By KEVIN McNAMARA
The year gets lost in the haze but I’ll guess it was around 2004 and it was damn hot in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., in early May.
The assignment was to snoop around the Big East’s Annual Meetings and find out just where the conference’s membership puzzle might fall. Miami and Virginia Tech were wrapping up their stay and headed for the Atlantic Coast Conference. Boston College had stabbed its partners in the back and announced plans to do the same.
In one corner of the posh hotel’s bar were coaches and athletic directors of the ‘football schools’ like Pittsburgh, Syracuse and West Virginia. Huddled in another corner of the ocean view lobby were Tim Welsh at Providence, Georgetown’s John Thompson III and Seton Hall’s Louis Orr. Syracuse legend Jim Boeheim was the ultimate Mr. Neutral, comfortable amongst both factions.
The two groups rarely crossed paths, held different meetings. Maybe the only time they mixed was on the fairways of the TPC Sawgrass down the street.
At one point I recall Jay Wright, the relatively new (2001-02) Villanova coach, pulling me aside. To say he was nervously concerned about the league’s future is an understatement.
“These football guys, they don’t care about us at all. They’re only out for themselves,” Wright said. “You know what we need to do? Let’s get Dave Gavitt down here and get us in a basketball league. That’s where we need to be.”
Well, Jay Wright may have only been in his 40’s then, but the man could see the future. It took until 2013 for the avarice around the football schools’ money grab to finally shake out. They all found financially comfortable homes, with the notable exception of Connecticut and its out-sized football dreams. The basketball schools – PC, Georgetown, St. John’s, Seton Hall and Villanova – hung through the tough times and awkward dance partners like South Florida, Cincinnati and Louisville and learned to grin and bear it.
When the college expansion game finally settled in time for the 2013-14 season, Jay Wright’s vision from a decade earlier had arrived. And so had the Wildcats.
Over the first nine seasons of this so-called ‘new’ Big East – actually it should be the ‘real’ Big East – Wright and Villanova have been the face of the conference. Actually that’s unfair. Villanova has been the face, the chest, the arms and the legs of Val Ackerman’s league, the only consistent, national program. In nine seasons Villanova finished first seven times and won five of the eight Big East Tournaments.
Much more importantly, Wright shook off a reputation as a coach who couldn’t win big in March. A miracle finish in 2016 gave the Wildcats a National Championship, cemented Wright as one of the elite coaches in the sport and legitimized the new era of Big East basketball.
Then, just two years later, Wright and ‘Nova did it again. They wrapped up a dominating 36-4 campaign with a roster filled with NBA talent by storming through the NCAA Tournament. They routed Kansas and Michigan in the Final Four and this time the themes leaving San Antonio were that Villanova was indeed a Blue Blood of the sport and Wright was aiming towards the Hall of Fame.
“Without question, the ‘new’ Big East would not be where it is today without Jay and Villanova leading the way,” commissioner Ackerman said. “We have had no better ambassador over the past nine years, and we’re eternally grateful for Jay’s guidance as we’ve sought to preserve our proud history and maintain our success during the modern era.”
Well fast forward four more years and we arrived at the surprising, if not shocking, news that Wright is retiring. Here’s the bio highlights:
*2 National Titles
*4 Final Fours
*2 America East championships (Hofstra)
*8 Big East championships
*5 Big East Tournament championships
*Olympic gold medal, Asst. Coach 2021 Tokyo Games
*2021 Naismith Hall of Fame
Wright is just 60 years old, in apparent great shape. Mr. Gucci/George Clooney himself.
Could he win more games, more Big East Tournaments, maybe another National Championship? Absolutely. As PC’s Ed Cooley said “Nobody was more successful over the last 10 years. Nobody. Two national championships, Final Four, the Olympics, the Hall of Fame. C’mon.”
Wright’s retirement is a body blow to Villanova and certainly the Big East. When Wright’s ‘Nova teams arrived at the Dunk, Hinkle Fieldhouse or Madison Square Garden the joints were packed. The same thing when they journeyed out to UCLA or Baylor. The games were usually tight, exciting and everyone knew they were watching an elite coach, and elite program at work.
Now we’ll see where Villanova goes from here. Former assistant Kyle Neptune is the new coach, a Wright assistant who spent a year at Fordham polishing his resume. Good luck to him. Tough act to follow.
As for the Big East, it’s another crossroads of sorts. It’s not like the Crisis at Ponte Vedra. Everyone knows the roster of schools, for one. Cooley becomes the Veteran coach in the league but this is a conference with some elite coaching talent. The addition of Thad Matta at Butler and Sean Miller at Xavier are superb hires, Final Four-level talents at previous stops. Greg McDermott and Dan Hurley are well-positioned for major success, as is Shaka Smart. New Seton Hall coach Shaheen Holloway shocked the world at Saint Peter’s.
But the college sports landscape is always changing. The Transfer Portal and Name-Image-Likeness provide both a challenge and opportunity. The Football 5 conferences are making all the rules to suit themselves and right now the Big East fits nicely in the sidecar every basketball season.
It’s time to see if that can continue without the star that was Jay Wright and his Villanova Wildcats.