One national title, four Final Fours and four world-class coaches have made Villanova far and away the best program in the Big Five. And now, thanks in part to ESPN exposure, the Main Line is where the national focus is for Philly hoops and for high-achieving Catholic high schoolers
By Theodore N. Beitchman
“You know, a basketball hero around here is treated like a god … how can he ever find out what he can really do? I don’t want this to be the high point of his life. I’ve seen them, the real sad ones. They sit around the rest of their lives talking about the glory days when they were seventeen years old.”
—Myra Fleener, portrayed by Barbara Hershey, in “Hoosiers,” 1986
“Hoosiers” was only a movie, though the greatest basketball movie ever made and perhaps the greatest sports movie ever.
Myra was a teacher, lecturing coach Norman Dale, portrayed by Gene Hackman, that as big as basketball can seem in a town like Milan, Indiana, in 1954, life itself has a much greater meaning.
That’s it in a nutshell, really: The argument that crystallizes the dilemma of sports today. The athletes are put on a pedestal, idolized and pampered because they can play the game. And in return they get the opportunity for a first-rate education that should hold them in good stead for the rest of their lives.
On the other hand is the argument that college athletes generate massive amounts of money for their schools, so why shouldn’t they be paid over and above tuition and room and board?
That debate has been percolating increasingly in the past few years, even in the Big Five — which is actually six if you include Drexel along with Penn, Temple, St. Joseph’s, LaSalle and Villanova — the most competitive and successful college basketball group in any city in the country.
The Big Five doesn’t seem nearly as big today as it was in its salad days of the 1960s and 1970s, and it doesn’t get the same level of media coverage today. Not because it has gotten somehow smaller. But coverage and appreciation of the Phils, Eagles, Sixers and Flyers is now so outsized that college hoops gets overlooked.
And the biggest reason is money. Or, to be more precise, TV rights money.
LaSalle won the national title in 1954 and Tom Gola was named tournament MVP, losing to eventual champ San Francisco and Bill Russell in 1955.
Temple went to the Final Four in 1956 and again in 1958.
St. Joseph’s broke through in 1961, finishing third in a four-overtime victory over Utah before it was discovered that three Hawks players had engaged in point shaving, so their record was vacated.
Penn made it in 1979 before being waxed by eventual champ Michigan State and a 19-year-old named Magic Johnson.
The monetary compensation the Explorers, Hawks, Owls and Quakers received was a pittance. There was little or no national TV coverage for the first three, and NBC was ending its long-term, modestly compensated contract for college hoops when Penn made the Final Four with Michigan State and Indiana State’s Larry Bird.
And then there is Villanova, which lost to UCLA for the national title in 1971 and had the good sense to join the Big East in 1981, just as ESPN was making it the highest-profile show in the country, with doubleheaders every Monday night.
Mix in a national championship won on April Fool’s day in 1985, when it upset defending champion Georgetown (which was favored by 9 1/2 points!), and you have a recipe for athletic and ultimately academic excellence that has made the Main Line school one of the hottest in the country — No.1 among regional universities according to the benchmark U. S. News & World Report.
And as a consequence, the center of gravity of local college basketball has shifted 17 miles northwest of the Palestra where a charismatic coach and his Wildcats have gotten off to a 10-0 start.
Now Nova Nation, the hard-core group of local Wildcat fans, has to share the team with the entire nation.
Jay Wright is the Master of Philly’s Sports Universe, but if he wore his and Villanova’s success on his sleeve his tailor wouldn’t be the only one to pitch a fit.
The Victorian Gentleman dictates of the local media make it unseemly for a collegian to brag — modesty is the order of the day. By the same token, criticism of the revered Big Five is unseemly. It is off-limits for a good reason. They are kids, and they are not being paid. The Teflon attitude, though, even extends to coaches and athletic directors, who make considerable sums.
But even using the standards of his counterparts in the pros. you won’t find anything to criticize about Wright. Entering his 13th season as the Wildcats’ coach, the 52-year-old had a 257-144 record with eight NCAA tournament appearances in the past nine seasons, including the 2009 Final Four.
Only the sainted Al Severance, who led the Cats for 25 years, and Rollie Massimino, who coached the school’s only NCAA title in 1985, have won more games — Severance in 25 seasons, Massimino in 19.
