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Jay Wright talked of his team’s ‘secret sauce’ at Villanova’s graduation

Philadelphia Inquirer logo Philadelphia Inquirer 5/14/2022 Mike Jensen, The Philadelphia Inquirer
Jay Wright said to Villanova graduating seniors, "I hope you will consider me to be an honorary member of the class of ‘22.” © CHARLES FOX/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS Jay Wright said to Villanova graduating seniors, "I hope you will consider me to be an honorary member of the class of ‘22.”

It made sense, the Jay Wright era ending at Villanova University’s 179th commencement ceremony, class of 2022 inside the football stadium. Friday afternoon, before some rains came in, St. Augustine was quoted, “ever ancient, ever new.” A senior called graduating classmates “to be what you’re not yet.”

Jay Wright, right, receives an honorary doctorate of humane letters by Villanova's president, Father Peter M. Donohue. © CHARLES FOX/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS Jay Wright, right, receives an honorary doctorate of humane letters by Villanova's president, Father Peter M. Donohue.

The first standing ovation from students and their families, came for a man being awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters. The class of ‘22 had petitioned to have the suddenly retired men’s basketball coach give Villanova’s commencement address, at least 1,360 students signing online.

“So he’s Doctor Jay now,” quipped a graduate’s family member in the stadium bleachers.

Jay Wright’s Villanova legacy obviously goes past the Pavilion doors, past the basketball complex across the driveway that Wright once insisted be built as a condition of him sticking around. Would all those dorms across Lancaster Avenue have been built without Jay Wright?

“During his tenure, the Villanova brand has grown bigger,” athletic director Mark Jackson said in introducing Wright. “Our reputation has gotten stronger. Applications have skyrocketed. Buildings have been built. And the university has a whole has benefited.”

Wright had earned the praise, Jackson talking of foundational values at Villanova, how few have exemplified the values of dignity, humility, grace, gratitude, and charity, he said, “better than Jay Wright.”

I sat in Wright’s office during the spring of 2012, a decade ago, after Villanova had finished a 13-19 season, the worst of Wright’s tenure. He had talked that day about how graduating seniors get four years — he didn’t mean the basketball players, but the whole class — and that’s what they remember from their college experience. Wright couldn’t know that players were showing up that fall who would lead the Wildcats to a national title and more would show up to make it two NCAA titles. (He did like those players showing up, though. That was clear that day.)

Villanova players Kevin Voigt, Caleb Daniels, and Brandon Slater show off their jerseys unders their graduation gowns at Villanova's graduation. © CHARLES FOX/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS Villanova players Kevin Voigt, Caleb Daniels, and Brandon Slater show off their jerseys unders their graduation gowns at Villanova's graduation.

That day, Wright talked about how, as much as anything, he never wanted to leave Villanova on a sour note. He wanted to be able to come back, he said, on good terms. Unspoken was how that wasn’t true of his predecessors.

Mission accomplished, obviously. Wright’s last ‘Nova game might have been a loss, but it was at the Final Four.

Any tinges of regret filter in the last couple of weeks … What have I done?

“No,” Wright said Friday, a couple of hours before his commencement address. “Not at all, nope, honestly. And I look for that.”

But has he awakened in the middle of the night wondering who is going to play point guard next season, before realizing he didn’t have to worry about that anymore?

“Yeah, definitely,” Wright said. “I still wake up thinking about the Kansas game, what we’re going to do next year, and NIL.”

Villanova Coach Jay Wright delivers the commencement speech at Villanova's graduation. © CHARLES FOX/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS Villanova Coach Jay Wright delivers the commencement speech at Villanova's graduation.

Name, image and likeness. Every big-time coach has to be thinking about wrinkles involved with that, the new NCAA landscape.

Wright must have dreams in which he’s still the coach.

“I’ve never done this before,” Wright said after confirming such dreams. “So I don’t know how long that lasts. But it’s a relief to wake up and realize it’s not my problem.”

Kyle Neptune now has the keys to the Main Line castle.

“Just watching Kyle and our guys, watching them has confirmed even more — I see an energy, an enthusiasm that I really like,” Wright said. “That makes me even confirm that I made the right decision.”

A personal guess on what is next for Wright … a big-time television role. Maybe the next Bill Raftery? Wright said he was just with Raftery in Florida — “we never talked about that.”

It just makes sense. Right now, Wright, at age 60, said he is focused on his new role as a special assistant to Villanova’s president — “being on campus as opposed to being in the gym.”

When he gets situated in that new role, “then I’ll start thinking,” Wright said of what gets added to his life.

Beginning his commencement address, Wright joked about his new role.

“I’ve already learned to have your coffee hot, plain, black and ready on your desk when you arrive in the morning,” Wright said to Villanova’s president, Father Peter Donohue.

Wright talked about the “secret sauce” of Villanova’s program, how the Wildcats dealt with obstacles, even failures. In good commencement fashion, he quoted Thoreau (“the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”), and a poem he recited to his players. He implored graduates not to let the outside world define them. He talked of bad losses last season at Baylor and Creighton, how he saw his own players put those behind them and win a Big East title. Dealing with failure is what life is about, he made clear to the graduates.

“There aren’t too many books written about dealing with success,” Wright told them.

Some rain came down, but not until Wright was done.

“I’m in awe of each one of you,” Wright told Villanova’s class of ‘22, referring specifically to their pandemic hurdles. “Your determination, resiliency and fortitude as a class will go down in history. I’m so proud to be a part of you this day. I hope you will consider me to be an honorary member of the class of ‘22.”

His fellow graduates cheered like it was a Big East game.

©2022 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Visit inquirer.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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