Villanova's slick coach proves he has the Wright stuff
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,
"[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
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
"[Jay] builds relationships," said St. Joseph's coach
Not everything is as it appears with Wright. Shortly after Villanova coach
No matter the heritage, there's toughness to Wright's olive skin. Born Jerold Taylor Wright Jr., to
"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
Wright found a mentor in senior teammate
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
After two seasons at Rochester, Wright accepted Drexel coach
When Massimino left for UNLV in 1992, the newly married Wright followed. In the wake of
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.
Taking over a struggling program, Wright and his top assistant,
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
A guard devotee, he took pages from Georgia Tech coach
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
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
Says Louisville coach
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
Arriving in a super-stretch white limousine that pulls onto the court, this year's team, led by
"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
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.