Jay Wright recognized as Naismith Coach of the Year

Pat Ralph

Villanova head coach Jay Wright was named the 2016 Naismith Coach of the Year at the annual Naismith award brunch at the Final Four. This is the second time Wright has won the award and was also given the honor in 2006. That Wildcats team went 28-5, won a share of the Big East regular season title and advanced to the Elite Eight. 

By winning the award twice, Wright joins an elite company of coaches. Only Mike Krzyzewski of Duke and John Calipari of Kentucky, two Hall of Famers, have won the award more than Wright. The other coaches who were finalists for the award included Tom Crean of Indiana, Chris Mack of Xavier and Bill Self of Kansas. 

“I’m extremely proud to accept the Naismith Coach of the Year award on behalf of our staff and the Villanova basketball team,” Wright said in a statement. “I know the great history of this award, and our whole program is humbled to be honored with this year’s Naismith award.”

Wright was chosen by the Atlanta Tipoff Club’s national voting academy, comprised of leading journalists from around the country, current and former head coaches, former award winners and conference commissioners. The committee based its selections on outstanding coaching performances during the season. 

There is no coach more deserving of the award this season than Wright. Wright has led the Wildcats to a 34-5 record, a third straight Big East regular season title, a fifth appearance in the Final Four in school history and the school’s second national championship.

So, what does this all mean for Wright and Villanova? Well, if it has not been emphasized clearly enough yet, Wright is one of the best coaches in college basketball. Here’s the resume for proof: two Final Four appearances, four Big East regular season championships, one Big East Tournament championship, five-time Big East Coach of the Year, almost 500 career coaching wins, two-time Naismith Coach of the Year and most notably, a national championship.

“GQ Jay’s” resume speaks for itself. Without question, Wright’s coaching successes make him a viable Hall of Fame candidate. Having had this much coaching success and being only 54 years old, Wright has many more successful years yet to come. 

But the coaching numbers only tell us half the story about why Wright is one of the elite coaches in college basketball. In fact, Wright’s coaching style is a rare breed in today’s crazy college basketball world. 

First and foremost, Wright’s coaching style begins with defense. Sure, a great Villanova team usually has an incredible backcourt and great shooters. But the calling card of Villanova basketball is strong defense. Wright’s ability to adapt Villanova’s defense to opposing teams is what makes him one of the best. Whether it’s man-to-man or zone, Villanova’s defense can shut down any team when firing on all cylinders.

Along with the defensive wrinkles, Wright’s three-quarter court press drives opposing teams crazy. Villanova has some of the best guards in the country, and one of the reasons why is that they play great pressure defense on opposing guards. The Wildcats’ quick hands are often able to force opposing guards to turn the ball over, which leads to easy points off turnovers for Villanova.

Defense is just one piece to the foundation of Villanova basketball under Wright’s leadership. “40 minutes of Villanova basketball,” “Humble and Hungry” and “Attitude” have served as the cornerstones of Wright’s basketball philosophy at Villanova.  Playing for the name on the front rather than on the back has also been something Wright has preached at Villanova. Villanova basketball is not about the individual—it’s about the team. 

There are many things which make Wright unlike any other coach in college basketball. First and foremost, Wright’s commitment to getting his players college degrees is far more important than trying to get them drafted in the NBA. Academics and school work are paramount to Wright, unlike many coaches. 

Secondly, if you see Wright walking around Villanova’s campus, you are guaranteed to get a wave and a “Hello!” Being acknowledged by a top-tier Division I college basketball coach is simply awesome for any fan of the game. Many coaches, especially those at the top, do not look to interact with fans or students at the school they coach at. In addition, many coaches seek to protect their players from the rest of the school so that they can focus solely on basketball. The only thing many coaches know about their school is where the gym and athletic offices are located.

Not with Jay Wright. In fact, there may not be a better face of Villanova University than “GQ Jay.” Not only is Wright one of the most well-dressed and best-looking coaches in college basketball, he also has a personality that can light up a ballroom. Wright embodies and practices everything Villanova stands for. Most college coaches couldn’t tell you the school motto, let alone speak to non-athletes around campus. As for Wright, his philosophy of “Once a Wildcat, Always a Wildcat” is something that sticks with everyone who has attended Villanova.

But what ultimately makes Wright one of the best coaches in college basketball is that he has failed. Not many great coaches can say that. Based on his coaching resume and that Villanova has gone to the NCAA Tournament 11 times in the last 12 years, it can be hard to find failure in Wright’s coaching tenure. However, it is his failures that have made him a better coach.

Before Villanova reached the tournament for the first time under Wright in 2004-05, the Wildcats struggled in their first three years with him. It was not all sunshine and rainbows on the Main Line. Believe it or not, many actually thought that Wright was not the best man for the job and needed to be fired. Aren’t you glad that didn’t happen? Instead, Wright developed the program into a basketball powerhouse once again.

Most recently, Villanova’s inability to get past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament since 2009 tested both Wright’s and Wildcat fans’ patience. Along with struggling in March, the Wildcats hit rock bottom in 2011-12 when Villanova failed to reach the tournament and finished with a losing record. Villanova’s recruiting strategy started to change after appearing in the Final Four in 2009. Rather than recruiting players who fit with Villanova basketball, Wright became more interested in getting the very best players available. Sure, we all want the best players on our team. However, getting the best players does not mean they fit the system. Going to the NBA rather than pursuing a college degree was priority number one for many of these players. 

Once again, many started to believe that Wright was not the man for the job. The team was struggling. The players who had been recruited to Villanova did not fit with the program’s mission. In many respects, Wright lost the goal and mindset of the program. Some of the program’s success got the best of Wright and caused him to lose sight of what they hoped to accomplish. Needless to say, many saw “GQ Jay” on the hot seat. 

But I repeat myself from earlier: Aren’t you glad that didn’t happen?

Wright and his coaching staff once again began focusing on recruiting players who fit Villanova basketball rather than simply the best players in the country. And the rest is history. 

It is finding yourself in times of great struggle and anxiety when one learns the most about oneself. That is exactly what Jay Wright has done. 

With a national championship now under his belt, Jay Wright is the greatest coach in Villanova basketball history. With all due respect to the legendary Rollie Massimino, what Wright has done off the court for the school is what sets him apart from most other college coaches. I am confident that someday we will see Wright enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts. But until then, maybe we will see a few more Dove Soap commercials featuring Jay Wright.