Four Hundred and Ninety Five. That’s how many wins Villanova’s head coach Jay Wright has amassed in his now 23rd season as a Division I men’s college basketball coach. That means he’s just five wins away from his 500th victory, a major milestone that only 62 others coaches have achieved. And Wright isn’t just approaching the mark, he’s about to burst through it Kool-Aid Man style.
So with each win that Jay picks until he hits the big five-oh-oh (likely early next month), we’re going to take a look back at some of the key victories that got him to this point. This week we start at the beginning. After a decade of assistant coaching at Rochester, Drexel, Villanova, and UNLV, Jay Wright was offered his first head coaching position at Hofstra University. The school had just one winning season in the previous eight years, and was looking for the young coach to turn the program around. And as he’s done for year’s since, he delivered.
Win #1: First Career Victory
Career Game: 2 | Date: Dec. 2nd, 1994 | Opponent: Cornell | Score: 82-56
I’d love to say that Wright’s first game was a win, but that was a 97-104 loss to New Hampshire. But just like he has his entire career, Wright moved on from a loss for an even bigger win. The 26 point victory was on a neutral court in the teams first game of the 1994 Colorado Tournament, an early season tournament hosted by Colorado University. The then Flying Dutchmen’s starting center James Parisi led the team with 19 points, and just like many of his wins this season, Wright had five players score in double figures while holding his opponent under 60 points.
Win #10: First Career Post-Season Victory
Career Game: 27 | Date: Mar. 1st, 1995 | Opponent: Maine | Score: 88-59
It wasn’t a pretty first season at Hofstra for their new head coach, going just 10-18 on the year. But that final victory gave Jay Wright his first post-season victory. It was the first round of the North Atlantic Conference Tournament, and despite being the lowest seed at 9th, Hofstra blew out the higher seeded Maine by almost 30 points. This was a team that had beat them by just 1 point in their last conference game of the regular season. They would lose in the next round, but this victory showed the Hofstra faithful that they had something to build on with their new head coach.
Win #32: First Career Victory Over Alma Mater, Bucknell
Career Game: 83 | Date: Nov. 21st, 1997 | Opponent: Bucknell | Score: 69-55
In the first game of his 4th season as Hofstra’s head coach, Wright got a chance to face his alma mater and the man who helped get him his first coaching job, Pat Flannery. The victory would be the first step in Wright’s first season with a winning record both in conference (11-7) and overall (19-12). It was a year that included a trip to Philadelphia to play Villanova, Wright’s first overtime victory (Win #39 against Hartford), and the school’s first ever victory in the America East Conference Tournament (Win #50 against Hartford). The team still lost in the second round, but the program was now headed in the “Wright” direction. And no, that pun will never get old.
Win #56: First Career Victory Over A Major Conference Team
Career Game: 123 | Date: Dec. 26, 1998 | Opponent: Georgia Tech | Score: 61-41
It’s no secret that Jay has done very well at Madison Square Garden over his career. So when he takes a New York school full of New York kids into the New York mecca of basketball, you better be ready to play. Simply put, Georgia Tech wasn’t. In Wright’s biggest win to date, and possibly one of the biggest wins in Hofstra history, Norman Richardson led the way with a career high 23 points. The game was the first of the ECAC Holiday Festival tournament, which Hofstra would win the next night by defeating Penn (Win #57).
Win #70: First Career 20 Win Season
Career Game: 141 | Date: Feb. 15, 1999 | Opponent: Northeastern | Score: 78-52
Hofstra had only won 20 games in a season once in the previous 21 seasons. Now under Wright, they’d win over 20 games in 1999, 2000, and 2001. The ‘98-’99 season really put Jay on the national map, and would serve as a launching point for the Hofstra program over the next two seasons. Despite falling to regular season AEC champ Drexel in the conference tournament, Wright’s team was invited to the NIT (his first national post-season tournament) and finished the year 22-10.
Win #89: First Career 10 Game Winning Streak
Career Game: 167 | Date: Feb. 10, 2000 | Opponent: Hartford | Score: 92-58
The ‘99-2000 season was Jay Wright’s breakout year. His team was on a tear in the AEC, winning 10 straight games by an average of 18.7 points per game. Senior Speedy Claxton averaged 22.8 PPG and was getting himself and his coach plenty of national attention. But stringing together wins was just the first of many achievements for this team.
Win #92: First Career Regular Season Championship
Career Game: 171 | Date: Feb. 20, 2000 | Opponent: Maine | Score: 67-64
In a battle between the conferences two best teams, Speedy Claxton scored 32 points on Senior Day in front of a sell out crowd. The team was down by six in the closing minutes of the game before going on a 9-0 run to win the AEC for the first time in school history. Wright had finally proved that he could bring in elite talent and build a successful program around it, but he wasn’t done there.
Win #96: First Career Conference Tournament Championship
Career Game: 175 | Date: Mar. 11, 2000 | Opponent: Delaware | Score: 76-69
Wright didn’t shy away from his first appearance in a conference tournament championship. Despite being down by 8 in the second half to a Delaware team that had won 24 games that season, Hofstra was able to battle back and win by 7. The victory marked not only Wright’s first Conference Tournament Championship, but his first official invitation to the NCAA Tournament. His team was given the #14 seed in the East, the same region as future Big5 opponents #2 Temple and #13 Penn. In the first round they faced #3 Oklahoma State and coaching legend Eddie Sutton. Hofstra lost by 20, and OSU would make it all the way to the Elite 8 before falling to Florida.
Even with the loss, it was the fullfillment of every hope and dream the school could’ve had when they brought Wright on as head coach. But with his star player graduating and the added pressure of being the conference’s best team, would Wright be able to repeat his success?
Win #100: 100 Career Wins
Career Game: 180 | Date: Nov. 25, 2000 | Opponent: Stony Brook | Score: 72-60
While it took his first four seasons to reach 50 wins, Jay Wright won his next 50 in nearly half the time. He had the best team in the conference, the reigning regular season and tournament champions, and despite losing his best player he was now 4-0 on the season. Wright had put together back to back 20+ win seasons at Hofstra for the first time in over 35 years, and had now made a name for himself as a coach that could recruit and win. It was the start of his final season at Hofstra, and he was going to go out with a BANG.
Win #122: Final Victory As Hofstra’s Head Coach
Career Game: 206 | Date: Mar. 10, 2001 | Opponent: Delaware | Score: 68-54
After closing the regular season on a 15 game winning streak (Win #119 against Drexel), Jay Wright and Hofstra clinched their second consecutive regular season championship. The Dutchmen tore through the AEC tournament, winning all three games by an average of 13 points. They made the NCAA Tournament for a second straight season, the first time since ‘76-’77, and were seeded as the #13 seed in the East taking on #4 UCLA. Despite a close game until the end, UCLA advanced with a 13 point victory. They would go on to the Sweet 16 before losing to eventual Champion Duke.
At the end of that season, Jay Wright parted ways with Hofstra after landing his dream job at Villanova. Wright had been an assistant under Rollie Massimino at Nova for five seasons, and it was also his wife’s alma mater. It would be the biggest challenge of his coaching career so far, but he would once again prove that he was up for it.
Tune in after Villanova’s next win for Part 2: The Early Nova Years