One of the best in the game stepped aside this week amid a shifting head coaching landscape in college sports. Here’s what Jay Wright’s retirement really means.
Former Villanova coach Jay Wright.
Read that until it sinks in. It just doesn’t feel true. Wright, inarguably one of the five best coaches in college basketball today, unexpectedly announced his retirement on Wednesday at only 60 years old. It’s utterly shocking. But should it be?
First thing’s first: There’s no scandal here and there’s no reason to think Wright has any physical health problem that he needs to address. While details are still murky, those close to him seem to think the guy was just burnt out.
And you know what? He’s allowed to be.
Wright has been a head coach since 1994, has won two national championships at Villanova, been to three Final Fours, and won either the Big East regular season or tournament every year since 2013. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame last year.
But the job that Wright stepped away from is far from the one that he held even five years ago, let alone 21. We live in a different world now, with the one-year transfer waiver and the paradigm-shifting nature of NIL both forcing long-established coaches not only to change their ways, but to work even harder at a job that was already grueling.
Coaching college basketball isn’t just about running practice, managing games, and heading out on the recruiting trail in the summers. It’s wooing boosters. It’s texting and calling recruits in-season. It’s talking to parents, high school coaches, and “handlers,” ensuring them that your program is the best place to send an 18-year-old kid. It’s re-recruiting your own team every year when the season ends. It’s doubling your recruiting duties by trying to draw in high school players and manning the portal on a daily basis.
It’s easy to fire off all the takes: The game is doomed. Transfers are ruining college basketball. NIL has turned college sports into something it shouldn’t be. You can waste column inches and brain cells on that if you want, but the sport has been through trying times before and has always adjusted. What we’re witnessing is merely another necessary step in that process.
Players needed the same agency as coaches to move on from situations they were unhappy in or simply find better ones by comparison. They also needed the opportunity to make money off their own marketability. It’s on the NCAA, its member schools, and their coaches to adjust — and no one should fault accomplished coaches for simply wanting to ride off into the sunset instead. They have nothing more to prove.
Rather, it’s the next crop of coaches that’s tasked with evolving the profession and defining this unprecedented college sports era that’s officially upon us.
And remember this: There’s reason to believe the turnover in college basketball this year is an anomaly. Almost every Division I player was recruited to their respective school before NIL became the law of the land; that would have changed many of their calculations. Additionally, significant portions of college players were recruited amid the worst of the pandemic when in-home visits, campus visits, and scouting were limited or non-existent. Coaches and players alike misjudged each other. Players are liberally using the extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA due to COVID, meaning there are more players around for fewer available minutes. There will be more transfers moving forward than there have been in the past, but there’s at least some reason to believe it will never be this excessive again.
So, with Jay Wright stepping aside at the same time as Coach K and the only other active coaches with multiple national titles mired in scandal, it’s time for a new face — or set of faces — to emerge as the leaders in the sport. To redefine what being a head coach means in this brave new world of college athletics. But meanwhile, the NCAA can and should put more measures in place to protect the game’s sideline titans against burnout.
First off, they can allow programs to expand their coaching staffs. As things stand, head coaches are allowed three assistants (in addition to grad assistants, managers, recruiting analysts, video coordinators, recruiting coordinators, etc.). Let them add a fourth — someone else who can go out on the road and give the other guys a rest. Someone else that can manage the scout for the next game so that the head coach can have his late-night, postgame call with a recruit and not worry about having to pore over game film at two in the morning.
In terms of how coaches adjust, it’s hard to say whether the next guys up will be better or worse, but they will be a different breed. They are going to need to put their players before their programs, be honest with them in the recruiting process, and take more time to make sure they are happy during the season. That doesn’t mean sacrificing games by making sure everyone gets minutes, but it does mean taking more time one-on-one with them, outlining in more detail how players can reach their goals. And if that’s not possible at the current school, then this rising generation of coaches needs to help send them on their way.
(It’s an open secret that coaches from all corners of the country are using the transfer portal to poach plug-and-play talent anyway.)
Jay Wright is living proof that all of this is possible. He’s kept guys for four years while other teams lose stars left and right. And he’s done that while consistently producing Final Four-caliber teams. He just had his fill, and that’s fine. He’s shown what it takes to survive as a head coach in the early stages of this era.
Several other coaches, many of them on the younger end of the spectrum, have found ways to continue operating at the highest level despite these radical shifts as well. Look no further than the head coaches in the 2019 and 2021 national championship games: Tony Bennett, Chris Beard, Scott Drew, and Mark Few (yes, Few is only a year younger than Wright, but you get the idea). In whatever order you want, they are, undoubtedly, four of the top 10 coaches in the men’s game right now. They’ve all embraced the modern game and have grown it at their schools in the process.
There’s no reason to think they can’t continue to succeed as the game evolves. There’s no reason to assume the game will be any worse for it.
Whether or not you deem it free agency by another name, the transfer portal has kept the sport more relevant deeper and deeper into the offseason than it has ever been. TV ratings are up. College athletes are able to market themselves in ways that drives even more interest in and around the game. In this ecosystem, coaches have a major responsibility to do their part to support not just the game, but the business of the game.
Jay Wright did it his way. Who’s next?