“He showed up for his job interview at the University of Rochester back in 1984 in bib overalls and bare feet,” Neer said the other day, tongue planted firmly in cheek. “And I set him on the path to sartorial splendor.”
Actually, the GQ suits Wright famously donned on game days before this season’s movement to coaches in sweats were all Wright’s doing. See, the man who bears a striking resemblance to actor George Clooney has always been a fashion plate. Neer had nothing to do with that. But the winningest coach in UR history definitely had something to do with launching and molding a career that has seen Wright make the improbable journey from Rochester’s Palestra to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.
Wright has his Villanova team in the NCAA Final Four for the third time in seven seasons, and it won’t be surprising if he publicly expresses his gratitude to the man he refers to as “a basketball genius” at the press conferences in New Orleans this week. Last September, he invited Neer to his Hall of Fame induction, and made mention of him in his acceptance speech. The shout-outs are justified because Neer took a huge gamble when he hired Wright to be his full-time assistant 38 years ago.
“Mike was the first guy who gave me a job,’’ Wright said a few years ago, after winning his first of two national championships at Villanova. “I didn’t know anything about coaching. Nothing. Until I got with him.”
He obviously paid rapt attention during his two seasons in the Flower City, absorbing everything he could from a guy who is one of only 14 coaches in Division III history with at least 600 victories. “He was a sponge,” Neer recalled. “Had tremendous curiosity, tremendous energy, and tremendous people skills. Did I think he would become the giant in the coaching field he’s become? Nobody could have predicted that. But what he’s achieved certainly doesn’t surprise me.”
Truth be told, Wright was Neer’s second choice. He initially offered the UR job to Pat Flannery, then a Drexel assistant, and Flannery was ready to accept it.
“He wound up going back to Drexel, and phoned me that he was going to stay put because they had sweetened the pot,’’ Neer said. “But during that phone conversation, Pat put in a plug for Jay. Like Pat, Jay had played at Bucknell, and he said Jay was dying to get into coaching and would work his tail off and be a great hire. I said I’d give him a call, but the fact he had no coaching experience was a red flag.”
At the time, Wright was working selling tickets for the Philadelphia Stars of the old United States Football League. Neer brought him to town for an interview. The retired UR coach recalled their conversation unfolding this way:
“I said, “Jay you have no experience. You could fit your resume on a file card. I see you’ve worked in sales. Can you tell me if you made sales?’’ And, he said, “Well, I just sold four tickets to a family in Wilkes-Barre.” That cracked me up. I knew this was going to a long shot, but there was something about him that I really liked. Coaching, when you boil it down, is a sales pitch; you’re selling something you want kids to buy. I thought maybe Jay’s skills would translate, so I took a chance.”
He would not be disappointed. Wright poured himself into his job, especially recruiting, where he spent many a night traveling the main and back roads of Western New York in search of talented players. After two years under Neer, the young man from suburban Philadelphia headed home to coach at Drexel as an assistant for two seasons before landing his dream job on the staff of Villanova icon Rollie Massimino.
Wright spent eight seasons with Massimino (including three at UNLV) before becoming head coach at Hofstra University. The first thing he did was visit Neer and Flannery so he could pick their brains about how to build a program from scratch. Wright would lead Hofstra to two NCAA tournaments, and in 2001 was named head coach at Villanova.
He guided the Wildcats to NCAA titles in 2016 and 2018, and an argument can be made that he’s not only the best dressed coach in college basketball, but also the best coach, period. As Neer says proudly, “Jay’s teams are so fundamentally sound, they almost never lose a game because they’ve shot themselves in the foot. And he does what a coach is supposed to do; he maximizes the talents of his players as well as, if not better, than any coach I know.”
Sadly, for the second consecutive year, Villanova has lost a starter to injury at the most inopportune time. Without do-it-all guard Justin Moore, the Wildcats will have a tough time in their Saturday semifinal against Kansas, and an even tougher time should they advance to Monday’s finals against the winner of Duke-North Carolina.
“The loss of Justin and their shallow bench makes the likelihood of them beating two really good teams in a row problematic,’’ Neer said. “But each of these teams has flaws, and if were to come down to coaching, I’d like my chances with Jay, which is saying something, considering this field includes Hall-of-Famers Mike Krzyzewski and Bill Self, and a rookie, in Hubert Davis, who’s got his Carolina team on a roll.”
His analysis admittedly is a tad biased, but it’s also spot-on. Like Neer, I believe few coaches have ever been better at squeezing the best out of their players than the man whose career tipped off in Rochester nearly four decades ago.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.