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With his dark good looks, Hugo Boss suit, and Bruno Magli shoes, Hofstra head basketball coach Jay Wright is getting his fair share of national attention. "He looks like a movie star" says coach Tom Brennan of the University of Vermont, a rival in the America East Conference. In fact, collegeinsider.com, a well-regarded college hoops web site, anointed wright best-dressed coach in 1998 and 1999.
But Wright is more than just a pretty face. He's the architect of a winning program in one of the least likely places. Last season, Wright coached Hofstra to its first NCAA tournament in 23 years. And this season, despite the graduation loss of two-time conference player of the year Craig "Speedy" Claxtonthe 76ers' first-round draft pickWright has the Long Island school back on the brink of another invite to the Big Dance. His team is the top seed going into this week's America East Conference tourney, and at 23-4, they are performing better than last year's squad (which finished 24-7). To boot, the Pride earned their first-ever win over St. John's this year (after losing the previous 19 against the Red Storm) and have victories over local rivals Rutgers and Manhattan.
It's a dramatic change from the way things were seven years ago, when the then-Flying Dutchmen were completely grounded. At the end of the 1993-94 season, legendary coach Butch Van Breda Kolff retired after 41 years in the game. His team had won only nine games in his last go-round, and three came in a conference tournament run made by a team inspired to send their 71-year-old coach out in style. Shortly thereafter, Wright, then a 32-year-old assistant at UNLV, got the call. Things started changing immediately.
Wright brought with him two UNLV transfers, Seth Meyers and Lawrence Thomas. The new coach also revamped the locker room, as well as the team's work ethic, mandating 6 a.m. runs, three-plus hour practices, and study halls. "It wasn't easy on anyone," recalls 1998 graduate Tom Marich.
Indeed, says Wright, "There were some guys who came here and said, 'This is crazy. I did not come here for this.' "
Off campus, Wright hit the recruiting trail, reaching out to city coaches, pleading with them to give Hofstra a chance. "We said, 'Just give us a couple of your guys. We promise you we'll work hard with them. We'll take care of them. We'll develop them as players. They'll get their degrees.' "
Meanwhile, Wright was forced to play with a motley crew, which included three Californians. "They were just coming here to go to school back East. Basketball was like the fourth option of the day," Wright recalls. To the coach's horror, one player brought a guitar on a team trip. Another missed practice for a Rangers game. Another took up scuba diving at a time that conflicted with practice. Another hoopster was flexing his muscles as a bouncer. Wright's team suffered some attrition. Ahmad Jackson transferred to Adelphi. Franklin Barr defected to Lafayette. Stanley Martin sought sunnier climes at Chaminade in Hawaii.
While many ran away from Wright, others doveliterallyon behalf of their sharply dressed coach. Marich, a walk-on who looked like a choirboy, played like a kamikaze piloteven through a separated shoulder. Wright recalls one game against a Drexel team led by Malik Rose: "They shot 50-some foul shots in the game. All we could do was hammer them."
While Marich went to the emergency room, Wright went public, taking the odd step of televising half-time pep talks, hoping to generate some buzz in Hempstead. "The locker room was the best thing we had at the time," says Wright. "We weren't gonna win games. It didn't matter."
While the telegenic Wright was easy on the eyes, wins were as hard to come by as half-price Armani. After 10 wins in his debut season, Hofstra won just nine the following yeareven with the former Runnin' Rebels in the lineup. "That's when it really hit us," remembers Wright. "You're not gonna do it with transfers. You're gonna build a program. Guys are gonna have to go through your system."
His cornerstone would be Claxton, a highly regarded 5-10 guard out of Christ the King High in Queens, who was known for dunking over men a foot taller. With Claxton, Hofstra's wins started to stack up, as did the school's profile. In the 1996 ECAC Holiday Festival at Madison Square Garden, Hofstra lost valiantly to a Matt Harpring-led Georgia Tech team. The next season, on Thanksgiving Day, they nearly beat Louisville on national television. A year later, the team earned an NIT postseason bid. "UCLA might not be happy to go the NIT. We were thrilled," says Wright.
And last season, Hofstra finally got over the hump, winning the America East Conference tournament in its brand-new arena and advancing to the NCAAs. In the first round, however, Wright's brigade was smoked by eventual Final Eight squad Oklahoma State. "We didn't play the game we wanted to play," recalls Claxton. "It got away from us."
"It was a nightmare," says Wright flatly.
After a recent victory, Wright spoke dreamily about the game and his life in coaching. At age six, Wright says, he fell in love with basketball because of "the fact that you could work on it by yourself and be good at it." After growing up in suburban Philadelphia, Wright went to Bucknell, where he played and partied hard. "I would have hated to coach me. I thought I could do everything. I did not understand what it took to be a great player, but I thought I did," he says.