Wright is also the coolest Cat on the block. He is George Clooney-handsome — ESPN’s Jay Bilas suggests Johnny Depp should play Wright in the next great hoops movie, “though he might not be pretty enough”; dresses like a CEO (down to the cuff links); earns a CEO-type $2.2 million a year (according to USA Today); and has a beautiful family — the former Patricia Reilly (who was a Villanova cheerleader, naturally) sons Taylor and Collin and daughter Reilly.
Villanova has made the Final Four four times, won the NCAA title in 1985 and made it to the Elite Eight 12 times.
And, although you won’t read it in the local papers or hear about it on talk radio and TV — the Victorian Gentleman forbids such declarations — Villanova is the best basketball program in Philly.
Has been for a long time.
By leaps and bounds.
Thanks to basketball success and academic excellence, Villanova has also become the cool school in town. Nationally, it is competing with Georgetown, Boston College and Notre Dame for the high-academic-achieving Catholic high school juniors and seniors.
Wright has continued the tradition of hoops success — begun by Severance and picked up by Jack Kraft and Massimino — that has elevated Villanova to the upper reaches of college basketball nationally, and has separated Villanova from the rest of the Big Five. The other schools have had recent moments in the sun, such as LaSalle’s magical run to the Sweet Sixteen last March. But, thanks in part to ESPN’s promotion of the Big East for the past 30 years (and now Fox Sports 1) it is Lancaster Avenue that has attracted the most attention.
And as Wright and the Wildcats prepared for their first season in the new Big East — which the Inquirer’s Bob Ford calls “the Ivy League with rosaries” — Wright was sanguine but realistic.
“I can never say I’m happy about the demise of the [original] Big East,” Wright says at the end of September in an interview in the Davis Center across from the Pavilion, where the Cats play home games. “But given all our options I’m thrilled about where we landed. Exciting. Stable. We’re not affected by all this football. There are great things, but there have been some casualties.”
Villanova, founded by the Augustinians in 1842, was almost a casualty two years later when anti-Catholic riots in Philadelphia forced the school to close for a year and a half. And it experienced closures in 1857 until 1865 related to the financial panic of the ensuing Civil War.
Its basketball history, however, has been characterized by success almost from the program’s beginning in 1920.
Severance made the Cats’ varsity in 1925 and also ran track and boxed. He was valedictorian of the class of 1929 and got his law degree at Temple in 1935. He took over the Cats in 1936 and coached until 1961 — 25 seasons that shaped the school’s program and the city series, which began in 1955 as the Big Five.
The NCAA tournament began in 1939, and for many years it was an afterthought — the National Invitation Tournament, which began the year before, was considered much more prestigious. Only eight teams were selected in 1939 — compared to today’s 68 — and Villanova, representing the Middle Atlantic States, beat Brown at the Palestra to make the Final Four, where it lost to Ohio State, which lost to Oregon for the title.
As good as Severance was on the sideline — 413 victories, four NCAAs, two NIT appearances — he was an even better talent-spotter.
At a CYO game in 1946, Severance saw a 6-4 kid making jumper after jumper, approached him afterward and asked if he would like to go to Villanova.
“I already go to Villanova,” responded Paul Arizin, who couldn’t make the team at LaSalle College High and would go on to become one of the greatest players in Villanova’s history. The South Philly native was a prodigious scorer — averaging 25.3 ppg in 1950, when he was named national player of the year — and would later lead the NBA in scoring for the Philadelphia Warriors.
Another neighborhood kid, South Catholic’s Joe Hannan, was also a standout Wildcat. None other than Bob Vetrone — the Evening Bulletin’s college basketball expert who with the Inquirer’s Herb Good kept the Big Five alive in its early days — always believed that the recruiting of Arizin and Hannan made Villanova attractive to kids from South Philly. And Arizin was so popular that Italian kids put Villanova at the top of their lists.
Severance kept recruiting south, snatching a 6-5 bruiser from Washington, D. C., who wound up being the school’s first black player. George Raveling led the Cats in rebounding from 1958-60. Raveling also had an eye for talent, attracting another Washington player, George Leftwich, in 1960, and seven years later the prime-time scorer and rebounder, Howard Porter, who would have an enduring impact on the program, positively and negatively.
Rav, as he is known by his legion of admirers, was a Villanova assistant and then head coach at Washington State, Iowa and USC, and is now Nike’s director of international basketball. It is sweet coincidence that he and Massimino were inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame on the same night, November 24, 2013.
