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Jay Wright has Villanova back in the national championship game for the first time since college basketball started using the shot clock. Given the way the Wildcats have played in the tournament this year—they’ve averaged 84.8 points through five games, shooting a ridiculous 58.2 percent that includes 71 percent in the national semifinal—this doesn’t seem like a team that will be looking to play four corners or take just 28 shots to win the title. This team, probably Wright’s best in his 15 years in Philly, is going to go out gunning.
But what if things were different? What if the Naismith Coach of the Year had never taken the Villanova job in the first place?
Sure, a decade and a half later, as Nova is preparing for a chance to cut down the nets at the Final Four, the proposition of Villanova being coached by anyone else seems preposterous. But it almost happened, and the history of Big East basketball, and certainly Big Five basketball, would look very, very different if it had.
— Villanova MBB (@NovaMBB) April 4, 2016
It was 2001. Hofstra had made its second consecutive NCAA basketball tournament and 39-year old Jay Wright, he of the slick hair and slicker suits, was the hottest name in coaching.
Wright was a rare breed; a Philly guy who made it in New York, albeit at a smaller scale in the America East, but bigger jobs were coming, and everyone knew it.
Rutgers knew it, and then athletics director Robert Mulcahy was looking for the man to help him dig that basketball program out of the worst period in the school’s mediocre turned moribund history. Kevin Bannon—another hotshot area coach at one point in his career—had spun Rutgers into scandal; his naked free-throws lawsuit making Rutgers another national punch line. Mulcahy needed the right basketball coach to lead his program and, just four months after hiring Greg Schiano to lead the football program, the Rutgers AD was in full legacy mode, pegging Wright as that Mr. Right.
Only, it never quite worked out that way, did it? No one outside of Mulcahy and Wright will ever know what their conversations led to, or didn’t, but the Villanova alum and the former Villanova assistant seemed to have a deal in place to turn Rutgers into a Big East powerhouse—the sleeping giant in the shadow of New York—everyone always thought it could be.
Until it wasn’t.
On March 24, 2001, Steve Lappas resigned as the head coach at Villanova after nine seasons and just four trips to the NCAA tournament, none as far as the second weekend. Still, Lappas had won 20 or more games in six of his nine years, and despite back-to-back seasons without an NCAA berth, things weren’t awful at Villanova at the time. In other words, they weren’t Rutgers.
And thanks to Lappas stepping aside, they never will be. This, from a March 25, 2001 New York Times article:
When asked if he considered firing Lappas, Athletic Director Vince Nicastro said: ”I didn’t think of that. No.”
Nicastro said he would replace Lappas within two weeks. Hofstra Coach Jay Wright, a former Villanova assistant, is believed to be the leading candidate. Nicastro said he received permission from Hofstra’s athletic director, Harry Royal, to speak with Wright, but Nicastro refused to call him a candidate.
”We’re free to go ahead, but we haven’t had a chance to contact him yet,” Nicastro said yesterday.
Lappas left Villanova for UMass that off-season, a week after the Minutemen parted ways with head coach Bruiser Flint. Wright was a candidate for the UMass job as well, but had previously pulled his name out of the running, in what many thought was a sign he was going to take the gig at Rutgers. But when Lappas resigned to leave the Main Line for Amherst, the door was open for Wright to replace him there. In an instant, Rutgers lost their Mr. Wright.
”The overriding factor was to find someone who truly understood the Villanova tradition, the values and the culture here. Jay Wright not only understands those things, he embraces them, he lives them. I believe they’re in his soul,” Nicastro said when announcing Wright’s hire.
At Rutgers, Mulcahy was left holding his hat in his hand. Or…holding something in his hand, at least. At Villanova…well, we know the story.
Wright is 353-157 as coach of the Wildcats, going to 11 NCAA Tournaments in 15 seasons that include four Big East regular season championships and two trips to the Final Four. Wright has won 20 or more games 10 times, including three 30-win seasons, and despite some admitted struggles in the NCAA Tournament since last making the Final Four, this year’s team is as good as it gets for Philly basketball. For any basketball.
But it’s hard to not imagine what things could have been for Villanova had Wright taken the Rutgers job, or had Lappas not cleared the way for his friend, opting to resign even a day or two later, after Wright was announced at Rutgers. The schools don’t have much in common now, but at the time, Villanova and Rutgers weren’t that dissimilar. Both were in the powerhouse Big East, and while Nova had far more tradition to lean on—their 1985 national title trumps the 1976 Final Four at Rutgers by some margin—they were still two northeast schools with mediocre gyms in need of a huge spark to rejuvenate the boosters, re-establish recruiting and get people in the area excited about basketball again.
Villanova got Mr. Wright. Rutgers hasn’t stopped getting things wrong.
— Villanova MBB (@NovaMBB) April 3, 2016
After losing out on Wright to his alma mater, Mulcahy hired Gary Waters to move his scandalous program in a new direction. Waters had taken Kent State to the NCAA second round that season—his second trip to the dance in three years—and Mulcahy called him the “right man at the right time” for Rutgers. I remember because I worked in the sports information office at Rutgers back then, and a collective face palm after hearing a line like that leaves an indelible sound, even 15 years later.
Waters’ claim to fame at Rutgers was a trip to the finals of the NIT, to which he said—again, I was there—that he considered that game a national championship, as “kids don’t care what national championship,” as if we couldn’t stop palming our own faces. Rutgers lost.
But to be fair, at that time Villanova hadn’t done a whole lot of anything with Wright. The following year, though, Wright took Villanova to the NCAAs for the first time in his career, and the first of seven-straight trips to the dance for the Wildcats. Waters finished 10-19 at Rutgers and, despite a 19-14 season the following year, was replaced by Freddie Hill, a former Wright assistant who left for Rutgers, first as an associate coach—like an assistant but paid way better—and eventually as a replacement for Waters.
Hill, whose father was the beloved baseball coach at Rutgers, was supposed to be the guy to change things for the Scarlet Knights. Many credited Wright’s success at Villanova to Hill’s dogged recruiting. What Hill could do on the recruiting trail never materialized at Rutgers, as he constantly lost players to other schools, sometimes Villanova, and his coaching on the bench was, well, horrible. Hill was fired after a 47-77 record at Rutgers. Wright went to the NCAAs every one of those years.
By this point, Mulcahy was long since gone from Rutgers, and four years of Hill were followed by three of Mike Rice—another scandalous debacle—and three horrible years from Eddie Jordan, a legend as a player, but a disaster as a coach.
While Wright is one win away from 354 victories at Villanova and the school’s second national title, the place he spurned 15 years ago—clearly the right decision for Wright, for Villanova and for Big East basketball—has a combined 199-258 record, from four fired coaches.
It’s hard to know if Wright would have been as successful anywhere else, especially a place as dysfunctional as Rutgers. But today, as Villanova faces North Carolina in the national title game and NBA whispers grow louder, it’s amazing to think of what could have been if the Wildcats never had a chance at Mr. Wright. It’s impossible to think of Villanova basketball without him.