Jay Wright’s stunning retirement explained

The last time Jay Wright spoke publicly as Villanova’s men’s basketball coach, he kept up the face and persona that made Wednesday night’s revelation of his retirement so stunning. He was outside a Superdome locker room, the Wildcats having lost to Kansas in the Final Four just minutes earlier, Wright himself less than 24 hours removed from admitting that, for a few years now, he had given thought to when and how he would walk away from coaching. But that loss, so close to another national championship, was so fresh, and Wright didn’t sound for a second like a man who knew already that he would never coach again.

“Part of being a competitor is really sitting in this and learning from it so it fuels you later,” he said that night. “Tomorrow, we’ll wake up – new day, new attitude. But right now, you’ve got to live in this, and you’ve got to admit what another team did extremely well that you didn’t do. It’s OK to just sit in that, and if you sit in it, no one will just blow it off. It’s going to fuel you later. ”

Say this for Wright: He was adept in that moment at hiding his true intentions, at hiding the truth of a decision that, according to four people close to him who spoke Wednesday night and Thursday morning on the condition of anonymity, he had been weighing for weeks, if not longer. One said that Wright “has been slowing down over the last few years. Just really tired and wanted to spend time with his family. ” One reaffirmed that Wright’s wife, Patty, was also tiring of their demanding professional life, that he hadn’t wanted to hang on to his job too long, that he had targeted his early 60s as the perfect time to retire. Another noted simply, “Getting out on top.”

»READ MORE: Jay Wright is retiring from coaching after leading Villanova to two national titles

That last factor is a compelling and interesting one, given the manner in which Wright had built Villanova into what was, measure for measure, the best college basketball program in the country. Once he mastered it, his approach was at once unique and – because it was cited so often as a reason for his success and because it was such an important reason for his success – cliched. He recruited players who, in his words, had “high character, intelligence, and a willingness to be coached.” More, those players weren’t necessarily inclined to leave school or transfer elsewhere after just one year, not the ones who made a lasting mark at Villanova, anyway. They had room to grow, and they were willing to stay in college two, three, or four years to do it. Hell, thanks to the NCAA’s granting certain players an extra year of eligibility in the wake of the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season, Collin Gillespie and Jermaine Samuels, the stars of Wright’s last team, could stay five years. And did.

If a player could withstand Wright’s often-withering coaching style – there was a reason Wright kept practices closed to the media – the kid might lead a team that contended for a national title, and he could earn himself a pro career and a handsome living. Mikal Bridges didn’t enter Villanova as a surefire NBA Defensive Player of the Year candidate, and Gillespie was in no way a certain Bob Cousy Award winner the first time he made the drive from Huntingdon Valley to Exit 13 of the Blue Route. But by the time those two finished their collegiate careers, they were.

The future of college basketball, though – in the era of the transfer portal, of name, image, and likeness (NIL), of alumni and boosters pooling money to form collectives to pay athletes endorsement dollars for sponsorships and public appearances – promised to jeopardize the smooth efficiency of Wright’s formula. Rather than immersing himself in Villanova’s culture for a couple of years, riding the bench a while, and awaiting his turn to shine, a player could increase his playing time and earning power immediately by transferring to another program. It would be more difficult for Wright to hold on to such talent until it had matured and ripened, and there’s reason to believe that he saw those challenges coming and wasn’t inclined to take them on or ride them out. Consider something he said last month in San Antonio when asked about the NIL issue.

“If we can keep the foundation that these guys are students and they’re going to college to get an education, to play basketball and they can make money while they’re doing it, I think in the next three or four years, if this can balance out, this can be a really good thing, ”he said. “I think the market will balance itself, and there’s a lot of intelligent people around. The collectives will figure it out. The universities will figure it out. ”

»READ MORE: Jay Wright is too good for college basketball, and the NBA

Three or four years. Was Wright really going to risk laboring that long through these changes, to keep coaching until he was at least 63 or 64, to disrupt the career timeline that he had established for himself? No, he was not. He was going to leave on top, and with the statement that he released at 9:17 pm Wednesday, with the confirmation of a decision he had done so much to conceal, the best college basketball coach in Big Five history, the best college basketball coach in America, came as close as he could have hoped .

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