Jay Wright, Hall of Fame Villanova Basketball Coach, Retires
By Adam Sagoria
Jay Wright’s storied run at Villanova has come to an end.
In announcing his retirement Wednesday after 21 seasons at Villanova, Wright, 60, leaves men’s college basketball at a relatively young age and at the top of his profession. He was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame last year. He has won two Division I national championships in the past seven seasons. And he was the fifth-highest-paid coach by total pay this past season, according to the USA Today Sports salary database, at more than $6 million.
Wright, whose appearance and style have earned him comparisons to actor George Clooney, guided Villanova to four Final Fours and five Big East Conference tournament titles in the past 14 seasons. He most recently led the Wildcats to this year’s Final Four, where they lost to Kansas, the eventual national champion, in a national semifinal.
A head coach since 1994, Wright compiled a record of 642-282 (.695) during his career at Hofstra and Villanova, where he had coached since 2001.
Kyle Neptune, 37, will succeed Wright at Villanova, the university announced. A longtime assistant of Wright’s before leaving to coach Fordham, Neptune posted a 16-16 record in the 2021-22 season, his only year with the Rams. With the additions of Neptune and Shaheen Holloway at Seton Hall, the Big East now has seven African American head coaches among its 11 programs, more than in any Power Five conference and matching the American Athletic Conference. Fordham named the associate head coach Keith Urgo as the interim head coach and said it would conduct a national search for Neptune’s replacement.
Wright becomes the third high-profile Division I men’s basketball coach to retire in the last two years, following Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, who retired following a run to this year’s Final Four, and North Carolina’s Roy Williams, who retired after the 2020-21 season. Wright is significantly younger than both those men. Krzyzewski is 75 and Williams was 70 when he retired.
Krzyzewski won five national championships and Williams three. Before retiring, Wright’s two titles tied him with Kansas’ Bill Self among active coaches. Iona’s Rick Pitino won titles at Kentucky and Louisville, but the latter, won in 2013, was later vacated by the NCAA.
“I’m definitely surprised,” Williams, whose Tar Heels lost to Villanova in the 2016 NCAA championship game on a last-second 3-pointer by Kris Jenkins, said in a telephone interview.
He added: “Jay is just 60, he’s got so much more time for the game, but I love it because he made the decision for what was right for him and his family and I can live with that. Jay’s one of the giants of our game, he’s a great friend.”
Williams recalled that after Villanova stunned North Carolina 77-74 to win the title in Houston, Williams waited for the Villanova players and coaches to congratulate Wright before his moment with Wright.
“I told him, ‘I’m very happy for you. I’m destroyed for my team but I’m very happy for you,’” Williams said. “And Jay called me back a couple of days later and said how much that meant to him. And he’s a great guy. He’s one of the giants of our game.”
When the original iteration of the Big East split apart in 2013, with universities with top-level football programs like Syracuse, Louisville, Connecticut and West Virginia departing for other leagues, Wright helped keep the “new Big East” together: He coalesced the coaches under his leadership with a vision to build a basketball-centric league that could compete with Power Five schools that feature both basketball and football.
“Obviously, he’s been terrific,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said in a phone interview. “His leadership when the Big East was kind of reformed, I think is the reason why the league is where it’s at today. He was all in from the beginning in making sure this was going to work and was certainly a big part of it.”
Wright leaves just as two of his most accomplished players, Collin Gillespie and Jermaine Samuels, finished their careers after five years due to the extra year of eligibility granted to athletes by the NCAA in the wake of the pandemic. He praised both players after their season-ending loss to Kansas.
“At Villanova, the mission of the university is about community and love and truth,” Wright said. He added of Gillespie: “He’s a Villanova man. He’s a great Villanova man. And that’s a big part of our program. It’s not just being a basketball player but being a Villanova man. And he’s one of the best ever.”
If Gillespie, a two-time Big East player of the year, goes on to play in the NBA next season, he would become the league’s 10th active former Villanova player. The group includes Miami’s Kyle Lowry, a six-time All-Star; Dallas’ Jalen Brunson, who scored 41 points in a playoff game this week; and Phoenix’s Mikal Bridges, a finalist for Defensive Player of the Year.
It is a testament to player development under Wright and his staff that not a single active NBA player from Villanova was a one-and-done.
“Everyone should applaud what they’ve built there,” Self said before the Final Four. “And of course, Jay’s the ringmaster of that. You got to beat them, they don’t beat themselves.”
Known for his stylish dress suits for years, Wright enjoyed not having to wear them in the relaxed atmosphere in the pandemic, and instead wore three-quarter zips and sweatpants. He said at the Final Four that he didn’t pack a single suit for the trip to New Orleans.
With retirement looming, Wright won’t have to wear a suit anytime soon.