BUFFALO — There are more layers to Jay Wright’s coaching than you can see in the heavily televised image of a smart coach with sharp suits. To someone who knows him better than just about anyone else in basketball, Wright is more IQ than GQ. His longtime buddy Tom Pecora says Wright has special depth, especially when his roster does not.
You could make a case, and Pecora would not disagree, that this season has witnessed the most mature coaching in Wright’s career. The coach guided Villanova through the choppy currents of being national champion and figured out a way to keep the Wildcats No. 1 in the nation despite relying on only seven players, having lost key guard Phil Booth to an injury and blue chip frontcourt recruit Omari Spellman to academic ineligibility.
It is a reflection of Wright’s style that his tailor gets interviewed these days. But there’s no style without substance.
“Sometimes people just see the great looking guy dressed to the nines and they don’t think there’s as much substance as there really is. Underestimate him at your own peril,” said Pecora, Wright’s assistant then successor at Hofstra and now an analyst on Fox and numerous other TV networks. A lifetime in gymnasiums has taught Pecora how to read a team in practice and he has seen plenty in the many Villanova practices he has attended this year.
“The longer you do this, the more you notice the little things. The little things are the big things,” Pecora said before driving from Long Island to Buffalo for Villanova’s opening game against Mt. St. Mary’s tonight. “You see the way they interact at team meals, the way they are with each other in the locker room. They have great respect for each other, and that’s not common in the world we live in. He demands it of them, he’s tough on them. But they know and respect him greatly because he is very honest with them.”
For instance, there is Eric Paschall, who left Fordham after the team fired Pecora as coach, transferred to Villanova, sat out a season and expected to play a lot at small forward. Instead, he has played a fair amount of center (cited by Wright for his play in the closing seconds against Seton Hall last Friday). “He has made a lot of sacrifices in his game, but he sees the end game,” Pecora said.
The point is, a coach’s job is to make other people succeed. That includes Wright’s tailor, a fellow named Gabriel, who once led his church league team to a second-place finish. The really good coaches convince players that they are all better off if the whole group does better, regardless of what happens to each individual. That kind of coaching does not happen on the court, in a suit.
It stays the course during bad times, such as a stretch of first-weekend knockouts for Villanova that included an upset loss here three years ago to eventual champion Connecticut. At his news conference yesterday, Wright says he still is the same guy. “In my household, please. I still take out the trash and do everything I’m told to do,” he said.
To Pecora, Wright is the same person who had a blast coaching his first NCAA Tournament game, Hofstra’s blowout loss to Oklahoma State, also here in Buffalo, 17 years ago.
“Anybody can coach Xs and Os,” Pecora said, adding that Wright’s gift is in putting together the A,B,C’s of personalities. “Every team says, ‘We’re a family, we’re a family.’ Well, you know there are a lot of dysfunctional families in the world, too. This is not one of them.”