Wright came to the Main Line in the fall of 2001 from Hofstra, where he went to two NCAA tournaments, a remarkable achievement for a small school. And if he is not solely responsible for Villanova’s preeminence in this basketball-crazy market, his 2006 Elite Eight and 2009 Final Four teams certainly are the reasons the Wildcats have shot to the top of the pyramid in terms of local and national recognition.
And there are smart people who think Wright saved Villanova basketball. Since that lightning-in-a-bottle 1985 season, in which Villanova went from the NCAA tournament bubble to national champion in three weeks, the Villanova program had been a series of ups and mostly downs. From phone card scandals to coaching changes, Villanova desperately needed someone of Wright’s stature and presence to bring back the glory.
Wright once thought Massimino, his mentor, would coach Villanova forever, and he served as his assistant for five seasons at Villanova and two at UNLV before taking the Hofstra job in 1994 at the age of 32. Then, in 2001, his friend Steve Lappas was moved out as Villanova’s coach, and Wright came home. “We had really committed ourselves to not ever coming back to Philadelphia,” Wright says of his wife and three kids . “I never said that was my `dream job,’ because I really had discounted it.”
During Lappas’ last four years, Villanova was 34-34 in Big East Conference games. In Wright’s first 12 years the Wildcats have gone 114-90, and won the conference title in 2006.
Wright grew up in Bucks County, played the point at Council Rock High and then at Bucknell, where he was MVP his senior year — “I was only 6-2 and not good enough to play at Villanova.” He went to Big Five games as a kid, and still gets a faraway look in his eye when the 1971 Final Four team is mentioned.
“I was the world’s biggest Villanova fan,” he says, “and my favorite player was Hank Siemiontkowski. He had scored 35 points against Western Kentucky in the national semifinals, but he fouled out and I was so upset I ran upstairs to my room and couldn’t watch the end of the game.”
Villanova won that game and played eventual champion UCLA life and death before losing 68-62, though that season’s records have been expunged because one of Villanova’s players, Porter, had signed with an agent. Several, actually.
“I was only 11 at the time,” Wright says, “but I have been a Villanova fan ever since that year.”
Nineteen seventy-one created a lot of Wildcat fans, and the roots of that glorious season were planted when Jack Kraft left Malvern Prep to replace Severance 10 years earlier. Kraft had also coached at Bishop Neumann for 12 years, and he had a feel for the Catholic League, which to this day is a great feeder to the Big Five.
Athletic director Art Mahan thought he had St. Bonaventure coach Eddie Donovan all wrapped up as Severance’s successor. In fact, Donovan was seen house-hunting on the Main Line. But the NBA New York Knicks came through with a better offer.
Donovan lasted four years as Knicks coach while Kraft turned the Cats into a Philly powerhouse in an era when the Big Five became recognized nationwide as the best example of what Newsweek’s terrific writer Pete Axthelm called “The City Game.”
Welcome to the Big 5 in its heyday, when St. Joseph’s, Penn, Villanova, Temple and LaSalle regularly drew sellouts for doubleheaders two or three times a week at the Palestra, the barn on 33rd street, which was and is the home of the Quakers and the bane of the brave who visited to play one of the Big 5.
This was before the NCAA tournament became March Madness, and only 25 teams made the dance every year, so each game had more importance than they do today. And each game seemingly meant more to St. Joseph’s Jack Ramsay, Penn’s Jack McCloskey, Temple’s Harry Litwack, LaSalle’s Dudey Moore or newbie Kraft at Villanova.
Severance’s last team, in 1961, went 11-13, but he left some talent for Kraft — Honey Bear Leftwich, Hubie White, Jim McMonigle, Joe O’Brien — who turned in a 21-7 record, including two wins in the 1962 NCAA tournament. And two freshman recruited by Severance would elevate the Cats even higher — Wally Jones from Overbrook and Jim Washington from West Catholic, who led the Cats to the NCAA in 1964 and two NITs.
They also had great style. Jones was a whirling dervish point guard who would tuck his legs and explode a jump shot. Washington was a smooth as silk 6-6 banger who pulled 19 rebounds in an NCAA game. And when the Cats showed up at the Palestra for a big game, the entire team, including Kraft and trainer Jake Nevin, would wear Villanova blue berets!
