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Is Jay Wright Villanova Basketball’s Best Coach Ever?

He’s got the titles, the talent, and the look. But is he the best coach to ever walk the Villanova sidelines?

Butler v Villanova Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

Jay Wright is entering his 17th season as the head coach of the Villanova Wildcats, and his 24th overall. With a National Championship, two Final Fours, and 508 career wins to date, 386 coming at Nova, he’s widely considered one of the best coaches in today’s game. But being the one of the best today, doesn’t necessarily make him Villanova’s best ever.

Villanova has had a remarkable track record when it comes to head coaches. First off, there’s only been 8 coaches in the history of the school’s basketball program, which started in 1920-21. That’s tied for the fewest head coaches in the history of any program in the major six conferences. The other school with only 8 coaches is Florida State, but they’ve only been playing since 1947-48. Also, since Nova’s program started in 1921, they have the 3rd best average coach tenure among the Major 6 at 12 years per coach. The only two schools with better averages over that span are Kansas and Syracuse (thanks Boeheim!).

All of that boils down to this: Villanova head coaches tend to be very successful for a very long time. With one exception, every Villanova coach was with the school for at least 6 seasons and had an overall winning record during their tenure. Since the NCAA tournament started in 1939, all five Villanova coaches have been to the dance at least four times in their career. Four of the five took their teams to a Final Four, and the one that didn’t won the school’s only NIT Tournament Championship. So like I said, being good now doesn’t necessarily mean you’re the king of the Villanova hill.

But even with all of the accolades and accomplishments of his predecessors, Jay holds his own. So where exactly does he fit on the list of the All-Time greatest coaches at Villanova? Today, we open up the history books and find out.

Narrowing the Already Narrow Field

Like I said, not many coaches have led the Villanova program. The school has a tremendous record of hiring and holding onto successful coaches. However, there are a few names that just don’t make the cut when it comes to deciding the best of the best.

The first to go is the before mentioned exception to Villanova’s strong coaching record, John J. “Rube” Cashman, who coached from 1926-29. Cashman found success in his first season, finishing at 11-7. But two losing seasons after that and he was done, giving him the shortest tenure in school history. He finished with a record of 21-26 (.447) in just three years with the team.

We’ll also eliminate his replacement, George W. “Doc” Jacobs, who coached from 1929-36. Jacobs came to Villanova after being Navy’s head coach, and got off to a good start with an 11-6 record in his first season. But then Doc started losing about as many games as he won, finishing his career at Villanova with a record of 62-56 (.525).

Next on the chopping block is Villanova’s first ever head coach, Michael A. Saxe, who led Villanova from 1920-1926. Saxe finished with a winning record in each of his six seasons, including a 10-1 win season in 1925 which was the team’s best ever single season win % until the 2015 team went 33-3. Saxe finished with a record of 64-30 (.681) over six seasons and held the record for best win% and most wins until the great Al Severance shattered that record.

Lastly, we’re going to remove Jay Wright’s predecessor, Steve Lappas. Lappas had a very successful tenure as Villanova’s head coach from 1992-2001. He had a winning record in 7 of his 9 seasons, which included teams in the AP Top 3, four trips to the NCAA tournament, and an NIT National Championship. The problem for Lappas was that the results never met the expectations for most of his very talented teams. He left Villanova for UMass with a Wildcat record of 174-110 (.613) and now calls a number of Villanova games as a TV analyst.

And that leaves us with our “Final Four” of the best coaches in Villanova’s history: Alex “Al” Severance (1936-61), John J. “Jack” Kraft (1961-1973), Roland “Rollie” Massimino (1973-92), and Jerold “Jay” Wright (2001-Current). Now that we’ve got what most would consider the Mount Rushmore of Villanova coaches, let’s dive into some stats.

By the Numbers

We’re talking about the cream of the crop at this point, so it’s no surprise that Wright has yet to break some of the major coaching records at Villanova. That said, he’s been on an unreal streak over the last four seasons averaging over 32 wins each year. So how do Wright’s current and projected numbers rank against Villanova’s All-Time greats?

Years - 25, Al Severance. Wright actually sits in 3rd place when it comes to tenure at Villanova. Entering his 17th season at the school, Jay still sits behind his mentor Rollie Massimino at 19 years, and the leader Al Severance with 25 years. Wright is still almost a full decade behind Severance, but there’s no signs that he’ll be leaving any time soon. Breaking that record is 100% achievable for Wright.

Games - 614, Al Severance. Villanova has played between 31-40 games in each season that Wright’s been a head coach. A combination of post-season success and longer seasons have put Wright in a position (547 games) to pass both Massimino (596 games) and Severance (614 games) as soon as the 18-19 season.

