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APPLAUD JAY WRIGHT FOR KNOWING WHEN THE TIME WAS RIGHT
As college basketball veers into the murky unknown, we should salute the Villanova legend for retiring at 60 and prioritizing life and family — who needs hassles, or the NBA, when saner days await?
Can we just let the man retire? Having an interest in sports doesn’t give us an imperial right to make decisions for the participants, a free pass into their minds. If Jay Wright wants to leave at the top of his craft, when he’s still 60 and the face of a sport that needs him, yo, it’s his life and his hair.
The gray waves have started to overtake the black, as they have for his doppelgänger, George Clooney. Maybe Wright doesn’t want to turn old and unhealthy on the job, especially when that coaching gig only will become more demanding and exhausting. College basketball is rocked by troubled waters and crooked captains, complicated by NIL payoffs and the transfer portal, and it’s devolving into something unrecognizable. People who care about it, concerned about product dilution once the NBA allows phenoms directly from high school, envisioned him as a leader and ambassador who saves the cause.
Instead, Wright reminds us why he’s so respected and revered. His ego doesn’t need boosts beyond his considerable accomplishments. He has carved out a distinctive legacy and only can add sprinkles at this point beyond two national championships and a Hall of Fame induction, achieved at a private university on Philadelphia’s Main Line. Villanova has been the recent prototype — Duke without the self-importance, Kansas without the dirt, Gonzaga without the perennial heartbreak.
If a saner life is what he wants, then have at it.
His creation was almost miraculous, absent of scandal and high on old-school fundamentals and selflessness within a team-first mantra. His players avoided trouble and stuck around longer than they do at the one-and-done factories, yet he produced eight NBA draft picks the last five years, more than all but Duke and Kentucky. Jalen Brunson is an emerging star with a jackpot awaiting in free agency. Kyle Lowry is a five-time All-Star who might win another ring in Miami. Mikal Bridges, Josh Hart, Saddiq Bey … I could go on. The Villanova Imprint was in place, sustainable for as long as Wright desired. He could have reached more Final Fours, as he did this month, but the bigger mechanism means teenagers will command NIL millions before they reach campus. Did he really want to play the John Calipari game, the Bill Self game?
For now and quite a while, anyway, he’ll slide into the shadows and enjoy life with wife Patty and his family, which was becoming impossible given the time demands. He’ll serve as special assistant to the university’s president, the Rev. Peter M. Donohue. Might he try the NBA world someday? He did log experience as an assistant under Gregg Popovich last summer, when Team USA survived early turmoil to win gold at the Tokyo Olympics. But it’s hard to imagine Wright jumping back in, a half-hour drive down the Schuykill Expressway with the 76ers if he wanted, and dealing with James Harden drama. Or LeBron James/Russell Westbrook drama in Los Angeles, where the Lakers would love to have him. Basically, any job Wright wants is his.
He wants to help Father Peter, as he calls the president.
“Over the past 21 seasons, I have had the opportunity to live out a professional dream as the head coach at Villanova," Wright wrote in a statement, ahead of a Friday news conference. “Patty and I have been blessed to work with incredible, gifted young men who allowed us to coach them and brought us unmatched joy. We cannot overstate our gratitude to the players, coaches, and administrators who have been with us on this path. It has been an honor and a privilege to work at Villanova, especially under Father Peter and (athletic director) Mark Jackson.
“Now, though, it's time for us to enter a new era of Villanova basketball. After 35 years in coaching, I am proud and excited to hand over the reins to Villanova's next coach. I am excited to remain a part of Villanova and look forward to working with Father Peter, Mark and the rest of the leadership team. Once a Wildcat, always a Wildcat."
All you need to know about Wright is that he’s universally beloved in Philadelphia, where fans torture even the most successful sports figures. A loud campaign will begin to replace NBA lifer Doc Rivers with Wright if the Sixers fall short in the Eastern Conference playoffs, where Brooklyn and Milwaukee could depart early and leave only Miami and Boston in the way.
Remember, Wright says he is “retiring.” Tom Brady retired and unretired in 40 days, I realize, but Wright isn’t exiting on a whim. He’s too grounded, too molded by realism and life perspective, to veer off his stated path. His only basketball role will be peeking in on his self-appointed successor and former Villanova assistant, Kyle Neptune. Besides, asking one man to fix college basketball is unfair and unrealistic. It’s not a fluky occurrence when Wright, Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams retire within a 13-month span. During the Final Four, Wrightologists sensed he was dropping career hints when asked about Krzyzewski’s impending retirement at Duke.
“I would be lying if I tell you I don’t — you think about it after each year, you think about where your life is, what are you going to do. It’s difficult to think about,’’ Wright said then. “And again, I think about it because there’s going to be a time when it’s time for the next coach at Villanova. There’s going to have to be that time. You have to pick that time.’’
That time has come. College basketball’s loss is Jay Wright’s gain. Feel good for him, feel blessed to have watched him inspire a generation.
But don’t resent him because his departure doesn’t fit the normal script. John Wooden left behind his UCLA dynasty at 64. Who says you must work until 75 like Coach K, or push 80 like Jim Boeheim? Their identities have been defined, if not overwhelmed, by coaching. So the guy in Philly, who once wore designer suits with pocket squares, just wants to hang out in his athleisure wear and enjoy life.
Isn’t that why we’re here?
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.