THROUGH THE YEARS, I have watched coaches in this town and other towns who were so afraid of what could go wrong they would freeze in the biggest moments, unwilling to take any risk.
Coaches with good ideas and good players can win games. Risk-takers win championships.
Coach as dictator is an idea that has come and gone. The modern athlete is different. Any coach who does not recognize that is heading for permanent residency in Jurassic Park.
The modern big-time college basketball coach is part CEO, tactician and big brother. It is the coach who can excel at all three that has a chance to win big.
Anybody can see that Jay Wright has the CEO part down cold. There is very strong evidence that he can X-and-O with his brethren. Check the final 5 seconds of the East Region final for recent details.
What you can't see unless you listen and watch very closely is that the Villanova coach understands the modern athlete in ways that many of his colleagues never will. It is his biggest edge in a business where even the smallest edge can mean the difference between the NIT and the NCAA, a first-round loss and the Final Four.
Most coaches have a certain routine that they stick to, no matter what. If something has worked for them, they will continue to do it, even if stops working or does not work as well.
I will never forget Rick Pitino saying at the 1997 Final Four: "If it's not broken, break it," not the old cliché "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."
This line came from a man who had won the 1996 title and would lose the 1997 title game in overtime. Stand still, he was saying, and you will get passed.
I have watched Wright evolve in his 8 years as the Villanova coach. First, he needed to create a culture. Then, he needed better players. And then he had to put those players in a position to succeed.
How does the modern coach do that? Get the players to trust him and each other. Demonstrate you know what you are doing by having success. Show them something on the practice court that works in games. Be consistent and flexible at the same time.
The 2008-09 Wildcats are not Wright's most talented team. But they are his first team to get to the Final Four because the trust is absolute.
When Reggie Redding threw that unsuccessful long pass against Pittsburgh, some coaches would have gone berserk. Instead, on the final play, after a timeout that came between Pitt foul shots (so Pittsburgh would not be able to set its defense as it would just after a timeout), Wright gave the ball to Redding again.
"It's very easy in the huddle to tell kids what to do, very difficult to be that guy out of bounds," Wright said after the game. "Reggie did the right thing.
We've got to trust him."
The safe play would not have been that long pass. It was a risk. It failed.
Wright could have played it safe on the next play. Instead, he went over what he wanted in that huddle and trusted his players. Even when one of those players forgot where to go and Redding looked like he might be in trouble, the last option came open at the last second.
Then, it was Redding to Dante Cunningham to Scottie Reynolds to Ford Field.
Reynolds, Wright would say later, has "no fear of failure."
This is not an accident. I see players all the time who get so tight at the end of games that failure is just about the only option. Is that the player or the coach?
I will never forget an old Temple assistant football coach telling me one time that it never matters what he knows, it only matters what the players know.
Too many coaches think it's about them. Their job is to give their players a chance to have success.
After his team's heartbreaking loss to Louisville in January, I sent Wright a text message telling them his two end of game plays were wonderfully designed, even though they went unrewarded. He texted back that "sometimes you don't have a good play and great players make plays. Sometimes, it's the other way."
At some point, the players are in control. And you have to deal with the consequences.
"We always tell them in those end of game situations, we have to trust your decisions," Wright said Saturday. "And that was the point I made to the team. If that [long pass] would have cost us the game, we would have applauded Reggie for the guts to make the play."
Yelling or trusting. It is the choice the modern coach has to make. No doubt, Wright does his share of screaming. But it is when, where and how the coach does his screaming that will tell his players whether he is with them or with himself.
These Villanova players have improved individually and collectively from when they began their college careers to now, from December to now. In fact, as Wright said in Boston, they are still getting better.
Which is why nothing is too difficult for them.
That final play was as sophisticated as it was brilliant. How Reynolds reacted depended upon how he was played. Cunningham had to run into the area between the midcourt line and the three-point line at exactly the right moment. Then, it was a fastbreak drill with the Final Four on the line.
There is an old bromide that seniors win in the NCAA Tournament. With the early entries, NBA freshman rule and talent concentrated in not so many places, the senior thing, in a general sense, stopped being true a while ago. Talent wins.
This Villanova team proves that seniors can win, too.
"The four seniors came to college to be a part of the program, to get a great education, to be a part of the culture at Villanova," Wright said. "Of all four of those guys, not one of them said to me when I recruited them, what if I leave early, I want to go early to the NBA. They're just old school guys that just came to be a part of something. And it's so special to be a part of this with them."
Wright just won his 300th game. Villanova's domination of the Big 5 (18 of 19 games) shows no sign of abating. The Final Four just confirms this a serious national program. So does the recruiting class that will arrive in the fall.
Last fall, Wright and associate head coach Patrick Chambers made a trip to the Republic of Benin on Africa's west coast to visit the family of 6-8, 250-pound recruit Mouphtaou Yarou, a potential difference maker in the unforgiving Big East.
Wright and Chambers were there barely 18 hours, long enough for the point to be made. Yarou, from Montrose (Md.) Christian, will suit up for Villanova next season. *
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