November 29, 2015
They made the annual trip to the Pavilion 10 days ago, to watch their buddy Jay Wright coach the Villanova Wildcats. The opponent, East Tennessee State, was devoured easily, which was somewhat the idea.
Close to 20 guys, some with their wives, let Wright handle his post-game duties and met him later at JD McGillicuddy’s pub just a few minutes away in Wayne.
“We had a room in the back,’’ says Mike (Mook) Mikulski, Wright’s best friend from childhood. “We just hung out, had some cheese steaks, a few drinks and just talked.’’
Not so much about college basketball, though. More Little League, actually, and high school baseball and basketball. Glory Days.
“It’s all we talk about,’’ Wright says, his team ranked No. 8 nationally and out to a 6-0 start. “To this day we still have arguments about who did what.’’
Though Wright is the celebrity, on these occasions he is simply one of the guys. One who watched Mork and Mindy on TV and sang along to “My Sharona” blasting on the radio.
Bob Craig, who organizes the major in-season gathering (some also golf together now and then), is semi-retired now. He, Wright and Mikulski were teammates on the Larks in Little League and the Camanches in Pony League.
Mikulski, in corporate sales, lived one block from Wright in the Bucks County town of Churchville. Craig lived just a few minutes away. He and Wright both wound up at Bucknell, though Craig’s playing days were over.
His ball-busting days endured.
“Jay was always the nicest guy. He was too easy to pick on because he never came back at you. He was like our punching bag,’’ Craig says with a laugh. “He was our John Travolta, too. He was the pretty boy. He always had the great clothes, he was a good dancer and the girls loved him; and he would just laugh that laugh of his. He hasn’t changed at all, which is amazing.’’
Wright was a two-sport star at Council Rock High School (Class of ’79). Obviously he was good enough in basketball to play in college, and his high school baseball coach thought he had a chance to play professional baseball.
“If he wanted to he probably could have been a quarterback on the football field,’’ Mikulski says. “I’ve known him since we were seven. I spent half my childhood down at his house. I had two sisters, so he became my brother.
“I was not as physically gifted as he was, but we played sports year-round. We grew up in a really cool suburban neighborhood, the Orchard Hills section. We played baseball in the back yard.’’
But basketball was Wright’s real love. He gave up baseball in high school to spend more time playing spring and summer basketball and competed in the Sonny Hill league in the city.
“I loved being able to work on my own game,’’ Wright says about basketball. “I’d go to camps and I’d be dialed in. I took notes and I’d go home and try and work on what every speaker talked about. I went to basketball camps in the Poconos, staying in those cabins. I loved it.’’
Even before high school, Craig says, Wright talked about wanting to coach Villanova basketball. It wasn’t until his senior year in college that Wright began to seriously consider coaching as a career.
“He and Mook were big-time basketball fanatics,’’ Craig says. “They would go to the Palestra a lot for games. He loved Big Five basketball. His high school coach, Mike Holland, would get frustrated with Jay. Jay was like a player-coach. Coach would call a play, we’d break the huddle, Jay would laugh and say, ‘I’m changing the play. That ain’t gonna’ work.’
“Holland would get pissed,’’ Craig laughs.
Their fathers coached them, holding preseason drafts at the Spread Eagle Inn in Richboro, smoking cigars and having a few beers. Wright’s father Jerry, a power tool salesman, would load the family station wagon with his son’s teammates on the way to games.
“He always coached us in sports, but also to be good people.’’ Wright says. “He always spent most of his time with the least talented guy. He would tell us, ‘We’re a team, and the stronger we can make the weakest link the better we’ll be as a team. I’ll always remember that. He took great pride in how much better a team got and the least talented player got and how good they felt about themselves improving. And we always had good teams.’’
Just like now.
The last two seasons the Wildcats have gone 62-8. In his 14 seasons Nova has made the NCAA Tournament 10 times. He led them to the Elite Eight 10 years ago and to the Final Four in 2009. His overall record, including his first head coaching job at Hofstra, is 445-237.
This year may be his best.
“I email him the minute a game is over,’’ Craig says. “No matter how good they look I bust his (chops) on how they got out-rebounded, how their free throw shooting sucks, and he’ll email me back: ‘LMAO!’ I never give him any credit. I say, ‘You haven’t done anything yet! You haven’t won a championship! You’re just another coach.’
“When he was at Bucknell,’’ Craig adds, “I would get my big mouth going at ‘em and he’d be on the floor breaking out laughing. But he’s the most down-to-earth, fun-loving guy; he would give you anything.’’
Wright, nicknamed “Jay-Bones’’ freshman year, joined the Sigma Chi fraternity, at the time its membership dominated with football players.
Craig, who pledged Tau Kappa Epsilon, couldn’t believe it.
“I always busted him. I’m like, “Jay! You’re 6-3, 120 pounds! What are you doing in a god damn football frat house? What – are you their piñata?’’’
Studying Economics and Sociology, Wright’s first job out of college was in the marketing department with the Philadelphia Stars of the old United States Football League. He met his wife there, a former Villanova cheerleader named Patty Reilly. They now have a daughter in high school, a son at Fordham, and the oldest son is the Director of Operations for the Villanova baseball program.
“He’s really a bright guy; smarter than the average bear,’’ Mikulski says. “When he was little he had an incredible confidence about him. He’s articulate, bright and very likable. I’m a little biased, but you knew he was special. You don’t get to where he is without being a competitive person. That was the way we were. We played hard and we played to win.
“The coolest thing about Jay though is that when you’re around Jay he makes you feel better about yourself. He’s exactly the same now as when we were little. Senior year he was voted Best Looking and Best Dressed. He always could dress. He gets that from his mom. He would do anything for you. He has a hard time saying no. He’s just that guy.’’
In the business since being an assistant at Rochester in 1984, Wright, who will be 54 Christmas Eve, has contemplated alternate careers. A multiple winner of GQ’s Fashionable Four as the best-dressed college basketball coach, he has wondered what it might be like to wear his pinstripe suits on Wall Street.
“I don’t know if I’d be smart enough to be good, but it’s one of the jobs I’ve looked into since I’ve been here. I think it would be interesting,’’ he says.
Then again, you can’t walk into Morgan Stanley or Goldman Sachs wearing sweats, or a T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops like he does during summers in Ocean City.
“When you get older,’’ Mikulski says, “you really value (reunions) a lot more. You understand how precious they are. So it was cool to sit around and tell stories and just be around each other.’’