A few good men

Leslie Combs

Batman had Robin. Montana had Rice. Jordan had Pippen. Jay Wright has Brett Gunning and Joe Jones and Fred Hill. And then there’s Billy Lange and Jimmy Haggerty too. Yes, the men’s head coach is far from lonely on the sidelines and the combined efforts of Wright’s five right-hand men are the main reason the Wildcat’s boast on of the best coaching staffs in the country.

“There is a reason why we have a great coaching staff here,” Hill explained. “Number one, we do a bit of everything. Together we have a terrific staff. Everyone is involved and everyone has a particular job.”

Assistant Coach Hill first met Coach Wright on the basketball court, but under much different circumstances than their current Main Line relationship.

“Coach Wright and I have been friends for 18-19 years,” Hill said. “When I was at Lehigh on the coaching staff, he was still playing for Bucknell.”

The men remained in touch throughout the years and when Wright returned to Philly in March of 2001, Hill made the decision to leave his assistant coaching job at rival Seton Hall to join his former competition.

“When I had the opportunity to join [Wright’s] staff and stay in the Big East it was an easy decision to make.”

Having been in the coaching field since graduating from Mountclair State College in 1981 with a Business Administration degree, Hill is the most experienced of the group.

Highlights on his resume include coaching the Pirates to the Sweet 16 in 2000 and playing an integral role in the Eddie Griffin poll-topping recruiting class. Since coming to the Main Line, Hill’s experience in recruiting proved very valuable in bringing the fabled four to ‘Nova.

When asked about what the most important aspect to recruiting is, Hill stated that the recruiting staff of Wright, Jones, Gunning and he simply look for the best fit for Villanova in the categories of people, students and players.

As Villanova’s program continues its ascent in collegiate basketball, the probability of recruiting talented players that will stay for four years is less and less likely. The ‘Cats’ coaches recognize this fact, but their focus remains on who will bring the most to the team, whether it will be for a year or for four, emphasizing that any decision made by a player will be supported by the staff.

“What is right for them is right for us,” Hill said.

Joining Hill on the recruiting scene is the assistant coach Jones, who has the longest tenure of the Main Line’s coaching staff. Entering his sixth season, the Long Island native received his B.A. in communications from the State University of New York at Oswego and later his masters in counseling.

He then joined collegiate coaching under Wright at Hofstra, before jumping to Villanova four years prior to Wright. Coach Jones specializes in on-court teaching, recruiting and game scouting, and in 1999 Eastern Basketball recognized him as a top regional recruiter.

According to Jones, one aspect that elevates Villanova above other schools is their fans and what they bring to the program.

“I thought the fans last year were terrific,” Jones commented. “Coach Wright did a great job of connecting our team with the fans and making them feel a part of it. I’ve walked around campus and people are speaking to you more than they used to. You can just see the excitement and its great. It is what college basketball should be.”

Along with the rejuvenated basketball fan, Wright also brought his seven-year Hofstra assistant coach Brett Gunning to Villanova. While under Wright on Long Island, the Broomall, Pa. native helped the Pride’s rebirth.

Today Gunning primarily focuses his duties instructing on the court, scheduling and overseeing the academic advancement of the team. Joining Wright at Villanova was a homecoming of sorts, spending his first two college years on the Main Line as former head coach Rollie Massimino’s student assistant. He then followed the ‘Nova legend to UNLV where he graduated with a B.A. in Communications, before catching up with Wright at Hofstra in 1994.

Two other important members of Wright’s staff are Billy Lange and Jimmy Haggerty.

Lange, a Rowan University graduate in Bachelor of Arts, serves as the coordinator of basketball operations and is the assistant strength and conditioning coach. He came to Villanova leading the United States Merchant Marine Academy to a 39-19 (.672) record as head coach from 1999-2001.

Haggerty graduated from Villanova in 1992 and returns for his second season as the graduate manager. His duties include making travel arrangements, observing team study halls and taking an integral role in Villanova Basketball camps and clinics.

While all the coaches have various roles and expectations with the team, their primary job remains rooted in teaching the players.

“One of the greatest joys of being a coach is being a teacher,” Hill explained. “Everyday is a learning experience. No matter who we are coaching, we focus on three things. Play hard, play together and be smart.”

He continues to explain that the heart of the Villanova basketball lies in passing on the tremendous pride of the program to all the players.

This season, more than ever before, the coaching staff knows how special their job is, especially coaching the touted freshmen class.

“I think their character is what makes them stand out,” Coach Jones commented. “They are all great kids … I think that is why people are so excited about them. They have great character and it just shows in everything they do.”

Combined with the talented ‘Nova returnees, this season’s staff is not going to pass up this opportunity to pass on lessons off and on the court.

“It has been a joy to lead and coach this tremendous group,” Hill said. “We will just let the season take care of itself.”