Villanova University's Jay Wright was named College Basketball Coach of the Decade by the Associated Press on Friday for one incontrovertible reason: He’s worthy of the honor.
Oh, he’s not alone. There were others worthy of it, chief among them being Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and Kentucky’s John Calipari, and perhaps even more deserving. Frankly, Coach K’s two national titles and five Elite Eight appearances overall in the 10 years probably trump Wright’s two nattys, and Coach Cal’s one championship and seven Elite Eights may.
But, really, it just depends which narrative you prefer when it comes to nailing down the best when you’re talking about the giants of the profession.
Make no mistake, either. Wright is a giant in the profession anymore … and his story to achieving undeniable success from 2010 through 2019, frankly, is a nice change from hum-drum, basketball factory production tales that can be attached to both K and Cal.
A former ’Nova assistant, Wright was a proven head coach before he ever returned to the Main Line, having taken mid-major Hofstra to the NCAA tournament his final two years at the Long Island school in 2001. Now, while the Wildcats had a strong history, which included winning an NCAA crown in 1985 and playing for one 14 years prior to that, it never would have been confused with the likes of those at Duke, Kentucky or North Carolina.
But Wright made them players against the big boys almost immediately. By his eighth season, they already had two appearances in the Sweet 16, one in the Elite Eight and another in the Final Four.
Then something happened, and, to me, it is what truly sets Wright apart from all other the last 10 years.
The upward swing stopped. Cold. The ’Cats, following a trip to the national semifinals in 2009, started going backward. Their win total dropped from 30 to 25 to 21, before, finally, it dropped their record below – gasp – .500 in 2011-12: 13-19.
Truth be told, yours truly thought he was done at that point. The magic touch seemed to be gone. The interest in the program had waned. Heck, it wasn’t ’Nova hanging with the big boys at that time, it was Big Five rival Temple doing so against Duke, even beating the top-5 Blue Devils midway through that losing campaign for the ’Cats before a packed house at Villanova’s own home away from home, the Wells Fargo Center in South Philly.
But it was during this time of doldrums for the Villanova program that Wright made his two greatest decisions as its leader: 1) he realized that he needed to make toughness, physical and mental, as much a priority in recruiting as talent, and 2) he went about implementing that philosophy by signing the most physically and mentally tough player arguably in the school’s history.
Yes, there have been, and will be, more skilled and productive players than Ryan Arcidiacono in Wildcats’ lore. But his decision to attend his parents’ alma mater truly was a seminal moment for Villanova … and Wright.
His impact was felt immediately in terms of how the Wildcats played and how much they achieved. Taking their point guard’s lead, they backed down from no one – win or lose – beginning in the fall of 2012 and, really, haven’t stopped since.
A national title in Arcidiacono’s senior season in 2016 seemed the ultimate, only two years after his graduation the Wildcats earned another one. In dominating fashion. With Wright looking dapper as always, diagramming Xs and Os to allow his players to pick apart the opposition and relying on what had become the backbone of his program: toughness.
Spearheaded by that, Wright led the ’Cats to nine NCAA tournament bids and nine 20-win seasons, including four of 32 or better, and, of course, those two championships.
Roll your eyes, make a case for others you feel were more deserving, or scoff at him or his non-blue blood program as much as you want, the reality remains the same:
Wright is worthy of being named coach of the last decade. No doubt about it.