If Villanova’s Jay Wright declines a call from Sixers, status as college basketball legend awaits

He wouldn’t even need to move. Jay Wright has been a Philly guy for most of his life, from his days growing up in Bucks County to his move into Division I coaching at Drexel to his time coaching under Rollie Massimino at Villanova.

He left for a little while to keep his career alive and move it along, but in 2001 his talent and accomplishments and an opportunity with the Wildcats brought him home to the Main Line, where he gradually built Villanova into one of college basketball’s preeminent programs. And now it’s possible for him to take a step even higher, to coach the pro team in his city.

The Philadelphia 76ers, expected to dismiss coach Brett Brown after seven seasons and a 2020 playoff sweep, would offer a mighty challenge, the chance to coach for and against the best players in the world and, no doubt, a significant pay raise from a salary reportedly around $3.8 million.

Villanova, though, offers not only the familiar and comfortable but also a window to establish himself among the greatest ever to coach at the college level.

He may look like he just left his Bucknell graduation party, but Wright has been a Division I head coach since 1994. He is scheduled to begin his 20th high-major season whenever the 2020-21 season commences. He is just a half-dozen victories short of the 600 mark, a milestone he already might have reached had the 2020 Big East and NCAA Tournaments proceeded as scheduled.

Wright twice has won the NCAA men’s championship, something only 14 other coaches in the history of the game can claim. If he wins another, he steps into one of the most exclusive clubs in the game: Wooden, Krzyzewski, Rupp, Calhoun, Knight, Williams. That’s it. That’s every person who’s ever won three titles. That leaves behind Smith, Crum, Pitino, Iba and others who won two.

And that third title could come as soon as this year.

Villanova is as logical a choice as any to win the 2021 NCAA championship. The Wildcats lost star forward Saddiq Bey to early NBA Draft entry, and it is a measure of the culture Wright has created at Villanova that he wanted desperately to remain another year and chase that title rather than become a likely lottery pick. The rest of the team’s key players will be back, however, including wing Brian Antoine, who played in only 16 games because of a preseason shoulder injury but arrived as a top-20 prospect and should blossom now that he’s healthy.

The Wildcats will have to improve a defense that ranked only 36th in efficiency last season, but the offense managed to finish 15th. Even in what was something of a developmental year, they still finished 24-7 and won a share of the Big East regular season title. As it was shared with two fiercely competitive teams that were enjoying high-water-mark seasons, Creighton and Seton Hall, it was an exceptional achievement. As that was the only championship ultimately available last season, it was all the more precious.

Wright will turn 59 during the course of the next college basketball season. In decades past, that might have meant having another good four or five years in him, but the experience of Jim Boeheim, Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams — and his own seemingly eternal youth — suggest he easily could coach beyond age 70.

If he were to keep up his current pace until then, he easily would breach the 900-victory mark that so far only Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Boeheim, Jim Calhoun and Bob Knight have attained, and Roy Williams and Bob Huggins could this year.

Calhoun’s late-career success pushed him into the pantheon. He did not reach his first Final Four until 1999, when he was 56, and won the NCAA championship that year. He added two more at age 61 and 68. Wright is well ahead of that pace, with a Final Four at 48 and then titles at 55 and 57.

Will this factor into any decision, should the opportunity to coach the Sixers be presented? Probably not, though the appeal of college basketball itself certainly will.

“The NBA does intrigue me,” Wright told The Athletic in a 2018 interview. “That challenge is appealing, but it’s not worth giving up working with these guys. The whole thing is, to take up a new challenge you have to give up what you have. I don’t want to give up what I have. Would I like to coach in the NBA? Yes. But I have to give this up in order to do that, and I don’t see that happening.”

The Hall of Fame will be calling either way. This seems certain. Wright has demonstrated a gift for coaching only the rarest in the sport have before him. If he remains at Villanova, he’ll no doubt have accomplishments to match.

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