Kraft extended his recruiting to south Jersey when he snared Bishop Eustace ace sho0ting guard Billy Melchionni for the 1963-64 squad which went 24-4. “Cy,” short for “Cyclops,” as Melchionni was known because of his shooting eye, went on to score more than 1,600 career points. Raveling spotted Johnny Jones in Sports Illustrated’s “Faces in the Crowd” and alerted Kraft, who recruited the Floridian along with 6-5 forward Clarence Smith from Harrisburg. And then Rav personally scouted and signed the 6-8 Porter, who was also from Florida.
Smith and Porter joined Tom Ingelsby, Chris Ford, Hank Siemiontkowski that posted a 66-18 record in the three years from 1969-to-1971.
In 1968-69 the Cats went 21-5, the next season 22-7 and in 1970-71 20-8, but during that three-year period Penn won each regular season match-up — until March 23, when they met in the Eastern Regionals in Raleigh for a ticket to the Final Four.
That year’s Penn squad came into the regional final with a 28-0 record and a No. 3 national ranking, the best in school history. It is arguable that Penn had a better team, but Villanova was sky-high that late March day and Penn was flat as a board. The Cats bolted to a 22-6 lead and led at halftime 43-22, and the game was essentially over with Villanova winning 90-47.
Western Kentucky fell in the national semis at Houston, and then the Cats took on legendary coach John Wooden and UCLA in the final. The Bruins were defending national champs, and had won six of the preceding seven titles, and were heavily favored.
“We did a great job on Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe,” but a lightly regarded center, Steve Patterson, “was the difference-maker,” Mike Daly, a Cat sub, recalled. “We had UCLA on its heels down the stretch, but with no shot clock, they were able to hold the ball.” Wooden had always eschewed holding the ball, but even he adjusted when Villanova came roaring back to within six, and he instructed Henry Bibby to take the air out of the ball as UCLA won 68-62.
Then all hell broke loose. The NCAA came down hard on Porter and Villanova because he had actually signed with a couple of agents and received remuneration during his senior year. Even though Villanova alum Richie Phillips was able to negotiate Porter’s legal problems and transition to the NBA, the school had to forfeit its second-place finish in the tournament and the $72,000 it had earned.
As guard Ed Hastings, who missed playing during the 1971 season with a knee injury, would say, “The ’71 team had gone from ecstasy to an asterisk.”
Kraft would coach the Cats into the NCAAs the next year, losing to Penn in the regionals semis, and then he headed to Rhode Island, paving the way for Rollie Massimino.
Kraft was buttoned-down, in his dress and his temperament. He seemed to always wear a blue blazer and grey slacks, and he was largely imperturbable, even when Wally Jones was firing blind crosscourt passes.
In contrast, Massimino was like the Energizer Bunny on the sidelines — screaming, scowling, sweating, and also succeeding.
He grew up in Hillside, N.J., coached high school there and at Lexington (MA) High before taking over at Stony Brook on Long Island, and made it to the NCAA small college tournament before heading to Penn for two years as Chuck Daly’s assistant.
“Rollie was a great strategist,” says Craig Littlepage, a starter at Penn in the early 1970s who is now athletic director at Virginia. “Chuck was a great motivator, but Rollie was the X’s and O’s guy.”
Littlepage followed Massimino to Villanova as an assistant — along with Tom Brennan — who would revive Vermont’s hoops program and go to two NCAAs. Massimino got off to a rocky start — 7-19 and 9-18 his first two seasons. “We played a lot of freshmen,” Littlepage remembers, “and that’s always a hard way to win.”
Daddy Mass, as he was called by his players, had the hardest time with a Roxborough High phenom, Chubby Cox, whose cousin is Joe Bryant, Kobe’s dad, and whose talent was surpassed only by his ego. There were nights Mass would drown his sorrows — not in drink but in pasta. Mass and his wife Mary Jane used to host pasta dinners for players and friends at their modest house off the campus.
Somehow, Mass survived those first two years and got above .500 the next season. After that, as Al McGuire, the former Marquette coach who won a Final Four in 1977 and walked away into TV nirvana, might say: It was all seashells and balloons.
Sports Illustrated would describe him as, “the coach, a round, cartoonish man,” but parents of high school seniors saw someone who would take care of their sons.
Politicians of all stripes preach “family values,” but to Rollie Massimino it is more than a talking point.
“His family atmosphere was absolutely key,” Harold Pressley, who in 1982 as a senior at St. Bernard High in Uncasville, Conn. and was an All-America, told Sports Illustrated in 2004. “He came in, lounged around with my mother, seemed real comfortable. It worked. It was believable. And it was real.”
Mass ran off 16-11 in 1975-76 and then 23-10, 23-9 and an NCAA Elite Eight spot, 15-13, 23-8, 20-11 and then two more Elite Eights in 1982 and 1983. And he assembled his 1984-85 team — Pressley and Harold Jensen from Trumbull, Conn., Dwayne McClain from Worcester, Mass., Gary McLain from Metheun, Mass., Ed Pinckney from the Bronx and Mark Plansky from Wakefield, Mass.
McLain, McClain and Pinckney would call themselves “The Expansion Crew.”
It is impossible to track Villanova’s path to national prominence without emphasizing two stubborn facts:
It would never have happened without the formation of the original Big East Conference. And that never would have happened without the birth of ESPN — both in 1979.
Dave Gavitt was a fine coach at Providence and later its athletic director, and he and his fellow eastern coaches and ADs were tired of watching high school blue-chippers go out west to get the fame and glory that only the national TV exposure of NBC could ensure.
High school stars like Overbrook’s Walt Hazzard and New York’s Lew Alcindor would hightail it to UCLA in the 1960s, and Overbrook’s Andre McCarter would follow in the 1970s. They all sought refuge in the warm California sun and in the coaching genius of John Wooden.
And if not for the Big East and ESPN’s exposure of it to a hoops-crazy nation, Boston’s Patrick Ewing, Brooklyn’s Chris Mullen and the Expansion Crew all would have flown the east to go to college. Instead, they met in Lexington, Ky., in the 1985.
Villanova, St. John’s and Georgetown were joined by Memphis State in a Final Four for the ages.
Among Villanova’s nine regular-season defeats were two each to Georgetown (both close, a fact that would be widely overlooked by CBS’ Billy Packer, who gave the 9 ½-point underdog Cats “no shot”) and St. John’s, teams that volleyed the No. 1 ranking all season. The most humbling was the regular-season finale. With his team trailing Pittsburgh 40-23 at the half in Pitt’s Fitzgerald Field House, Massimino told his starters at halftime, “You’ve got two minutes to show me something, or you’re coming out.” He gave them three before yanking them for good. Shock troops played the last 17 minutes. Pitt won 85-62. Villanova slunk home to Philly with an 18-9 record, right on the NCAA bubble.
Villanova made the dance but only because the field had been expanded to 64 from 48 teams, and knocked off Dayton and Michigan and then Maryland to get to the regional final against North Carolina in Birmingham.
At halftime Villanova trailed 22-17. Massimino pulled a chair into the center of the room. “I don’t need this,” he shouted. “You know what I’d like right now? A big bowl of spags, with clam sauce.” He was laughing madly as he said it, spreading his hands as if to illustrate a massive vat of pasta. The players started softly chuckling, until the tension was sucked out of the room. Then Massimino took a deep breath. “Hey, guys,” he said. “Just go out and play.”
The Cats got the message and won 56-44.
In Lexington the following weekend, Villanova knocked off Memphis and Georgetown took out St. John’s, setting up the title game on Monday evening, April 1. No fooling, the Hoyas had beaten Villanova 52-50 in overtime at the Spectrum and 57-50 in Landover, Md.
Villanova gathered in a meeting room at the Lexington Ramada Inn for its pregame Catholic mass and meal. The meal was customarily a time for family fun. “Like Sunday dinner at the Massiminos’,” says sub Chuck Everson. Massimino had never delivered a post-meal speech, but on this day he did. First he spoke softly about former Villanova coach Al Severance, who had died that morning at age 79. “He’ll be up on the basket swatting Georgetown shots away,” Massimino said.
Despite the common perception of the game as a “shot-clock victory” for Villanova, the Wildcats held the ball more than 45 seconds just twice all night, both times enabled by a passive and atypical Georgetown zone defense. True to Massimino’s pregame speech, ‘Nova played to win.
The Wildcats built a 53-48 advantage with six minutes to play, but Georgetown ran off six straight points to take the lead, forced a Villanova turnover and went into a four corners in an attempt to coax Villanova into a man-to-man defense. The stall lasted less than half a minute before Billy Martin’s hard pass bounced off Horace Broadnax’s shin.
