Jay Wright at ease leaving Nova after ‘fighting it’ as coach

Jay Wright
Former Villanova head coach Jay Wright smiles before an NCAA college basketball game between Villanova and Oklahoma, Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022, in Philadelphia.
AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File

By DAN GELSTON AP Sports Writer

Jay Wright settled in a booth at the restaurant across the street from the basketball gym he called home for two decades and the cheerful waitress quizzed him at lunch if he had dined here before.

He had, the spot is a popular hangout at Villanova. So, naturally she asked, what does he do?

“I worked at the university for a long time,” Wright said, with just a tinge of modesty.

“Oh,” she said, ready with a fun fact, “the President comes in all the time and eats here.”

Yeah, it’s a favorite of this old university employee, too.

Could it be, Jay Wright, the Hall of Fame coach who built Villanova from sleepy Big East school into a national power and won two national championships before he shocked the sport in April and retired at 60 after one last Final Four, forgotten already? Yeah, not quite. Wright’s presence spreads and soon customers peer through poinsettias on the ledge of the booth and gawk at the Hall of Fame coach or politely ask between bites of his buffalo chicken salad if he can step out for a photo.

Sure, why not?

The Nova retiree is operating at a different pace — morning Bikram yoga, holidays at home with Patty, his wife of 32 years. But he hasn’t vanished from public view entirely. With 520 wins over 21 seasons at Villanova, he’s set to begin lending his expertise to viewers in a new gig as a broadcaster for CBS and Turner Sports. He’ll make his debut as a game analyst — alongside fellow former Nova coach Steve Lappas — for the CBS Sports Network on Wednesday night when his old Wildcats team plays Penn.

“I’ve got that rookie feeling,” Wright said.

Trim, refreshed, upbeat, Wright says he’s shed the self-inflicted strain that gnawed more and more each season as the impeccably dressed architect of an improbable national powerhouse in the tony Philly suburbs.

“Just being free, to really experience everything, has been incredible,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I know it sounds simple and stupid. But all of us coaches, we’re really out of our minds. People say it’s not healthy. No, it’s not. But it’s just what you do.”

Wright had tried to bury the thought when he coached that he wasn’t on the brink of burnout. That he wasn’t one more obsessed coach who couldn’t let the game go.

“And I now know I was one,” he said.

He could’ve pushed himself another year or two after last season’s Final Four run but would have felt like a fraud.

“I knew I was fighting it,” he said. “I would go into a meeting with the team and I would stop myself and kick myself in the ass. Yo, let’s go. Get yourself fired up. I never, ever had to do that. Never.”

Wright hasn’t totally abandoned the gym. But one time he attended practice, well, he fell into old habits and simply assumed command. The coaching staff was amenable, because of that whole Hall of Fame coach thing, and also because the coach running practice was Wright’s son. Taylor Wright, now the interim head basketball coach at Episcopal Academy out in the Philly suburbs, had ceded power to dad for a practice the day after Thanksgiving.

“I just had a couple of things to say,” Wright said, laughing. “I’ve got to stay away from it. It’s just too tempting.”

He hasn’t strayed too far from Villanova. Kyle Neptune, a longtime Villanova assistant who returned after one season as head coach at Fordham to succeed Wright, welcomed his mentor at practice. Stop by, any time.

“So much of what I know, and how I’ve learned the game, how I see the game, how I’ve learned to run a program, I’ve learned from being here,” Neptune said. “Of course, I’m not the same person. No one can be exactly Jay Wright.”

Wright says he’s around, he just doesn’t want to be around too much, which is why he declined an offer from a close group of alumns that wanted to fly him to the Michigan State game and hang. He wanted to let Neptune find his way without causing a distraction.

Villanova’s worst seven-game start since 1991 has knocked the Wildcats out of the AP Top 25 and suddenly made the Big East feel up for grabs. It was impossible for Wright to escape at lunch the Main Line malaise some fans felt barely a month into the season. Two old college roommates interrupted Wright for both a photo request and a quick critique of the scuffling Wildcats.

“We’re just having this mini-reunion and we’re saying Villanova isn’t as good since you left,” one woman said.

“Don’t say that! That’s not true,” Wright said. “We will be. We’ll be better.”

The 37-year-old Neptune can’t immediately escape Wright’s shadow — especially when he’s 50 feet away wearing a CBS blazer and a headset. And that’s OK with Neptune.

“A lot of what I learned, I learned from him,” Neptune said.

Wright says there were no health issues or even the challenging, changing world of college sports that led to retirement. It was a lifetime of basketball that spanned stints from coaching a charity team for the USFL Philadelphia Stars to an assistant on the U.S. men’s basketball team that forced him to slow down and look at life beyond the bench. He rejected all kinds of offers for other, often more lucrative jobs.

He’s also smart enough to know recruitment calls will keep coming. Wright says he’s not interested in another coaching gig, for now. But hey, the phone lines are open.

“I say no,” he said. “Right now I have no interest. Right now. I just know enough about life to know that maybe it changes. I’m telling you, right now, I have no interest.”

Let’s see how much he likes broadcasting. Unflappable on the sideline, Wright says he’s not coming out with a list of catchphrases — though how can he not say ” bang ” on a big Nova 3? — or try and predict plays like a roundball Tony Romo. He has veteran broadcaster Tom McCarthy at his side Wednesday to guide him through any rookie jitters.

Wright made a cameo appearance on Saturday’s broadcast — his 2022 Final Four ring popping off the screen — and his first, brief shot at calling the game was enough to let him know for sure he made the right call to shift careers.

“You’re looking across and you’re seeing the two coaches and you know what they’re thinking, you know what’s going on in their head, you know what’s going on in your head,” Wright said, “I like this a lot better.”