It was a plan set in motion for more than a month before the final buzzer sounded on Villanova’s season.
No official moves were made, though, but there was a lot of contemplating and possibly reconsidering.
Villanova president Fr. Peter Donohue and athletic director Mark Jackson unsurprisingly tried to persuade Jay Wright into staying, well before the shockwaves shook up college basketball.
“They’re great salesmen and intelligent people,” Wright said of the tandem. “One of the times, they said, 70% of you is as good as anybody else, which I appreciate, but we couldn’t coach that way. We couldn’t ask the players you’ve gotta give 100%, and I’m giving 70%, so I just knew it was the right time. I told Mark at the end of the regular season. Poor Mark, he had to live with it, but I said don’t tell anybody, I’m gonna do this. We went through a period where they tried to talk me out of it, but Patty and I knew that it was gonna have to be this year.”
While there were moments where Wright admits he struggled with keeping his edge before meetings or practices this season, his players never noticed any hint of it.
“Not to me, that’s Coach Wright,” said Eric Dixon. “Whatever decision he made, I was going with it. He’s a Hall of Famer, no debate about that at all. I felt like he was all the way there.”
To Wright, the rationale was simple.
“We really were excited that we didn’t distract from what they did, as we were going through it — we kind of know — but that Final Four was about Collin, Jermaine and these guys and what they did, and that’s what kept us going,” Wright said. “It was about these guys, they’re awesome. They deserve it. Same thing last night, with our banquet, it was cool, the Nova Nation was there to support them. ... We said, please don’t make this about us, make this about these players.”
It was a pretty well-kept secret, until word got out and swept up social media and the sporting world in a matter of days.
Friday served as Wright’s final press conference in an emotionally charged morning that included tearful goodbyes, many thanks, and more from Wright, Jackson and Fr. Donohue.
There was also time for a few jokes.
“I remember Dana O’Neil asked me at a press conference, what do you think Coach K is thinking about how this is his last game?” Wright said. “And I knew exactly what he’s thinking.”
While college basketball changes, like NIL and the transfer portal, have been hot topics for discussion, Wright says it didn’t play too big of a role in his retirement.
“Not a lot,” Wright said. “I think those changes are eventually going to be really good today for college basketball. I’m so impressed with how we handled NIL as a team. Some of our guys made some really good money, they had 3.8 GPA, and they went to a Final Four, so it didn’t affect what our goal is here. We saw these guys have made good money, they were great students, great men, and they play great, so I’m excited for that going forward.”
For Wright, he hasn’t gotten to reflect too deeply on his decorated 21-year tenure on the Main Line, which includes 520 wins, eight Big East regular season titles, five Big East Tournament championships, national titles in 2016 and 2018, and numerous coach of the year awards at the conference and national level.
He’s kept busy making sure that the road is paved and the systems are in place for his successor, Kyle Neptune, while he transitions to his new role as a “Special Assistant to the President.” Then, he’ll be able to rest and relax on the Jersey shore, reminiscing about the days.
“Great endings lead to great beginnings,” Wright said. “Every time an assistant coach would leave here to be a head coach, we say make sure you finish the job here. ... We’ve been working hard to make sure the players, assistants are taken care of — the recruits, we’re still finishing that up, but it’s going well — Patty and I would say to each other that we have to finish this.
“I know I’m gonna miss the games, I know I’m going to miss practice. Kind of what I’m excited about, and I’ve talked with some of the guys, I love the relationship with the players. Kind of felt like, in the last few years, my energy level has been committed to basketball, recruiting and NIL, and not as much as the relationship with players. If they’ll still talk to me, I look forward to going to breakfast, lunch with these guys and not having to yell at Eric Dixon about being in his stance. You can actually talk about life.”
After Wright’s farewells, Neptune was officially introduced as head coach. Even he is still processing the whirlwind of events.
“This is obviously a dream come true for me,” Neptune said. “Really appreciate your confidence in me, I won’t let you guys down. Coach, I think I can speak for the entire Villanova community when I just say wow, with your career, what you’ve done for all of us, and also all of the coaches who’ve come through both of your programs throughout the years. What you do as a person far exceeds what you’ve done as a coach.”
Neptune has already taken the time to meet with players. For the most part, it’s just a matter of reestablishing those connections. As a former assistant, not only was he on the coaching staff for some of them, but he was also involved in recruiting.
“I think it went pretty well,” Neptune said of his first team meeting as head coach. “I wanted to make sure they knew I was just as shocked as everyone else. I know these guys pretty well. I’ve been gone for a year now, so it’s just a matter of building up those relationships again and trying to propel this program and get it right where it’s been.”
He also notes he’s been in touch with Villanova’s notable three-man incoming freshman class, which features five-star commit Cam Whitmore and four-star prospects Brendan Hausen and Mark Armstrong.
“I’ve talked to all of them, I think we’ve had great conversations and we’ll continue to talk over the next couple of days,” Neptune said.
The 37-year old head coach spent eight years as an assistant at Villanova and was a part of both national title runs, before taking the helm at Fordham for the 2021-22 season.
He had immediate success, going 16-16 with a program that hadn’t matched that mark in nearly 15 years. During that time, there were four different head coaches before him. He also won on the recruiting trail, getting four-star prospect Will Richardson — the highest-rated commit at Fordham in more than a decade.
“I saw so many things I couldn’t see as an assistant coach, I’m really thankful for that year I spent at Fordham,” Neptune said. “There’s nothing really you can do in my estimation to prepare yourself to be a coach, other than to go through it.”
While Jackson said Villanova opened up its search and “we considered a couple of candidates,” Neptune notes the process was very quick for him, getting a call to sit down just a few days ago.
He also jokingly addressed another key piece of business.
“Fr. Peter already threatened me, we need to bring back suits, but we’ll talk about it as a staff,” he said. “(At Fordham,) we wore suits.”
He can’t wait to work.
“For me, I’m just excited amongst who I consider family and friends, and get going,” Neptune said. “Just continue this high bar and standard of excellence that Jay Wright has curated throughout the years.
“Coach Wright always says everybody’s role is different, but everyone’s status is the same. My role is just the standard-bearer for Villanova basketball. My job is to make sure we keep this culture together, keep this high standard. I’m ready to do it, and I can’t wait to get going.”