Villanova coach Jay Wright handles demands, trappings of success

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Villanova coach Jay Wright encourages his players in the 2nd half against Seton Hall on March 10, 2017.

It is 7 p.m., or as close to 7 p.m. as Jay Wright can reasonably cut it, when the back door of JD McGillicuddy's, a bar/restaurant near the Wayne train station, pulls open and the coach of the defending national champion college basketball team enters the kitchen to say hello to all the dishwashers, prep staff, cooks, and waitresses who swarm there on a very busy Monday night in March.

He didn't really come in that door just to mingle with the working folks, although you wouldn't know it by the way he smiles as he moves through the room, pointing here and there, raising his eyebrows in recognition. They point and smile right back, but only for a moment because, for one thing, they are very busy, and, for another, he's already gone. He is, however, the reason they are all busy.

On the other side of the swinging kitchen door, the near end of the restaurant is set up for Wright's weekly radio show, an hourlong combination of pep rally, community seance, player appearances, and a persistent reading from the gospel of, you might have heard the term before, "Villanova Basketball."

Wright climbs the riser in a bound, raises his left hand to form a V and then makes it into a fist that he pumps in the air as the packed-in crowd cheers and the show's theme music – he barely made it again – begins to play. Wright sits, adjusts the microphone on his headset, looks out over the audience, and smiles once more.

"Welcome. Welcome, everybody," he begins.

Every basketball coach, every basketball player, every basketball program learns to handle a season that ends with a loss, if only because, well, they always do. Villanova, in the seasons leading up to 2015-16, had shown the ability to accept those ultimate defeats with grace. Wright essentially wrote the script for how to react to the exits, including some very disappointing ones, from the national stage.

The disappointments were most sharply felt on campus, of course; to the administrators who count on the basketball team to plump the school's image, grease its fund-raising efforts, and generate pride in the overall mission. And they were felt by the university community of students, alumni, sponsors, boosters, longtime fans - the very mixture of supporters who might be compelled to leave the house on a chilly Monday night to eat chicken wings and meatballs and listen to Jay Wright talk about ribs, specifically the injured ones belonging to forward Darryl Reynolds.

Away from the Villanova community, the season-ending losses weren't as difficult to take, and were perhaps even celebrated in some corners of a metropolitan area that has multiple Division I basketball programs. To the average fan, it merely marked the time to change channels. Go get 'em next year, Jay. See you next January.

Still, things had added up a little. Since reaching the Final Four in 2009, the Wildcats had gone six seasons without surviving the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, often despite a high seeding. Wright handled it, and so Villanova handled it. Give the credit to (winning team here). We're proud of how we played and what we accomplished this season. We will learn from this and get better.

Well, apparently they did.

Handling a season that ends with a win - which is what took place when Villanova beat North Carolina on a three-pointer at the buzzer by Kris Jenkins that broke a tie and the Wildcats' streak of disappointment - was new territory. Certainly, everything can't stay the same. The forces unleashed by that experience, by that celebrity, by that climb to the highest turret of the castle and the planting of your flag, that changes things. Or not?

"It really wasn't that difficult," Wright says. He is in the large corner office that overlooks Villanova's practice floor in the Davis Center, a bright, modern facility adjacent to the soon-to-be-rebuilt Pavilion. Wright had a lot to do with getting the Davis Center built, and his team's success with obtaining funding for the Pavilion reconstruction. He had just finished signing several boxes of a new book for which he is the title author: Attitude: Develop a Winning Mindset on and off the Court. On the cover, Wright, resplendent in a gray, pin-striped suit and brilliant Villanova blue tie, tosses a basketball casually in the air with his right hand, which is adorned with a championship ring only slightly smaller than the average breakfast muffin.

"What this gets back to is that there's a nice balance around here. Philadelphia has so many other things going on. We get plenty of attention, but there are five other Division I schools, and all the pro sports," Wright says. "I think people enjoy and respect our team, but it's just college basketball. I don't think we'd get killed if we don't repeat, or if we don't repeat in three years or five years. We want to. We'll be working hard at it, but no one would kill us if we don't."

There were more speaking engagements offered and more appearances available after the championship. Wright picked and chose carefully for himself and the team, not wanting to do too much, but there was still a lot. There was a trip to the ESPY's and a visit to the White House, and it wasn't just a usual summer. By August, as Wright and his staff finished off the recruiting season, everyone was exhausted and there was a nine-day team trip to Spain that had been scheduled for more than a year.

"We had a meeting about canceling it. I finally said, 'Look, we're committed. We spent the money. Let's do it.' And it turned out to be one of the best things we ever did," Wright says. "Nobody knew us. Nobody was at the games. We just hung out together and relaxed and enjoyed each other. That's when this season really began."

It was also when Wright stopped worrying that his current senior class might not have the leadership ability of the previous one that had been anchored by center Daniel Ochefu and guard Ryan Arcidiacono. The new seniors - Josh Hart, Reynolds and Jenkins - had always been a looser group, a bit more happy-go-lucky than the sterner seniors who preceded them. And when Reynolds, the most mature of the bunch, had to remain behind because of injury, Wright wasn't sure how it would go in Spain with Hart and Jenkins in charge of the locker room.

"I worried, but that forced Josh and Kris to be the leaders. They were awesome. It shocked all of us," Wright says. They made themselves responsible for the whole team. It was really cool."

So, sure, nothing changed. Nothing that mattered. They won a national championship and stood in the rain of confetti and none of it stuck to them. None of it stuck to the coach, either. He still comes in through the kitchen, still makes eye contact with every dishwasher. If he's pretending, he's very good at it.

The show is over and McGillicuddy's has emptied out. When Wright gave one last V for victory and went out the same way he entered, the air seemed chillier and the lights dimmer. Suddenly, you could see the used dishes and drained pint glasses, and everyone found their keys. It had become another Monday night, transformed from carriage to pumpkin just like that.

"He's the best," Eric Eberz says, settling into a booth near the bar. "He makes everyone feel special."

Eberz, who played guard for Villanova in the 1990s on teams mostly dominated by Kerry Kittles, is a part-owner of the restaurant, one of several operated by his wife's family. He is in a unique position to understand Wright's place in the Villanova coaching cosmos. Eberz was recruited by Rollie Massimino, played for Steve Lappas, and then was drawn back into the circle by Wright.

"We started hosting the show here about four years ago, and I started seeing people I hadn't seen for years, but he brings everybody back," Eberz says. "It's amazing."

When Eberz went to Villanova on his recruiting trip, it was Wright, then just an assistant on Massimino's staff, who picked him up at the airport. Wright is the one being driven around these days, but maybe that is all that has really changed. He's still bringing people to Villanova, still bringing them back.

"The national championship is great," Wright said in his office. "But I'm concentrating on enjoying this season."

That's the trick, of course. This season, this season-after season, probably won't end with a win, but as long as it lasts, it is the only one still taking place. The others were nice, but they are over. Trying to live them again would be like wearing yesterday's suit.

The door leading to the kitchen swings open again and a tired waitress emerges. No one remains in the room, none from the crowd that waited with excited anticipation for someone to prove that success is only a success if it doesn't change you. They went home happy, and the door closes behind her without a sound.

bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports