And another coaching icon heads out the door. The eras keep ending in college basketball, and that’s not going to stop. We have reached the age when the giants say goodbye.
But this one was a shocker. Jay Wright has joined the parade, only a few steps behind Mike Krzyzewski, just a year behind Roy Williams. Those are three Hall of Famers who won eight of the past 21 national championships — gone in 12 months. Also Tubby Smith and Lon Kruger, each having taken five different schools to the NCAA tournament. It is a gusher of big names.
And now you wonder when the news comes from Jim Boeheim. From Tom Izzo. From Bob Huggins. From Jim Larranaga and Leonard Hamilton.
HISTORY: Villanova college basketball championships: Complete history
But Jay Wright? Who saw this coming? He’s 60, just off his fourth Final Four at Villanova. He’s 17 years younger than Boeheim, who intends to lace them up again next season. When John Wooden turned 60, he had four more national championships to win. Krzyzewski had two. So did Jim Calhoun.
The outside world will never know when a man starts to hear the ticking clock. Wright apparently heard it at an uncommonly early age. Villanova’s loss, not to mention college basketball’s.
He has long been one of the poster coaches for class. How he dressed. How he acted. How his team played. How he won. How he lost. Early in his run at Villanova, when the Wildcats carried the rap of underachieving in the NCAA tournament, he did not bark at the questions nor duck the responsibility.
“I know we have to answer to the fact that we did not get to the second weekend again,” he said in 2015 when the No. 1 seed Wildcats were upset by No. 8 North Carolina State in the second round. “We have to own that. But it’s not going to define us within our program. It’s going to define us outside our program, and we accept that.”
The next year, Villanova won the national championship. Two years after that, another. Meanwhile, they’ve owned the Big East. No more questions.
His teams were always sound, and so was his perspective. Maybe that’s why he’s leaving now, as a coaching legend who understood he had other things he wanted to do in his life.
This continuing flow of champions into retirement has left holes in the vanguard of college basketball coaching. Who moves up to fill the ranks? Bill Self, presumably, off his second title at Kansas, Mark Few, for Gonzaga’s remarkable consistency. But consider this: Self and Few were born on the same day — Dec. 27, 1962. That means next season, they both turn 60.
Look what Jay Wright just did at 60. It begs the question about how the modern world of college basketball might affect coaching longevity, with its hyper-active transfer portal and need to re-recruit a roster every spring. In many ways it's chaos out there. A coach can get weary in a hurry.
Some things Wright said at the Final Four in New Orleans now echo, not just as insightful quotes from a thoughtful coach, but a man beginning to frame his legacy for the exit.
Such as the idea of his Villanova program now being squarely part of the college basketball blueblood elite, to be routinely mentioned with Kentucky and Duke and Kansas and North Carolina . . .
“We never aspired to be one of those programs. As a matter of fact, we fight the urge to be like them because we’re just so different. We try to be the best Villanova we can be. But when people on the outside connect us to them or count us as part of their legacy and tradition, we love it because we have so much respect for them.”
WILDCATS: Villanova's second title in three years affirmed blueblood status
Or coaching at Villanova . . .
“I’ve always felt what’s unique about Villanova is you have the passionate fans of a national championship program, but I look at it like, being in a pro town and being in the northeast, reasonable people. They have other interests.
“They want to win national championships, and I knew it. But they look at your team and they say, 'OK, you’re building a new team, we’re going to give you time. We’re going to support you.' And they still sell out every home game. I never really felt that pressure. And still don’t.”
Or watching the final days of Krzyzewski and putting himself in that moment . . .
“It’s got to be mind-blowing. I would be lying if I tell you I don’t — you think about it after each year. You think about where your life is, what are you going to do. It’s difficult to think about . . . I think about it because there’s going to have to be a time when it’s time for the next coach of Villanova. There’s going to have to be that time. You have to pick that time.”
Now we know he did. He leaves history in his wake, and a void that will be hard to fill. We’ve been saying that a lot lately in college basketball.