Before he made the decision to retire after 21 seasons as men’s basketball coach at Villanova, Jay Wright said he lacked the same “edge” this season that he had enjoyed in the past, he said Friday.
During his retirement news conference, which also featured new head coach Kyle Neptune, Wright said there were moments before practices and workouts when he had to give himself a pep talk.
And then he remembered what he’d always told his players: “You’re either 100 percent in or you’re against us.”
That’s when Wright, 60, knew it was time to retire after a Hall of Fame career that included two national championships, eight Big East regular-season titles, a gold medal as an assistant for the U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team last summer and 642 victories — of which 520 came with the Wildcats.
“During this season, it started to hit me,” an emotional Wright said about his decision, his voice breaking multiple times. “I started to look at where my coaching was. Everybody being in place: our staff, the team. We wanted to leave this in a better place than we found it. And we wanted it to be strong and in a great position when we left.
“I started to feel just like I didn’t have the edge that I’ve always had where the edge always came natural to me, so I started evaluating it.”
Wright said he’d considered retirement for a few years but made the final decision prior to his team’s run to the Final Four. He didn’t tell the team because he wanted to have answers for his players about what would come next.
Although he’d originally planned to tell his players at a team banquet Thursday, Wright had to tell them Wednesday night after reports had circulated about his decision.
He said he told school officials before he told his players because he wanted to help them make the transition and keep the program and staff together once a change was made. As Mike Krzyzewski was asked about his looming retirement in New Orleans at the Final Four, however, Wright said he also knew it would be his last run, which created some awkward moments for him.
“I’m thinking, ‘I know exactly what he’s thinking about,'” Wright said of Krzyzewski. “But I didn’t want to say anything. But there were some weird times like that.”
Wright said the current climate of college basketball, which now includes the transfer portal and name, image and likeness licensing deals, played a small role in his decision. But the changes also made him see that Villanova needed a fresh voice as the school moves forward.
“I think those changes are eventually going to be really good for college basketball,” Wright said. “I’m so impressed with how we handled NIL as a team. Some of our guys made really good money. And they had 3.8 GPAs and they went to a Final Four. But there is a side of it where … [Neptune and our younger assistants] are at another level than me when it comes to that stuff. They’re really visionary about it. And I feel like I’m the coach that’s trying to keep up with it. That impacted us where we felt like this is a good time.”
Wright said he knew Neptune, a former assistant on his staff who led Fordham to a 16-16 record this season — 14 more wins than the previous season — was the right pick for the job, and that has also made him more comfortable with this decision.
“We knew with Kyle … Kyle’s got head-coaching experience,” Wright said. “We knew it was going to be one of our guys. I think the year before he left, I kind of saw that he’s ready to go and then he stayed one more year and got the Fordham job.”
Wright said he’s not sure what he’ll do next, but he does plan to stay active at Villanova and attend games. After a magical ride that elevated the brand of the Villanova program and the entire Big East, Wright said he’ll leave knowing the Wildcats are equipped to sustain the success they have enjoyed in recent years.
“The greatest thing for us has always been just to be the coach at Villanova,” Wright said before he paused to collect himself. “Accolades or winning games is not as big as being the coach at Villanova. We’ve been a part of a great tradition and we’ve been blessed to be the head of that tradition for 21 years. We’ve always said, ‘We don’t own this.’ We just got to be in charge for 21 years.”