Wins - 413, Al Severance. Jay Wright was the second fastest coach to 300 wins in school history, only behind Al Severance. With just 14 more wins, he’ll likely become the fastest coach to 400 wins at Villanova. And if the Wildcats can put together a fifth consecutive 28+ win season this year, Wright will become the winningest coach in school history.

Win % - 71.6%, Jack Kraft. Kraft’s teams in the 60’s and 70’s were highly efficient and won a ton of games. But Wright’s teams have also been mostly great over his Villanova career, giving him the school’s second best Win % at 70.6%. However, in the last four seasons, Villanova has been winning an outlandish 88.3% of its games, the most wins in all of Division 1 college basketball over that period. If Wright can stay even remotely close to that pace, he could overcome Kraft for career Win % at Nova.

Titles and Tournaments

While stats can be pretty important, they’re often not what people remember you for. That would be what you win, and how you perform in the post-season. In this area, Jay Wright has proven himself as good if not much better than the rest of Villanova’s coaches. And that starts at home with the Big 5.

Big 5 Titles - 10, Jay Wright. Wright hasn’t just won a lot in the Big 5, he’s owned it. Especially in the last four years where his teams are 16-0 against their local rivals. But to put Wright’s dominance into perspective, Severance, Kraft, and Massimino have 10 Big 5 titles COMBINED. On top of that, Wright is responsible for 8 of the school’s 14 out-right Big 5 titles, which is the Big 5 record for out-right titles by a single coach. Jay’s still 5 titles behind Temple’s legendary coach John Chaney, but even that record is well within reach.

Conference Titles - 5, Jay Wright and Rollie Massimino. Wright tied his mentor’s school record for regular season conference titles this past season, and broke his record for most consecutive conference titles with four. But that can be a little misleading. Three of Massimino’s titles came in the EAA conference, now the Atlantic 10, while Kraft and Severance never played in a conference. Wright has now won 5 Big East Titles, tying him for 4th most with former St. John’s coach Lou Carnesecca. His four consecutive titles are the most by any coach in the history of the Big East.

Conference Tournament Titles - 2, Jay Wright and Rollie Massimino. Jay Wright is the only coach in Villanova history to win multiple Big East Tournament Championships. In fact, only seven coaches in the history of the league have won the tournament in The Garden more than once. Rollie’s two tournament championships came in the EAA, while Kraft and Severance were both with the school while it was classified as an independent.

NCAA Tournament Appearances - 12, Jay Wright. By achieving the #1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament with his 2017 team, Wright passed Rollie Massimino for the most Tournament Appearances in school history. Starting in 2005, Wright has taken his team to the big dance in 12 of 13 seasons. Since taking over the Wildcats, his teams have gone to the tournament 75% of the time. The next best Appearance % is Massimino with 57%.

NCAA Tournament Final Fours - 2, Jay Wright. While each of the four Villanova coaches we’re discussing made it to the Final Four (Kraft’s was forfeited afterwards), only Jay Wright made a return trip. He’s also just the 5th coach to make multiple final four appearances from the Big East.

NCAA Tournament Championships - 1, Jay Wright and Rollie Massimino. Clearly the biggest accomplishment in college coaching is winning a National Championship. Jay and his mentor Rollie Massimino are the only two coaches to win the NCAA Tournament at Villanova. Villanova is also the only Big East school to have two different coaches win the National Championship.

The Greatest Ever?

So is Jay Wright the greatest head coach Villanova has ever had? If he isn’t yet, he’s sure getting pretty close to earning that title. In my opinion, Jay Wright may end his career as the greatest coach Villanova will ever have.

He’s won multiple Big 5 Coach of the Year Awards and five Big East Coach of the Year Awards. He’s recruited and coached three consensus first-team All-Americans. And all the while, he’s proven time and time again that he loves this school, this community, this city, and this fan base.

And it’s not just that he’s the best coach in just Villanova’s history either. Jay Wright has the opportunity to be considered among some of the greatest coaches the college game has ever known. He already has over 500 career wins, 2 final fours, and a National Championship. Only 23 coaches in history can make that claim, and only 9 of those are still coaching today.

But in my opinion the strongest indicator of how well Jay Wright is perceived by college basketball is the Naismith College Coach of the Year Award. Starting with the 1986-87 season, this award has been given to the year’s best coach. In the 40 years now that the award has been voted on and handed out, 35 different coaches have won the award. In fact, only three men have won the award multiple times. The first two, Mike Krzyzewski and John Calipari, are already members of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. The third recipient of multiple Coach of the Year awards, and likely future member of that hall, is Jay Wright.