a window.

"Do you have to go?" asked his mother.

"It's the only place I can get better," he said.

When his father sat in the stands, people joked, "I know which one is your kid."

The first in his family to attend college, Wright was a star at Council Rock and was named the school's best dressed senior in 1979. Recruited by Bucknell coach Charlie Woollum, the long-armed guard with the high release felt out of place among the cast of salutatorians. "I didn't feel I was as good as those kids," he said.

Wright found a mentor in senior teammate Pat Flannery, a self-described "dumpy Irishman" from the coal town of Pottsville, Pa. Offering advice and handing down notes from classes, Flannery facilitated Wright's growth. On the court, Wright, who Flannery says "never saw a shot he didn't like", earned a starter's role, and, off the court, he pledged the Sigma Chi fraternity, known nationally for Brad Pitt and John Wayne as members. "It probably hurt my basketball," said Wright, who went by the nickname "Jay Bones" and played as a reserve his senior year. "It helped socially."

Flannery helped Wright land his first coaching job. Offered the Rochester position first, Flannery declined because he liked his assistant job at Drexel but recommended Wright, whose resume was long on basketball camp counselor roles but short on coaching. For a recruiter, a D-III school in the small-college hoops hotbed with a focus on academics is not an easy sell, but Wright embraced it. It was the pursuit of Mark Nunge, an intelligent, 6-7 lefty forward, that captured his attention. Wright set out on a six-hour "Iditarod" to watch Nunge play in Potsdam, N.Y., near the Canadian border. Told by Neer not to go, the 23-year-old Wright went anyway and ended up missing the next practice. "I just had to see the kid," Wright said. Nunge did go to Rochester and is now a doctor.

After two seasons at Rochester, Wright accepted Drexel coach Eddie Burke's offer and reconnected with Flannery. Back in Philadelphia, he worked Massimino's summer camp and was hired as a Villanova assistant the next offseason. Massimino, the louder-than-life figure on Lancaster Avenue, took Wright under his wing, working him hard and bonded with him over pasta-filled bull sessions at his house. "He'd walk in and say [to his wife], 'Mama, put the pot on, the boys are hungry,'" said Wright.

When Massimino left for UNLV in 1992, the newly married Wright followed. In the wake of Jerry Tarkanian's NCAA-investigated years of success, Massimino pledged to keep the program runnin', but his attempts to limit the rebel behavior were undermined. When Massimino benched star guard J.R. Rider for grades, a local paper wrote an editorial faulting the staff. The big-time program also encroached on Wright's family life. As his wife -- a licensed attorney -- was in labor with their first child, the doctor peppered Wright about basketball. "Patty looked up in disbelief," said Wright, who has two sons, Taylor, 15, and Colin, 14, and one daughter, Reilly, 9.

Taylor's first word: "Webel."

"Vegas was the biggest education of my life," Wright said.

Backed by Massimino's recommendation, Wright interviewed for and received the Hofstra head coaching position after two seasons. His honeymoon was over.


Relentless, says Stu Jackson, the NBA's Executive Vice President for Basketball Operations, is the best word to describe Wright. The second is inquisitive. "If not looking at the nuts and bolts of coaching I say beware," said Jackson, who allowed Wright to watch his Knicks practices from 1989-91. "Beneath the polish is knowledge."

Taking over a struggling program, Wright and his top assistant, Tom Pecora, who joined him from Vegas, watched their players attempt to lift weights after the softball team's sessions -- and have to take plates off the bars. To generate interest, Wright had post-it notes placed on every seat in Hofstra's arena. Fans in attendance could claim season tickets from wherever they picked up a post-it. By the end of the game, he had to pick up most of the notes as few fans came. "The pizza delivery guy walked in and got more cheers than us," Pecora said.

Wright -- who was mocked by opposing fans for wearing blue suede shoes and cuff links -- has always been a details guy. Like Jackson before him, the gym rat begged Jeff Van Gundy, then a Knicks assistant under Pat Riley, to get him inside a practice -- which he did, just once, and was told to watch from a bird's nest seat atop the SUNY-Purchase facility. Afterward he watched film. "Jay looks better in Kmart than I do in Armani," said Van Gundy, who knows Wright from Rochester, "but he's the full package."

