When the University of Rochester men's basketball team was seeking its first full-time assistant coach, head coach Mike Neer saw something special in an inexperienced Bucknell College graduate. Tonight, Jay Wright coaches Villanova in the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Championship final.
"I offered the job to Pat Flannery, who played at Bucknell when we played them in my first season," Neer recalled. "I knew he would be a good fit because of the academic similarity, our experience playing one another, and understanding building a team without academic scholarships."
Flannery ended up taking an assistant coach position at Drexel University instead, but gave Neer the name of a recent Bucknell graduate - Wright. "He was enthusiastic, active, bright, had the 'gift of gab' and enjoyed people," Neer said of Wright. "We really needed someone to beat the bushes in recruiting."
Wright came to Rochester with a lack of experience, but Neer saw other traits that he needed more. "I had enough experience," Neer remembered. "I needed someone with energy and enthusiasm and Jay had plenty of both." One position Wright held before his first coaching job with the Yellowjackets was selling tickets to the Philadelphia Stars of the fledgling United States Football League (USFL). "I didn't know if selling season tickets to a few couples in Wilkes-Barre counted as sales experience," Neer laughed. "Recruiting is sales in many respects and I knew he could sell what we had to offer."
Just over a month into Wright's position with the Yellowjackets marked tryouts on Oct. 15. Wright saw a lot of talented players and asked Neer if he could coach a JV team of those cut from the varsity squad. With his coaching/recruiting and intramural sports responsibilities, it seemed like a lot to take on. "He hit the ground running and made it work," Neer recalled. "He really wanted to coach."
After two years, Wright was enjoying his time at Rochester, but Neer remembered he was in a hurry to get somehwere else. That opportunity arrived at Drexel when he was offered an assistant coaching position at Drexel after Flannery left for a coaching job at the College of William & Mary.
"It was absolutely fun to watch him, with his personality, chase down everything he could," Neer said. "He had the chance to get back to the Philadelphia area and it was a great opportunity for him to be in Division I, something he really wanted."
Wright spent a year at Drexel before becoming an assistant coach at Villanova under legendary coach Rollie Massimino from 1987-92 before following Massimino to UNLV for two years.
In 1994, Wright acquired his first head coaching position, taking over the helm at Hofstra University. "We would run into each other on recruiting trips and talk about the challenges of being a head coach and talk about different situations that would arise. His questions and experience were different now."
Wright returned to Villanova as head coach in 2001 and has since earned five Big East Coach of the Year honors and two Naismith College Coach of the Year honors, including this season. He is one of only three coaches in history to win the national award more than once. Tonight marks the biggest game of his career as his Wildcats take on University of North Carolina for the national championship.
"One of the best things about Jay is that he has been very generous in acknowledging the oppportunity he was given at Rochester," Neer stated. "He goes a little far saying that there was no reason on paper for me to hire him, but we all need a start."
Wright and Neer have kept in touch over the years. "Jay is an extremely loyal person," Neer remarked. "He continued to follow our program and we call one another. Even in this past week, we have exchanged a few texts."
Although Neer has attended the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) Convention numerous times over the years, this year his personal commitments prevented him from doing so. "It is ironic that one of the few years I don't attend is when Villanova makes the Final Four."