How Villanova’s coach went from nearly fired to a second Final Four

HOUSTON — Jay Wright is a man with nearly 500 career wins. And five Sweet 16 appearances. And three Elite Eights. And two Final Fours. And four Big East titles. And a Naismith National Coach of the Year award. And such an impressive resume that he might someday be a member of the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame.

But before he was a man with all of this, he was a man with something else.

He was a man with an uncertain future.

He was a coach on the hot seat.

“One of my friends, Dana O’Neil, was our beat writer,” Wright told me Friday while setting up a story about the pressure he was under entering his fourth season at Villanova. “I remember sitting down at breakfast. She said, ‘You know what I have to write, right?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I know.’ She said, ‘This is it. You could get fired at the end of the year.'”

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There are coaches every year who enter the season in make-or-break situations with their professional lives on the line. Win, and you get more time to prove you’re the right guy for the job. Lose, and you don’t. Travis Ford, Dave Rice and Brian Gregory are among those who came into this season with such stakes attached. That they are no longer employed by the schools that employed them in November is evidence of how it went for them.

And it could’ve gone similarly for Jay Wright.

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Crazy as it sounds now, it’s true.

Wright was 21-27 in Big East games through three years at Villanova with three NIT appearances, and he was also dealing with a phone card scandal that led to the suspension of 12 players and two years of NCAA probation. So there were on-the-court problems and off-the-court problems, and any coach will tell you that’s a terrible combination. Consequently, in a span of three years, Wright had gone from the hottest young coach in college basketball (after taking Hofstra to back-to-back NCAA Tournaments) to the coach with the hottest seat in the Big East. And though Wright had support from his administration, a good percentage of Villanova’s fans — including some big-money boosters — had undeniably turned on him in a pretty ugly way.

He was maybe one more bad year from being fired.

But, as you probably know, things got better.

Villanova went 24-8 in Wright’s fourth season, finished tied for third in the Big East standings and made the Sweet 16. And that was the first of seven straight trips to the NCAA Tournament that resulted in four Sweet 16 appearances, two Elite Eight appearances and an appearance in the 2009 Final Four. In other words, Jay Wright has been off of all hot seat lists for a while, and it’s hard to imagine a scenario where he returns to them any time soon. Because he has things at Villanova really rolling now.

Wright has won three straight Big East titles.

He’s in the Final Four for the second time.

He could have a national title when he goes to bed Monday night.

So what’s the lesson here, you ask?

Honestly, I don’t know that there is one. Because though some have suggested this shows what can happen when you show patience with a coach, the truth is that, more often than not, guys who land on hot seat lists end up fired, point being the men who are on those lists are usually on them for a reason, and patience typically only delays the inevitable.

So what’s the lesson here?

There isn’t one, really.

It’s just fascinating that a man who is now only two wins away from a national title was, back in 2004, maybe just one more bad year away from a career-altering pink slip. What if another player would’ve stupidly violated another NCAA rule? What if Allan Ray would’ve torn his ACL? What if Randy Foye would’ve failed to pass enough credits to remain eligible?

What if?

What if?

What if?

Any one of these completely random things happening during that 2004-05 season could’ve derailed one of the great careers of one of college basketball’s very best coaches. But everything instead basically went right for Jay Wright in that year. And, incredibly, everything has been going right ever since, almost without exception.

Jay Wright has come a long way from nearly getting fired. (USATSI)

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