Jay Wright is coming back to Long Island for one night only — and he’s bringing his top-ranked Villanova basketball team to play Hofstra on Friday at Nassau Coliseum.
Hofstra was Wright’s first head-coaching job in a career that propelled him into national prominence at Villanova, where he won the NCAA title in 2016. It will be Hofstra’s first game at the Coliseum since Dec. 16, 2000, when the Wright-coached Pride upset St. John’s.
Despite the location — 2,124 feet away from Hofstra’s MackSports Complex, as measured by former Hofstra publicist Jeremy Kniffin — this will be Villanova’s home game. That makes Wright, who lived in Rockville Centre during his tenure at Hofstra, feel even more at home.
”Of all the stories we tell and coaching the Final Fours, the national championship, still the best stories are from the years at Hofstra,’’ Wright said in a phone interview before the season. “It’s all Hofstra stories.’’
IN THE BEGINNING
Wright’s Hofstra story began in Las Vegas, where he was assisting the legendary Rollie Massimino at UNLV when the Hofstra job opened in 1994.
“Jim Garvey was athletic director,’’ Wright said. “He had it down to two candidates. I wasn’t one of them.’’
Massimino, who led Villanova to the 1985 NCAA championship, changed Garvey’s thinking.
“When you get a phone call from Rollie Massimino telling people he is a rising star, I don’t think you need to search much longer,’’ said Harry Royle, who then was Hofstra’s senior associate athletic director. (Garvey died in 2013.)
Wright asked longtime Long Islander Tom Pecora, then an assistant at Loyola Marymount, to join him at Hofstra, and the two formed a close bond as Pecora became Wright’s associate head coach. Pecora became Hofstra’s head coach when Wright left for Villanova after the 2000-01 season.
Pecora said neither he nor Wright knew exactly what awaited them at Hofstra. “We were kids, so it was a wonderful opportunity,’’ said Pecora, now the associate head coach at Quinnipiac under Baker Dunleavy, who had been an assistant to Wright at Villanova. “I think there were 305 Division I schools and we were [ranked] 297. At the first game, I said to Jay, ‘74.’ He said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said I think there’s 74 people here. We had come from UNLV, where you were playing in front of 20,000 people every night. It really was from the ground up, but it was an incredible way to learn and an incredible way to make mistakes and hone his craft.’’
Wright, who will turn 56 on Christmas Eve, said, “The further you get from that time, the more you realize all the things that happened to you there and how fortunate you were. Just a simple fact of four years of not winning, they could have gotten rid of me. I don’t think anyone would have questioned them. The fact that Dr. [James] Shuart and Royle stuck with me, you just realize how fortunate you are.’’
BUILDING A WINNER
Wright was 31-51 in his first three seasons at Hofstra and 91-34 in his last four, which included consecutive bids to the NCAA Tournament starting in the 1999-2000 season. Point guard Speedy Claxton, who spurned offers from bigger schools, brought legitimacy to the program. Claxton now is an assistant at Hofstra.
“He has a deep love and pride in Hofstra basketball that is unique, like I do,’’ Wright said of his former player, who averaged 9.3 points and 4.3 assists in a seven-year NBA career. “We both have it for the same reason.”
The games that sent Hofstra to the NCAAs for the first time since 1977 were so compelling that WFAN’s Mike Francesa and Chris Russo came to Hempstead to do a live broadcast.
“The game we played at home against Delaware the first time to go to the NCAA Tournament, I was more nervous than I was for the national championship at Villanova,’’ Wright said.
“When you’re a mid-major coach, you know you might never get that shot again,” he said, comparing his Hofstra days in the America East Conference with the big-time status of Villanova, which plays in the powerful Big East Conference. “When you’re coaching at this level with the Big East championship, you know we might go through this again. If we lose the national championship game, we’ve been to other Final Fours. It’s still a good accomplishment. But at the mid-major level, you know that’s going to make your program and you know how hard it is just to get to the championship game. They rushed the floor at Hofstra. That was just a feeling, as probably crazy as it is to say [winning] the national championship. But close.’’
THE BIG MOVE
Before leaving Hofstra for Villanova, Wright said there was “chatter’’ about St. John’s, and that he spurned an offer from Fordham and later Rutgers before Villanova called and he took the job in his native Pennsylvania. “I was going back home, it was fast and simple,’’ said Wright, who grew up in the Bucks County town of Newtown.
Wright said there were several opportunities for Villanova to play Hofstra in the past — but not during Pecora’s head- coaching tenure at Hofstra. Neither wanted to play the other. Pecora always said, “You don’t coach against your brother.’’
Hofstra athletic director Jeff Hathaway said, “We don’t have any financial liability. We’ll make some money off it.’’
Said Wright, “I know there are a lot of Villanova fans on Long Island that can’t get seats [in Philadelphia] for games. They would love to see this game. Even though it is special for me personally, it’s a really good game for Villanova.’’
Hofstra guard Justin Wright-Foreman, who leads the Pride in scoring with a 23.1 average, is looking forward to facing the No. 1 team and its coach.
“Speedy said he was a great coach,’’ Wright-Foreman said. “It will be a good game, him coming back home, playing against his old team. It should be a lot of fun. Chances like this don’t come around so often. Embrace the moment. There’s a big chance if we come out and play hard as we do and how we’ve been playing, locking in our defensive end, we should be able to get an upset on this team.’’
Current Hofstra coach Joe Mihalich said of Wright, “He loved it here, he’s appreciative. He has a special place in his heart, the people he worked with, all the players. We’re going to play a team that’s a national power. All you have to do is say Villanova; everybody knows what a great program they have, what a great coach they have. Just a matter of time before Jay Wright’s in the Hall of Fame. He’s headed for that and he should be in there.’’
IT’S STUDENT VS. MENTOR
Jay Wright’s former star pupil — Craig “Speedy” Claxton — will be on the opposing bench Friday when Villanova plays Hofstra at Nassau Coliseum.
Claxton, who scored 2,015 points for Wright at Hofstra from 1996-2000, is an assistant to Pride coach Joe Mihalich after playing parts of seven seasons in the NBA. He averaged 9.3 points and 4.3 assists in his career and won an NBA championship with the San Antonio Spurs in 2003.
Tom Pecora, Wright’s assistant at Hofstra before becoming head coach, said Missouri, Georgia Tech, Villanova and St. John’s had recruited Claxton at Christ the King. But Claxton admired Wright and liked the idea of playing for a school not far from his parents in Hempstead.
“I think his relationship with Jay was so strong,’’ said Pecora, now the associate head coach at Quinnipiac. “I’m sure the thoughts danced in his head, but he came from such strong [parents] — they had great character — and I think that’s what the difference was. A lot of kids would have listened to voices on the phone. Speedy listened to voices at home.’’
Claxton said he never wavered. “I’m a man of my word and I would have felt so bad backing out of that commitment,’’ he said. “I just loved coach Wright and his coaching staff too much to really give it a serious thought. Some of my friends were in my ear at the time — I should go high or I should go bigger — and a lot of them were going to the high majors. It was something about coach Wright and his staff that made me feel like it was the right place for me.’’
Claxton, 39, still feels close to Wright. “Hofstra will always be home for both of us,’’ he said. “We will always be connected through this. I think it’s always special when you go somewhere and leave a legacy. It’s nice to walk around and see your pictures everywhere you turn. It’s going to be weird to be on the other side, but it’s going to be fun.”