The first reaction is shock, only because it’s the middle of April and college basketball tends to go away after the Final Four and we are not conditioned to believe in the idea that coaches might want to do something else with the rest of their lives.
But then, almost immediately, it makes perfect sense. Of course Jay Wright is retiring. Of course he was burned out on a sport that took him 30-plus years to conquer. Of course the coach who built college basketball’s most enviable program turned 60, looked at what he’d accomplished and what was left of his life and decided he’d had enough.
This is what normal people are supposed to do: Work themselves to exhaustion, make enough money to retire to whatever lifestyle they want and then get out of the way.
In reality, Wright’s decision to hand Villanova off to someone else after 21 seasons, two national titles and four Final Four appearances shouldn’t be a surprise. As usual, Wright is showing the rest of us how it should be done.
This is not the time to bemoan the state of college basketball or the NCAA or how much more complicated coaches’ lives are now because of the transfer portal and the injection of name, image and likeness money into the recruiting process.
Coaching is no different than every job in every sector of American life that has its complications and frustrations. We all have to evolve professionally or get left behind.
The question for all of us is, at what point can we say that we no longer need the aggravation, the long hours and the pressure of performing whatever it is we’re supposed to do? As the money gets bigger in college coaching, to the point where a single five-year contract at a power conference school should provide enough financial security for a couple generations, we’ll eventually get used to this. Someone like Wright retiring at the top of their game with a lot of good years left won’t just be the norm, it’ll become the goal.
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Looking back, Wright may have tipped all of us off to his state of mind at the Final Four a few weeks ago. At a news conference the day before Villanova played Kansas, he was asked what he thought it would feel like for Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, knowing he was at the end of a legendary career after announcing almost a year ago that the 2021-22 season would be his last.
“It’s got to be mind-blowing,” Wright said. “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.
“And honestly, if you’re him and you’ve done it for that long and you’ve been that successful and it’s so much a part of your life and you think about the longer you do it the more relationships you have, and those relationships are meaningful to you so you’re not their coach anymore – that’s probably something that’s got to be really difficult to deal with. And again, 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. I think Mike did it extremely intelligently. And it’s got to be really difficult. ”
You do not give an answer like that if the notion of retirement first occurred to Wright last week. We didn’t necessarily realize it at the time, but he’d clearly been thinking about this moment for awhile.
There’s a generation of people for whom coaches like Krzyzewski, Nick Saban and Jim Boeheim, who stubbornly hangs on at Syracuse, were the American dream. They were raised by working class, World War II-era families, hit it big in coaching and never considered the idea as they blew through their 60s into their 70s that the massive professional and financial success they achieved was enough.
But those days are over. We’ll never see their kind again.
The job is too stressful. The money is too big. And the perspective on what’s meaningful in life simply evolves from one generation to the next.
As of this moment, Wright no longer has to worry about his next recruiting trip or the next AAU coach he’s got to call or his roster is going to look like in 2024. His big decisions will be which destination he wants to spend a weekend getaway , which kid to go visit and which TV job he wants to take.
Wright achieved everything there was to achieve in a profession he entered in 1984 as an assistant at Rochester, which he certainly didn’t do for the money. All these years later, he has put himself in position to enjoy whatever time he has left in his life however he wants and wherever he wants.
That sounds like a deal most of us would be happy to take.