Just Tuesday morning, a talk-show host was pressing Jay Wright on the question Wright is often asked this time of year: When are you going to the NBA, Jay? Wright laughed and said what he usually says: that he has the best job in college basketball, that he loves being part of the Philadelphia sports scene, that the beauty of coaching at Villanova is that — relative to the coaches of the pro teams in town — Wright faces little public backlash when the Wildcats lose a big game.
If Wright doesn’t take the same amount of heat here for losing to Wisconsin or North Carolina State in the round of 32 that, say, Roy Williams would in Chapel Hill, it’s also fair to note he probably doesn’t get the proper credit locally for what he has achieved. As former Daily News sports writer and hoops savant Dick Jerardi recently pointed out, over the last five years Wright’s teams have won 88 percent of their games, four Big East regular-season championships, and three Big East Tournament championships, all 20 of their Big Five games, and a national title.
Villanova last 5 seasons. 180 games. 159-21. Three Big East Tournament titles, four regular season championships. Won 5 in-season tournaments, 20-0 in Big 5, never lost two straight, one national title.
Truly one of the great runs in college basketball history.
— Dick Jerardi (@DickJerardi) March 11, 2018
More, that record doesn’t include the five-year stretch earlier in Wright’s career during which Villanova averaged 25 victories per season and reached the Sweet 16 four times, the Elite Eight twice, and the Final Four once. And it doesn’t include what the Wildcats, who face West Virginia on Friday night in the Sweet 16, might yet achieve in this tournament.
So where does this sustained excellence place Wright among the greatest coaches in Philadelphia sports history? It’s a fun barroom game to play, especially in light of the Eagles’ Super Bowl victory and Doug Pederson’s role in making that victory happen. What follows here is one person’s attempt to compile such a list.
First, a few disclaimers.
Disclaimer 1: Philadelphia is, first and foremost, a pro sports city. So, all other things being equal, a pro coach’s achievements outweighed a college coach’s, and a college coach’s achievements outweighed a high school coach’s. (Yes, there’s one high school coach on the list.)
Disclaimer 2: I valued whether a coach could be considered “groundbreaking” or “revolutionary” in any significant regard, which is why coaches such as Andy Reid, Mike Keenan, Larry Brown, Jack Ramsay, and Harry Litwack — as terrific as they were — didn’t make the cut.
Disclaimer 3: This is my list, with my priorities and biases. Your list would probably be different from mine. That’s fine. That’s the fun part. Is there a right way to rank the best coaches we’ve seen here? Maybe not, but there are reasonable ways to rank them. This, I think, is one.
13. Buck Shaw
12. Doug Pederson
11. Dallas Green
10. Alex Hannum
Each of these four men won a championship during a brief period as a coach or manager here. Pederson has been the Eagles’ coach for just two seasons, so he could move up as the years go by. For now, though, his 7-9 debut season and Shaw’s 2-9 record in his first season with the Eagles keep them on the edge of the list. In Hannum’s two seasons as their coach, the 76ers won the NBA championship in 1966-67 — the only time in a 13-year span that the Boston Celtics didn’t win a title — then went 62-20 in ’67-68.
9. Mike Pettine Sr.
The one high school coach on the list. Under Pettine, who died last year, Central Bucks High School West in Doylestown rose to become the preeminent high school football program in Pennsylvania and arguably in the United States. His record over 33 seasons: 326-42-4, with four official state championships and four “mythical” state championships (awarded before Pennsylvania had a statewide playoff tournament).
8. John Chaney
Twenty three consecutive winning seasons and a 516-253 record at Temple, 17 NCAA tournament berths, five regional-final appearances, the first black head coach in the Big Five, induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, a lifetime of teaching and raging and crying and cleansing.
7. Greasy Neale
Neale led the Eagles to six consecutive winning seasons and, in 1948 and 1949, back-to-back NFL championships — the franchise’s first two. Just because those championships happened long ago doesn’t mean they didn’t happen at all.
6. Cathy Rush
She turned little Immaculata College into a national powerhouse in women’s basketball: six straight appearances in the national semifinals, three straight national championships, the very embodiment of trailblazer.
5. Jay Wright
Ibid. For details, see earlier paragraphs.
4. Charlie Manuel
He shepherded the Phillies through the best half-decade they’ve known — five National League East titles, two NL pennants, one World Series victory — and he showed that a Philadelphia coach/manager didn’t have to spit nails or “win the press conference” to win over his players and the city.
3. Billy Cunningham
Yes, the Sixers had oodles of talent over the eight years Cunningham coached, and one could argue that they should have won more than just that one championship, in ’82-83. But no Cunningham-coached Sixers team ever won fewer than 47 games in a season, and his winning percentage was a ridiculous .698.
2. Fred Shero
From his study of Russian hockey to his teams’ marriage of brutality and grace, Shero was a true innovator. That the Flyers have not won a Stanley Cup in the nearly 43 years since they won their second under Shero only enhances the appreciation of his genius.
1. Connie Mack
No one was as influential to Philadelphia sports as Mack, who managed the A’s for 50 years, owned them for 54, and won five World Series. The 1929-31 A’s are Major League Baseball’s most underappreciated dynasty. They went 313-143 and came within a Game 7 loss of winning three consecutive championships. Talk about not getting proper credit.