Following the turnover Villanova held the ball for 62 seconds until Jensen bravely drilled the wide-open jump shot from the right side with 2:37 left on the clock. The Wildcats did not trail again and won 66-64.
“The Perfect Game,” as the HBO documentary would call it. The Wildcats had 17 turnovers (to Georgetown’s 11). Jensen had six. Part of what is so fascinating about the game is that Villanova, when it did not turn the ball over, almost always scored, shooting 79% from the field!
It was sweet revenge for Mass and his minions, and they bathed in the glory in center city where 200,000 showed up for a celebratory event. Two months later, Mass turned down the Nets’ head coaching offer. He stayed another seven seasons on the Main Line, making the NCAA four times and advancing past the first round just once.
Perhaps the unkindest cut was the accusation that he pulled Villanova out of the annual Big Five round robin with LaSalle, Penn, Saint Joseph’s and Temple. “That was a university decision,” says Massimino. “But when you look at it, we were playing in the Big East, where you could lose six or seven games a year, and then you’ve got four games in the Big Five. You lose two of those, you’re in trouble and you might not make the tournament.” His last Villanova team, in ’91-92, was 14-15.
Massimino has no bigger fan than Wright.
“Rollie was a great teacher for me because he could see that I was catching on to what he was teaching, and yet, like a lot of father figures, he never told me what he thought of my ability.
“One night I was out recruiting and I ran into Mike Fratello, who goes back 30 years with Rollie from North Jersey. And Mike told me that Rollie thought I was a good X’s and O’s man. And if you know Rollie there is no greater compliment.
“That’s when I knew I was a good coach.
Oh, one last thing, Wright insists.
“I was here when Rollie got blamed for the breakup of the Big 5, and it was an unfair accusation. It was strictly a business decision on the part of the university, and I am glad that all five of the schools still play one another and that those games mean so much to the alums and the students.”
There may be many college athletic facilities named for trainers, but only two come to my mind — Ducky Drake Stadium, the terrific outdoor track and field complex named for the legendary UCLA trainer; and Jack Nevin Fieldhouse, named in honor of the man who was the face of Villanova athletics for 56 years.
Hired by Severance, he taped the ankles of virtually every athlete on campus until ALS put him in a wheelchair in 1983. He was on the sidelines at Lexington when the Cats beat Georgetown for the national title, and players would rub his bald pate before every game.
“No one at Villanova has ever touched more lives than Jake has,” Mass once said.
Severance died the day of that Perfect Game, in his hotel room in Lexington; Jake followed the following December, and if they both came back to life today they wouldn’t recognize the little campus where they started during the Depression.
Before the Schuylkill Expressway and the Blue Route. Before RPIs and the shot clock.
The fieldhouse built in 1932 was renamed for Jake in 1985.
The Pavilion, opened in 1986, is a modern, state-of-the-art arena that seats 6,500, about twice what the fieldhouse holds.
In 2007 came the Davis Center, a three-story, 55,000 square foot structure across Ithan Avenue from the Pavilion which serves as home of the school’s basketball history, and also houses offices for men’s and women’s basketball with a practice court. A walk into the lobby affords a pictorial showcase of how important basketball is to the university.
Nothing epitomizes Villanova’s modernization more than the Davis Center, which is named for James C. Davis, a 1981 business school grad. In October 2013 Davis, who founded the Allegis Group, a private staffing-services company, and his wife Kim donated $50 million to the school, the largest in Villanova’s 171-year history. It is now the biggest piece of a $600 million fund-raising campaign titled “For the Greater Great: The Villanova Campaign to Ignite Change.”
“I wanted to give back to a place that gave me so much,” Davis said. “I valued my time here, and I really liked the great values-based education.”
In many ways, Wright is the perfect face of a university whose brand is based on values. And he is the common thread through all of what makes Villanova a special basketball program.
He was born in 1961, the year Severance retired and Kraft became coach. He became a Cats fan in 1971, watching the Final Four when Kraft coached them to within seven points of a national championship. He was an assistant under Massimino, who won the school’s only national championship in 1985, two years before Wright went to work for Mass.
And in the Davis Center last September he perks up when the interviewer tells him that he is a big fan of Massimino.
“That’s great,” Wright says. He doesn’t get near the credit that he deserves.
And, of course, Wright took Villanova to its fourth Final Four, in 2009.
