Jay Wright has served as the head men’s basketball coach at Villanova University since 2001. His team has played in the NCAA Tournament for eight of the last nine seasons, and were seeded ninth in this year’s South Regional. I spoke with the married father of three in August of 2011, right after he returned with his team from five exhibition games played in Europe and just as Villanova’s fall semester was beginning. Our interview preceded the Penn State child sex abuse scandal which ended Coach Joe Paterno’s 46-year tenure at the school. Bill Raftery, who retired from Seton Hall University and coaching in 1981, still works as a basketball broadcaster. Jay Wright turned 50 on Christmas Eve 2011.
When I was a kid, my mother went out of her way to make Christmas Eve just, you know, like way more Jay’s birthday than Christmas Eve. But since I’ve moved out of the house, I don’t even know if I actually like it. You know, it’s Christmas Eve. It’s Christmas Eve and it’s like, yeah, it happens to be my birthday, but I don’t really spend a lot of time on my birthday, which I like. It was great when I was a kid because my mom went out of her way, and so did my family members. And then when you get older and you’re out of the house, it’s worked out great because people don’t pay much attention to it.
I have been to a couple of 50ths. I’m getting invited to a lot. I haven’t been able to attend a lot because, you know, a lot were last year during basketball season. My best friend growing up, Mike Mikulski, had a surprise 50th. I tried to get there and I couldn’t get there. We had a practice, a late practice. I had a surprise 50th for my wife. And we’re going to have all my college buddies and their wives, we’re going to meet at my house. A few years ago we made the decision that at 50 we were all going to get together down at the Jersey Shore for a weekend, and we’re going to do that coming up. We’re going to have a bunch of couples, my fraternity brothers from college, and we’re going to get together with our wives for a weekend and celebrate all of our 50ths.
Now that I’m getting to it I’m starting to think it’s kind of like the old 40, you know. I remember people saying, you know, At 40 you hit your mid-life crisis. I hit 40 and I thought, I’m just rolling here. 50’s kind of hitting me a little bit different. You know, you start to just think about your life a little bit more in terms of where you’ve been and where you’re going, and it’s really making me reflect a little bit more. But I’m kind of enjoying it.
I think I’m wise enough and experienced enough to know that this is my prime. And I actually feel fortunate about that, to understand that right now, where I feel like I’m young enough right now to have a lot of energy but I’m also experienced enough to have some wisdom. And the greatest part of that is to understand that I’m in the middle of it, as opposed to looking back 10 years from now and saying, Wow, back then I was really at my prime, or at the peak, and I didn’t realize it. And I really feel fortunate that I have that perspective right now and I really want to enjoy it. I want to embrace it. I want to push it as far as I can go and I really want to enjoy the moment.
I feel like I’m learning how to balance the wisdom and the physical energy. I feel like I can do that for a long time, whereas earlier I felt like I was maybe 70% energy, 30% wisdom. And with that energy went will. You know, I just thought I could will myself, will our staff, will our team. And I’m getting to a point now where I realize the value of mental energy, and I look forward to developing that and understanding that my physical energy’s going to decline and understand how to use my mental energy to move forward. I really don’t look at it as pressure. It’s a new challenge that I’m really enjoying. Maybe when I was 40 it was all will. It was all passion. It wasn’t all wisdom. And also, for some reason, for the first time I can see there’s going to be an end. I don’t know what it’s going to be yet, but I look forward to figuring that out too.
I feel young enough and energized enough that I think I could do this for a long time, but I also, again, think I’m experienced enough to understand. You know, I’ve looked at the Joe Pas. I’ve looked at the Bill Rafterys, who quit in his 40s, and had a great run after that. And I kind of look at both of them as different ends of the spectrum. And I like what both of them have done. But I never even thought about it before. Or I never talked to anybody about it, you know. Now I talk to some guys about it sometimes, about, you know, What’s the next step? And that’s kind of exciting to me.