A guard devotee, he took pages from Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins' three-guard sets in the late '80s and watched high schools like Rice in Harlem and the Bronx-based Gauchos AAU program flourish with four guards. By his sixth season at Hofstra -- spearheaded by the quickness of point guard "Speedy" Claxton -- the Pride made the NCAA tournament. The next year they opened the 5,046-seat Hofstra Arena and returned to the Big Dance. That spring, Wright left for Villanova. "I told coach he had to go home," said Claxton, now a reserve with the Atlanta Hawks.

At Villanova, Wright reached out to alumni, but his first three seasons yielded NIT berths. His big wins came off the court as his staff recruited the nation's best class in 2002. Using his assistants' pre-established relationships, he drained the New York-New Jersey area and landed Foye from Newark, Ray from the Bronx, Sumpter from Brooklyn and Fraser from Long Island. Hungry for wins, fans grew restless. "I'm sure some wondered if they hired a snake oil salesman," Neer said.

Further skepticism came from the 2003 phone card scandal, which involved 12 players using a phone access code stolen from an athletic department employee to make off-campus calls. On national television the next day, Villanova dressed the NCAA-minimum seven players -- including two walk-ons -- against No. 7 Pitt. The depleted squad fell 56-54, but the suspensions were not done as more players sat out Big East tournament and NIT losses. The NCAA returned to campus four times, scouring records and vetting the staff. "I never saw him flinch," said Brett Gunning, his assistant for 14 years.

From that 15-14 debacle, Wright continues to build. His staff has since enjoyed two Sweet 16 runs and one trip to the Elite Eight, largely on the power of four-guard sets. Three guards (Foye, Ray and Kyle Lowry) have been drafted into the NBA and four of his former assistants -- Fred Hill at Rutgers, Joe Jones at Columbia, Billy Lange at Navy and Pecora at Hofstra -- have become head coaches. Last fall Villanova's Davis Center for Athletics and Fitness -- a 55,000 square foot facility for both men's and women's basketball practice courts and team offices -- opened. "For anyone who says he's just a guards guy, I say look at what Dante Cunningham will do this season," said Charlotte Bobcats coach Larry Brown, a fixture at 'Nova games and practices while out of the NBA the last two seasons, about the 6-8 forward who has increased his scoring from 10.4 points a game last season to 17.9 through seven games this year.

Says Louisville coach Rick Pitino: "If a young coach wants to model after someone, Jay would be it. I like his suits, but he doesn't take himself too seriously."

Last summer, when Gunning, the lone assistant to remain on staff since the phone card fallout, left to become the director of player development with the Houston Rockets, Wright called a staff meeting. Standing in The Cinema -- a stadium-seating film room -- he put their wins in context. "I don't want to forget," he said. "I enjoy relating the past."


It's a crisp, October night on campus and the sell is on.

Spotlights are swirling outside The Pavilion as students and alumni fill the arena for the season's first public practice. Billed as Hoops Mania -- the annual Wildcats introduction to their devoted fans -- it divides Wright's time as coach and showman. "It might be his favorite night," said Ed Pinckney, a former assistant now with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Arriving in a super-stretch white limousine that pulls onto the court, this year's team, led by Scottie Reynolds, wearing Aviator sunglasses, and sophomore Corey Fisher, looking ready for his senior prom, enter to Lupe Fiasco's "Superstar".

"You guys are beautiful!" Wright says to the crowd, striding in his confident gait.

The faithful cheer, and Wright -- dressed casually in jeans, a blue collared shirt and narrow-toed shoes -- reads from his prepared script and introduces the rapper T-Pain. In the stands, he hugs Yarou, Wayns, Armwood and the uncommitted Dominic Cheek, who the fans, recognizing an opportunity to impress the St. Anthony (Jersey City, N.J.) guard on his official visit, chant, "We want Cheek!"

They also want a championship and Wright, who refers to his comfortable Main Line neighborhood as "LA-LA" land, is recreating the bliss of 1985. From his family's house in a quiet, leafy cul-de-sac to his glass-encased office, his commute is 1.8 miles. Each day he drives past the house where Massimino lived, and walks into the Davis Center lobby's time warp. On two plasma televisions, highlights of the 1985 title game roll. To start the reel, which plays "One Shining Moment", a button must be pushed. "I hit that every time," said Wright.

"I hope he wins a national championship," Massimino said.

Imagine what Wright could sell with a national title.