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” Claxton—the 76ers’ first-round draft pick—Wright 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 dove—literally—on behalf of their sharply dressed coach. Marich, a walk-on who looked like a choirboy, played like a kamikaze pilot—even 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 year—even 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.
He was a standout nonetheless, earning team MVP honors as a senior. Instead of taking a shot at playing overseas, Wright worked for the football Philadelphia Stars of the USFL after graduation. A year later, he switched back to basketball, taking an assistant’s job at the University of Rochester. Two seasons later, he moved on to Drexel, then climbed the ladder to become an assistant at Villanova under Rollie Massimino, whom Wright knew from working at his basketball camps.
“That was a dream,” recalls Wright. “Villanova was my favorite team and Rollie was my idol.” At ‘Nova, Wright says Massimino treated his players and coaches as family. “You would go to all his family’s christenings, his family’s Christmases—his family’s, not your family’s,” Wright remembers fondly. “He really believed in that. He wanted to take care of you. He wanted to have you with him.”
When the Hofstra job opened, Wright applied for the position—but was rejected. That is, until Massimino, the don, recommended Wright. It was an offer Hofstra simply could not refuse.
Now, Wright is working around the clock to keep Hofstra in the big time. “It’s hard to get a head coaching job,” Wright says, lowering his voice. “It don’t matter how good you are. That’s why when you get it, you gotta cherish it.”
Meanwhile other schools would cherish having Wright on their sidelines. The coach, who is married with three children, has turned down an estimated $200,000 Fordham gig and an interview with Rhode Island in recent years (he currently makes an estimated $150,000 to $175,000). But while Wright says he is content at Hofstra, others predict that he will not be there much longer. “He will be coaching at the highest level,” says Vermont’s Brennan. “In the next three or four years, I’d be shocked if he were still the coach at Hofstra.”
But while he is there, things continue to improve. Hofstra has three of the city’s best hoop stars signed for next season (point guard Woody Souffrant from Grady, off guard Chris McRae out of St. Raymonds, and Archbishop Molloy big man Wendell Gibson). And starting in 2002, Hofstra will move up to the more significant Colonial Athletic Association.
And while the success continues, Wright has continued Massimino’s family spirit. “He’s always talking to the guys, letting them know that he cares,” says point guard Jason Hernandez, a fifth-year senior, husband, and father—not to mention an MBA candidate. “He has been able to take me aside when I’ve had some problems. I automatically know I can go to him first.”
Current players are not the only ones feeling the love. Coach Van Breda Kolff often sits on the team’s bench during games. Tom Marich and Tim Beckett, ex-players turned Wall Street big shots, purchased a luxury box in Hofstra’s new arena. And Speedy Claxton (who has been recovering from a torn ACL) drops by from time to time to visit his former team.
They all enjoy themselves on most nights—because these days coach Wright has his Pride playing almost as well as he dresses.