I’m starting my 11th season. And my job as the head basketball coach—this was a work day for me—you know, I came in and met with my staff, I went back to my house, had a cookout with our team and the coaches and their families, sat around our pool, talked about our trip with our players sitting around the pool, came back in, spoke to 1800 freshmen in the Pavilion. They got all fired up. And then went up on campus and practiced with the student body and our president and some faculty members. We’re doing a flash mob dance today on campus, so we practiced the dance. I mean, that’s my job, you know, and when I was up there I got to speak to the whole freshman class about life, about education, about their experience at Villanova. I got to speak to our team at my house about their futures, about their season, about being student athletes. I got to speak my staff about what kind of coaches they want to be, and then at night I’m practicing dancing with the students and I’m taking pictures with the freshmen and getting to know them and talking to them about their Villanova experience. So I’m realizing that my job, I’m able to impact so many people, and I just love it. And I’m beginning to appreciate that more.
Everything is a trade-off. You know, you can’t be a great construction worker and also practice the violin eight hours a day. You have to make choices in life. So I don’t look at it as costing me anything. I really don’t. I look at everything, every opportunity it has provided me. Now, does it prevent you from being one of the guys and playing cards, playing poker with your boys every Wednesday night? Does it cost you playing Sunday morning basketball with the guys you grew up with, again, being one of the guys? Does it cost you being at every one of your kid’s games? I make that a priority, my family. My sons played high school football. I think I saw every game, every high school football game. Now basketball’s a little different. I missed a few, but it’s basketball season. I still got to see a lot. But anything you do costs you, you know. I really don’t look at it as a negative at all.
If I died tomorrow, I’d feel like I had the greatest life in the world. Now, are there are some things I don’t… Like this weekend I learned how to surf. I took surfing lessons this weekend. And that’s definitely one of those things that… Like I love the beach, so would I like to have a job where… You know, I see these guys, they come down to the beach on Thursday night in the summer. They’re there Thursday night, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday and they go back Tuesday morning to work. That’s their summer. I would love to do that. Did I miss out on that? Yeah. But would I trade my life for that? Never. Like surfing. You know, I just never had the time to learn it. I kayak in the ocean, ride waves with kayaks. And this weekend it was like one of those 50 things. The guy was there. He was teaching my daughter. I said, You know what? I’d like to try that. I tried it and I did pretty good. I said, I can do that now, so it was kind of like a surge for me. Like, You know what? I’ve still got it.
So those kind of things, little things like that hit me. You know, just like being a regular guy. Like I said, I’d love to just go play Sunday morning basketball with my buddies that I grew up with, or just go play Saturday afternoon golf with my guys I grew up with. They’re the guys I miss the most, the guys I grew up with. I get to see them once in a while. They’ll come to a game, you know. Or my college buddies. Just being a regular guy and meeting them at happy hour at 5 o’clock. I miss that. That’s the stuff I gave up that I miss.
That’s one of the things I look forward to. You know, I look at Bill Raftery. Like he does his job and he does it very well, but that job enables him to do all those things and I think he’s that kind of guy so everybody loves him. He’s got time for everybody and he genuinely enjoys his time being a regular guy more than he enjoys his time on air. And that part of me, I think, I gave up, but that’s what I look forward to. Whenever I finish coaching I’m not going to miss it because I’m going to enjoy that.
A real close friend. It was like eight years ago.
You know, there are some days when my wife and I will say, This is just… We’re just crazy. We’ve got to jump off the merry-go-round here for a second. We’re just non-stop. My wife and I always joke about, you know, by the time we get into bed we’re just totally exhausted. We’ve just been running around and… But it’s like that. When a guy like that dies, you say to yourself, I always say to myself, You know what? I’d rather it be this way, where we’re getting everything we can out of every day and we’re exhausted at the end of the day. You know, I hear some people say sometimes, like, I’m bored. I’ve never been bored a day in my life. And all those little things in life, I think, have been a part of my maturation and my wisdom.
My wife’s mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at like 59. As you get to 50 you start looking at these things and saying, I’m close to that, you know, so let’s just keep rolling. Let’s keep going. Let’s go learn how to surf. You know what? If I stay up a couple hours and I only sleep for five hours, who cares?
A friend of mine, Tom Pecora, the head coach at Fordham University, he was my assistant for a long time and he’s one of my best friends in life, he’s got a great perspective on life. He always says he’ll do anything, any time. He’s got more energy than anybody. He’s like 52. And he’ll always say, Hey, we’re dead a long time, so, you know, live it up. We’re going to be dead for a long time. I don’t use that scenario, but he always does and it hits the same chord with me.
Life is all about your attitude.