Jay Wright’s Balancing Act
The Villanova University’s head men’s basketball coach works to balance academics and athletics.
Villanova University Men's Basketball
Jay Wright could certainly appreciate what it meant to be part of this small, fortunate Villanova University group visiting the Vatican. It may be great to cut down the NCAA’s biggest nets twice in three years, but meeting Pope Francis is bigger than a Kris Jenkins buzzer-beater or a Donte DiVincenzo scoring binge. “He has an aura of holiness around him that’s amazing,” Wright says of Francis.
Wright presented Francis with a basketball autographed by the 2018 national champion Wildcats. At first, the pontiff was confused.
“Do you want me to sign it?” he asked.
Wright smiled. “No, it’s a gift.”
As Villanova president Father Peter Donohue and members of the school’s board of trustees continued to enjoy exclusive access to the Vatican, Wright had to handle some program business. He excused himself from the others—after the audience with Francis, of course—to speak to Omari Spellman’s mother on the phone. She was trying to help her son make a decision about whether he should enter the NBA Draft early and whether he should hire an agent. “Wherever you are, you’re not off,” Wright says about his busy work life.
Yes, things got crazy in 2016, after the Wildcats vanquished North Carolina. But it will be insane now. At this moment, Nova is better than Duke, thanks to a parade of one-and-done players. It stands ahead of Kentucky’s annual parade of teenage hopefuls and is superior to Kansas, which Villanova dumped on its way to both titles.
The rest of the college basketball world had better bow down, too. No program in the history of the sport has won as many games over a four-year period—136. Only eight other programs in NCAA history have won two championships in three years. And just nine schools have ever won three overall crowns, including the Wildcats, who took it all in 1985. Most impressive is that it’s being done at a relatively small (10,000 undergrads) private institution that doesn’t have an athletic department operating outside of the university’s auspices—like most state schools do. Nova players actually go to class, do their work and graduate.
Full disclosure: I’m an adjunct professor at VU who’s taught several high-profile players. All of them made class when they weren’t on the road, and none asked for anything more than a day or two’s extension in season.
“What’s unique about the program is that it aligns itself with the school’s mission,” says Wright. “[It’s] about community and learning, what you can do for one another, how you live with one another, and how you can bring out the best in one another. That’s what we try to do with the team.”
That approach means half of the top 100 recruits each year aren’t coming to Villanova. Maybe they don’t want to go to class. Perhaps they want to score 25 a night—or they’re more interested in a quick path to the NBA.
“It’s getting to the point where people who know us will call us and identify a young player who has a good family and wants a strong academic environment,” says Wright. “He’s a good player could be a pro, but he wants to be in college.”
The Wildcats do produce NBA players. Kyle Lowry, Donte Cunningham, Darrun Hilliard, Ryan Arcidiacono and Josh Hart were all on pro rosters this past season. Mikal Bridges and Jalen Brunson will join them next year, as could Spellman and DiVincenzo, provided they stay in the Draft. But all were multi-year members of the program.
“I honestly believe that, for the past five or six years, we’ve had the best culture in the country,” says former player Kris Jenkins, who spent the 2017-18 season in the NBA’s G League. “It takes special people to be part of that.”
Without a strong culture, teams can’t thrive at the most important times. “It starts with a philosophy,” says VU athletic director Mark Jackson. “What do you want to be as an athletic department? How do you want your athletes to represent the university? I think Villanova had figured that out long before I got here [in 2015] and even before Jay got here [in 2001].”
Well, yes and no. Villanova has always understood that men’s basketball is its most recognizable athletic trait—although the VU track program has been pretty amazing for decades. But it took the Wildcats’ stumbling to a 13-19 record in 2011-12 for Wright to discover the correct formula for ultimate success. He had to bring in great players—but they had to be the right players. They had to fit the school’s personality and fit well with each other. “You have to be selfless,” Jenkins says. “You’re playing for the guys who came before you, and you can’t be afraid of the moment. One day can be your day, and the next day you’re in foul trouble and it’s somebody else’s day.”
At the start of every school year, Father Rob Hagan says Mass for all the school’s athletes. There, Father Peter stands up and tells the assembled students that he doesn’t care about wins—he wants them to represent the school well. “All the coaches tell me not to say that, but I say it’s true,” he says.
Father Peter may not need 30 wins a year, but he understands the value of such success. The year after Nova won the 2016 national title, freshman applications jumped 22 percent. For the coming fall, admission requests have grown by 8 percent. Expect another jump thanks to the recent championship. “The hits on the website after 2016 were unreal,” says Father Peter. “People want to see what’s inside the university.”
Obviously, there’s an administrative component to this. The school is interested in across-the-board excellence, and the basketball team’s success helps bring people to the business school, which was ranked first nationally by Bloomberg Businessweek.
And the resources are there, too. The renovated Finneran Pavilion will be a much more attractive venue for the team, just as the Davis Center practice facility is first rate. Academic support for the players is strong, and no one wants for top-shelf gear. There aren’t athletic dorms like those found at Kansas, but the school is committed to making sure players are successful in all forms of university life.
“It’s more than financial support,” Wright says. “It’s the maintenance people and the people who work in the cafeteria and clean the dorm rooms. They get what Villanova is all about. They support the kids so they can be good students, good people and good players.”
During his time in the Eternal City, Wright had to reach out to a high school prospect and let him know that, while he wouldn’t be able to see him at the beginning of the “open” recruiting period, he’d definitely see him before time ran out. “It’s a 365-day commitment,” Wright says. “It’s a strain on your family. It’s a strain on your social life.”
If it was tough for Wright to get downtime before, just imagine what he’ll be facing in the coming months.