Jay Wright to be Honored with Living Legend Award 2023 PSWA Banquet
When one-time Villanova assistant Jay Wright returned to the Main Line in 2001 after nearly two decades away to become the program’s eighth coach, the Wildcats had won two NCAA Tournament games in the previous 10 seasons.
That trend soon would change.
Wright didn’t make it into the tournament in his first three tries, but in his fourth season reached the Sweet 16 for the first time since an Elite Eight appearance under his mentor Rollie Massimino in 1988. The rest, as they like to put it, was memorable.
Jay Wright didn’t invent Villanova basketball. There was plenty of storied tradition built up long before he came back. Yet what the Bucks County native would do in his 21 campaigns is take things to a whole different level – a downright historical one.
And after making the Final Four for the fourth time last spring, he decided to step away at the age of 60, on his own terms. He has become the school’s biggest ambassador, and has been doing television work for CBS. And having left a legacy behind for future generations to judge him by, he has earned PSWA Living Legend Award from the Philadelphia Sports Writers Association.
Wright went into the Naismith Hall of Fame in 2021. He dominated the newest version of the Big East. He did the same in the Big 5, while helping to mend some of the past bridges that had been created – for whatever issues – over the years. He also was largely responsible for bringing Massimino back into the Villanova community, following the clumsy way in which he’d departed. And that was an important thing, both for the Nova family and the Philadelphia hoops fraternity.
Never underestimate what that all meant to Wright. He and Massimino had a unique bond, for obvious reasons. The look on Massinino’s face when Wright reached the Final Four in 2009 was memorable. So was the way Wright, who was rarely at a loss for the proper words, had so much difficulty getting through Massimino’s eulogy.
Wright won over 70 percent of his games at Nova. He won six Big East tourneys and eight regular-season banners. He won 30 games six times. His teams made the NCAA tourney 17 times in 19 years. And it would have been 18, if not for a pandemic causing the cancellation of the 2020 event. For five straight years the Cats were either a Number 1 or 2 seed. And Villanova became just the fourth program since the end of the UCLA dynasty in the mid 1970s to claim two rings in three years, joining Duke (1991, ’92), Kentucky (1996, ’98) and Florida (2006, ’07).
There may never see another run like it in Philadelphia. The only thing really close was La Salle and Tom Gola from 1952-55, when the Explorers won an NIT, and an NCAA Tournament and lost in a final to a one-loss San Francisco with Bill Russell.
That’s quite a comparison. And well deserved. Jay Wright established a standard as a coach and person, that will be celebrated for many decades to come. His presence on the Villanova sidelines will be missed. But his achievements will never be forgotten.
By Mike Kern
Philadelphia Daily News, retired