Being the big man on campus

Ryan G. Murphy

Jay Wright just had a root canal. It was a little unexpected. He’s running 20 minutes late as well. “Forgive him if he mumbles a little,” says Maryanne, the basketball office receptionist said. “And sorry about the wait.”

There is a brief silence. She and I are thinking about how fun a surprise root canal would be right now. Before we have a chance to talk about it, Jay explodes through the door, jacket tossed over his arm with briefcase in hand. “Yo, my man! What’s up? Sorry I’m late.” he says, as he gives me a big smack on the hand. “Have a seat. How’s everything been? It’s good to see you.” I’ve only met Jay once before today. It becomes clear that Jay Wright is the big man on Villanova’s campus – and that he is not much affected by surprise root canals.

Jay Wright is a 42-year-old “college kid” / family man – as much as the two are able to combine. Some may find it disconcerting, though, that the man atop the Villanova basketball world is an avid viewer of SpongeBob SquarePants and the Powerpuff girls. But maybe sometimes it takes a college kid to lead a group of, well … college kids.

The atrium of Jay’s office is decorated with enormous pictures of Villanova basketball players, some of whom played under him. Directly behind Jay’s desk are the two pictures that give the room its life. To the left is a picture of Taylor and Colin, Jay’s two sons. They both share Jay’s enormous smile. To the right is a picture of Patricia, his wife, holding their daughter Reilly, who is now four. Both pictures draw a glance from Jay every time their names are mentioned. Out comes the family man from inside of the college kid.

By Jay’s standards he is “turning into an old fart.” Despite this, he can still make every guy on campus jealous. He is the secret crush of almost every female at Villanova.

“I never even heard that girls on campus like me!” he said. “I didn’t find out until my niece [a Villanova freshman] told me!” On a good day, he can pass for 25 years old … well, more like 30. Admittedly, Jay doesn’t mind the crushes. “They flatter me,” he says as he looks over at the picture of his wife and daughter. Villanova girls don’t stand much of a chance though. Patricia is his best friend.

She and Jay met on their first day of the job working in marketing for the Philadelphia Stars, a team in the USFL. They hit it off from day one and got engaged in Puerto Rico, which coincidentally happens to be Jay’s favorite vacation spot. “I love the beach,” Jay, said. “I can be a very intense person – very focused. There is just something about the ocean though that is calming and relaxes me. I love everything about the beach.”

Jay gets excited when he talks about his family. He moves his thumb in between his middle finger and ring finger, squeezes tightly and then re-opens his hand. He creates an odd shape with his hand. He repeats the process several times. He leans back in his chair, rolls it back and forth with his legs and drops his head onto the imaginary pillow he’s created. Jay is comfortable when he’s with his family. He looks over at the pictures … again. Actually, he’s comfortable all the time. “I like the closeness we have in our family,” says Jay. “The balance we keep is great.”

Unlike on campus, Jay is not the big man at home. He doesn’t cook or grocery shop. “I’m not proud of that,” Jay said with a smile. “My wife does everything. She makes fatherhood look easy.” Fatherhood, like coaching, is “a work in progress” according to Jay. “The consequences of fatherhood are much greater than coaching, but the same ideas apply.” He tells his kids the same thing that tells his team, “Attitude is the most important characteristic you can have.”

The “college kid” in Jay comes out every time you look at his desk. There are papers everywhere. “I’m not neat, but I’m organized,” says Jay. “See that?” he says pointing to his desk, “It’s a mess, but I know the practice schedule on that paper over there down to the minute.”

Jay has something to hide. “I’m so tough on our guys with academics,” he said. “I’m worried that one day someone from my college days will come back and tell the guys what I was like. I was lucky to get through Bucknell.” Typical college kid move – doesn’t want anyone to know about his bad grades. In truth, though, he does. He wants his players, his staff and his kids all to be better than him.

Jay looks over toward the pictures again. There is a silence and a brief smile. His right hand is partially covering his mouth. He’s thinking. His left hand is making the odd shape again. His thumb is in between his middle and ring fingers. He’s excited. “My happiest times are when my kids come to see me after a Sunday night workout,” Jay says (both hands are making the shape now). “After I work out the players, my family has our own workout. My daughter is even getting into it now.”

Jay has got a good idea how to keep everyone involved. The only thing left to figure out is how to add another banner to the rafters in the Pavilion. No sweat, though. He’ll figure it out. College kids are smart these days.