Wright's road back to Villanova began at Rutgers

Posted: April 03, 2009

Jay Wright's hiring at Villanova began with, as these matters often do, the firing of another coach.

But it was not the ousting of Wright's predecessor that brought the Hofstra coach and former Wildcats assistant back to the Main Line, although most concede Steve Lappas had no choice but to resign in the spring of 2001. It was the firing of Rutgers coach Kevin Bannon.

On March 20, 17 days after the woeful Scarlet Knights had completed another losing season, Bannon was shown the door by athletic director and Villanova alum Bob Mulcahy. The following week - a dizzying one for the participants - Rutgers went from nearly locking down Bannon's replacement to having Wright snatched away by a Big East rival only an hour away.

Looking back, Mulcahy says he knew he never stood a chance once Villanova got involved. A day after the hot commodity interviewed with Mulcahy, Lappas handed in his resignation. Less than 24 hours later, Villanova's president, the Rev. Edmund J. Dobbin, offered Wright the post.

"Frankly nobody thought Villanova was going to be open that fast," Mulcahy said. "But Father Dobbin moved expeditiously and thwarted me. I may not be saying it in a nice way, but it was that straightforward."

Wright, of course, accepted. The rest is history. The Wildcats, now a perennial NCAA tournament team, will play in their first Final Four in 24 years when they face North Carolina tomorrow. Rutgers, meanwhile, recently concluded another losing season, the Knights' 13th in their last 17.

Who knows if Wright could have reversed the Knights' bumbling ways, but Mulcahy had long targeted the then-39-year-old as the solution should he someday need to break glass.

"Every AD has a few names in his drawer in case something happens," said Mulcahy, no longer at Rutgers.

Bannon was canned on a Tuesday. Two days later, Mulcahy and Wright met for a dinner that lasted until 2 in the morning.

"Jay was very forthright," Mulcahy said. "He said, 'Look, the only reason why I won't come here is if Villanova is open, and it's not open right now.' So we agreed to meet on Sunday to finalize the deal."

Said Wright: "We were very, very close."

Enter Villanova, or as the Wildcats faithful might say, an act of God.

A day after Mulcahy and Wright's meeting became public, Villanova and Lappas agreed to part ways. After back-to-back NIT appearances, Lappas' position had grown precarious, and sensing so, he bolted for Massachusetts with three years remaining on his contract

Lappas has never spoken openly about what occurred behind closed doors. Also a one-time assistant to former Villanova coach Rollie Massimino, he had an inkling a certain close friend would take his place.

"I had a feeling that Jay would get the job," said Lappas, now a broadcaster. "It's the kind of job that's a family-type job. There have only beenĀfive coaches in the last 75 years."

Word spread fast that Lappas was out. Joe Jones, a Villanova assistant and former aide of Wright's, called his former boss that afternoon.

"He called me and said, 'Lapp's going to UMass,' " Wright recalled. "I said, 'Wow.' "

Villanova athletic director Vince Nicastro held a news conference the next morning to announce Lappas' resignation. The young AD knew he had to work swiftly if he hoped to reel in Wright, who was being pursued not only by Rutgers, but also by Tennessee.

"I engaged the people on my campus and off that I needed to engage," Nicastro said. "I said, 'This is the guy we need to target and talk to first.' "

Dobbin did the honors.

"When he called me to offer me the head coaching job when I was at Hofstra, the first thing he said was: 'You're not going to turn me down again are you?' " Wright said. "That was all he said really. I said, 'Are you offering me the job? He said yes. I said, 'OK, I'm taking it.' "

Wright, though, had to deliver the bad news to Rutgers.

"Jay came back and met with me on Sunday, being the gentleman that he is," Mulcahy said. "We've been great friends ever since. . . . I gave it my best shot, but I also knew that where somebody's heart is makes a big difference."

Villanova formally introduced Wright that Tuesday. The Bucks County native welled up a few times during the news conference. He was finally home.

"My wife went here," Wright said. "We knew everybody here. I was always here. . . . If Steve Lappas was going to leave, it was kind of a no-brainer. Just no one ever expected him to leave."

No one thinks Wright will ever leave Villanova. Last week, he was mentioned as a possible candidate for the Kentucky job. Wright immediately squelched those rumors.

"He's going to be here a long time," Nicastro said. "There's no doubt in my mind."

Contact staff writer Jeff McLane at 215-854-4745 or jmclane@phillynews.com.

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