He turned 60 last December, but he looks much younger. He ditched the tailored suits with the dandy pocket squares, but he still had swag. Rosters around the country got younger, but his stayed old. The transfer portal was bursting at the seams, but his guys stayed put. Last season’s squad was not his most talented, but he still got it to the Final Four. He was already in the Hall of Fame, but it seemed his best years were still ahead of him.
He oozed charisma, spoke with eloquence, treated everyone well and won a ton of games. When Roy Williams stepped down last year, and Mike Krzyzewski walked off the court at the Caesars Superdome in New Orleans two-and-a-half weeks ago, many assumed he would be the new face of college basketball, the one to pick up the mantle and carry the sport toward a brighter future.
It seemed like a good assumption at the time, but Jay Wright had other ideas. News broke Wednesday, first reported by The Athletic’s Shams Charania, that Wright is retiring after a 21-year stint as head coach at Villanova that included four Final Fours and two national championships. That mantle we all gave him turned out to be a piping hot baton. Bill Self, John Calipari, Tom Izzo, Mark Few, Tony Bennett — y’all can have that. This summer, while Wright’s now-former peers are chasing teenage ballers and shvitzing in steamy gymnasiums, he’ll be teeing it up with his buddies, watching Netflix with his wife and kids, and surfing the Atlantic by his house on the Jersey Shore.
Good for him. Sad for us.
During a time of great instability — what with the transfer portal, the encroachment of quasi-professional leagues, and the new paradigm governing (or not governing) name, image and likeness — Wright was supposed to be college basketball’s Rock of Gibraltar. Now he’s what — its Waterloo? Bermuda Triangle? It’s hard not to be dramatic in the wake of such dramatic news. Wright’s unexpected departure raises some troubling questions. Is this just a case of one man deciding he’s had enough of the coaching life? Or is Wright the proverbial canary in the coal mine signaling that something truly disastrous is on the way?
I joked often this winter that when I talk to college basketball coaches these days, the conversations feel less like interviews and more like therapy sessions. That doesn’t seem so funny now that the sport is losing one of its leading men just when it needs him most. Put simply, the job is exhausting — physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. The travel is a killer. The parents wear you out. The press is always on your ass. The fans shout obscenities from the bleachers and hurl insults on social media. Your wife gets harassed at the grocery store, your kids get teased at school, and your very livelihood is dependent on the whims of 19- and 20-year-old kids who are under enormous pressure to succeed, and quickly. If things don’t go their way, they’re on to another school or off the pros. And you’re out of a job.
Coaching is a great job but a lousy profession. It pays well if you make it big, but it also chews you up and spits you out, because there’s always fresh meat on the way. Don’t look now, but the coaches are starting to bite back. Mark Turgeon couldn’t take the heat and the hate at Maryland, so he quit in December before they could fire him. Chris Mack likewise stepped down from Louisville in January. Mack had served a six-game suspension at the start of the season for violating university policy. He spent that time with his young family by the beach in Florida. He liked the view a lot better than the one he had after he returned to the program and his team went into a bad losing skid. He quit shortly after one of his best players undercut him in humiliating fashion at a postgame press conference.
Still: Jay Wright? Really? If anybody had reason not to feel worn out, it was him. His program was on virtual autopilot. Villanova didn’t have nearly the same problems that other programs had, be it roster turnover, harsh treatment from fans and alumni, lack of financial resources, or off-court issues with the law or the university. Wright’s players were great players and model citizens. They were locked in on defense, unselfish on offense, and got better year by year. Fundamentals? They just set the all-time free-throw record, for goodness sake. Any time one of them dove or fell to the floor, his teammates sprinted over as a group to help him to his feet. That kind of culture is both effective and sustainable. Or so we thought.
Wright was also a leading light in the world of USA Basketball. He has served in a variety of capacities, most recently as Gregg Popovich’s assistant with the national team. He helped the U.S. win gold at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Wright also had his share of NBA offers over the years. If Wright really wanted to coach the Lakers next season, he probably could. Otherwise, he could have his pick of NBA jobs each spring. Yet, Wright smartly turned away NBA offers in the past (in particular from the Sixers) because he understood that college was the better fit for him. No, Wright isn’t doing this because he’s eyeing the NBA. He’s just done.
The good news for Villanova fans is that Wright’s replacement, Kyle Neptune, had a terrific season at Fordham. The Rams finished 16-16, which is more wins than they had the previous two seasons combined. The bad news is that was Neptune’s only season as a head coach. He is 37 years old, played at Lehigh, and spent eight seasons as Wright’s assistant at Villanova. He is by all accounts bright, ambitious and very likeable. But is Neptune ready for his close-up? We’re about to find out
As for the bigger picture in college basketball, well, the games will go on, but next season won’t be the same without Wright’s charm and swag on the Main Line. It’s one thing when the elder statesmen call it quits, quite another when a (relatively) young Hall of Famer abruptly exits stage right. When the news broke Wednesday, there was lots of shock being expressed around the Twittersphere, but inside the coaching profession there was undoubtedly a lot of empathetic nodding, and perhaps a good bit of jealousy. Wright’s decision to retire is as unsettling as it is unconventional. College basketball is being knocked around pretty good these days. It’s too bad he isn’t sticking around to help it regain its balance.
(Photo: David J. Phillip / Associated Press)