Saint Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli, who must deal with Wright and Villanova each year in one of the Big Five’s most heated rivalries, told SI.com, “Jay builds relationships. He’s eager and interested in knowing you, whether you are a writer or a truck driver. We all should have that ability, but we don’t.”
Wright came out of Bucknell in 1983 not sure what he was going to do or where he was going to do it. He took on a job in marketing for the Philadelphia Stars of the USFL. Once on a promotional tour, the Stars mascot didn’t show up, so Wright donned the costume and sold tickets.
At his first head coaching job, at Hofstra in 1994, Wright tried to boost attendance by putting a Post-It note on each seat in the Hofstra arena with an offer to exchange the Post-It for a season ticket.
At Villanova in 2009, he took an experienced team including Dwayne Anderson, Dante Cunningham, Corey Fisher, Reggie Redding. Scottie Reynolds and Corey Stokes into the dance, knocked off American and UCLA at the Wells Fargo Center, Duke and Pitt at the regionals in Boston before losing to eventual champ North Carolina in the national semis in Detroit.
Admission applications to Villanova spiked after that magical run — as it did after the 1985 NCAA title — thanks to the “Flutie Effect,” named for the Boston College quarterback whose Hail Mary winning TD pass in 1984 against Miami sent BC applications soaring.
But there was an unintended consequence, according to Wright.
“Recruiting came too easy, if you can believe it. A lot of players came to us, and I don’t think we did a good job of selecting.”
Taylor King is a good example.
“He was a high school star in southern California, and I think he verbally committed to UCLA as an eighth-grader. But he went to Duke and got into trouble [he failed a drug test], and he dropped out after his freshman year,” Wright recalls. “His dad called us right away, and he came to Villanova, but his trouble followed him [curfew violations and marijuana use] and he dropped out of school.”
King is now playing semi-pro basketball.
“Villanova is not a place where you do one and done,” Wright emphasized, referring to so many programs like Kentucky that recruit players knowing that they will head to the NBA after their freshman season.
“We recruit kids who want to play in a quality program and who want to graduate. And I always ask recruits, ‘Why are you coming to Villanova?’ The greatest gift I can give you is the truth.”
Penn State coach Pat Chambers, who was an assistant under Wright from 2004-09, told the New York Times: “As an assistant, you cringe when Jay comes in for the final meeting and tells the kid he’s not going to start right away. But you know what? He told that to an NBA player in Tyreke Evans. I rolled my eyes, but I know Tyreke respected that, too.”
There have been offers to coach in bigger venues, like Kentucky, but Wright has always maintained that he has the best job in the country. And he has no thought of the pros, even though he met with Sixers GM Ed Stefanski in 2009. “Philly is my home,” he says. “That was the only reason I listened.”
As for his pay, Wright avers, “I feel that I get paid very well here, though there are schools that could pay me more.”
And he is diametrically opposed to paying athletes over and above tuition and room and board.
“We’re going to have the most success when we get kids who want to be part of our community, and stay for four years. And everyone who stays at Villanova and plays basketball for four years graduates. We’re in a unique situation at Villanova. Each year of a scholarship is worth about $60,000.”
For the record, room and board, tuition and all fees at Villanova is $52,286, which comes to $225,144 for the four years.
At a photo shoot with JayVaughn Pinkston and Ryan Arcidiacano, it is obvious that Wright is a player’s coach. Not one of the boys but someone who relates to their experience.
But Scottie Reynolds, one of the best guards in school history, related to the New York Times the other side of Wright’s personality. In July 2007, Reynolds, then coming off a rookie-of-the-year season in the Big East, played for Wright with the United States team in the Pan-American Games in Rio de Janeiro. During one practice, Reynolds, a meek shooter, failed to perform a defensive drill correctly three times. After the third try, Wright let him have it.
“Get out!” Wright told Reynolds. “If you want to act like a small-town kid, then you’re never going to play at this level!”
Wright grew up in Churchville in Bucks County, which is a little bigger than Milan, Indiana, whose high school team beat big city Muncie Central for the 1954 Indiana state title in 1954 and was immortalized in “Hoosiers.”
And Wright’s personality draws from the small town and the big city nature of his background. He wears the bespoke suits with a hankie in his breast pocket but his values are decidedly down-home.
It is a combination that has taken the Wildcats to the heights of national basketball competition, and Wright intends to keep them there.
“I would like to stay here forever,” he says. The longer I’m here the more I like it.”
And the more Nova Nation likes it too.