OH MY GOD THERE ARE OTHER ANGLES OF THE FIST PUMP.
— CBScreener (@CBGrabsandGIFS) March 20, 2016
— John Clark CSN (@JClarkCSN) March 20, 2016
I could watch this all day. Really, I could. I’ve never seen Jay Wright express this much emotion after a win. Or a loss, for that matter. Not even close.
I started at Villanova in 2001, Jay’s first year on the Main Line after a successful run at Hofstra. Optimism was high on campus, especially after the Steve Lappas era. Jay was a young, likable guy, who, just three months in, landed McDonald’s All-American Jason Fraser to go along with other top 100 NY-area high school players Curtis Sumpter, Allan Ray and Randy Foye. I still remember being virtually blackout drunk at my first “Midnight Madness” and pounding the stage while chanting “JASON FRASER! JASON FRASER!” Fraser was there, and I’d like to think those chants sealed the deal. Or maybe it was, if I recall correctly, the presence of Larry Brown at the event.
I tell that story to demonstrate that I’ve had an often-first-row seat to this era of Villanova basketball. My cockiness on the site about their success – OR LACK THEREOF – is just in the name of some local trash-talking. I genuinely love the program, and it served as a backdrop for many of my college and post-college experiences. The first question I ever asked in a press conference, while writing for the Villanova Times, was to Jay about his team’s composure in a then-massive win against UCLA at the Pavilion later in my freshman year. [He told me it was a good question and I don’t think noticed that I was red in the face after having rushed the court and huffed it into the media room. I still have the audio somewhere.] I shook his hand and thanked him after the team returned from beating Florida to advance to their first Sweet 16 under Jay my senior year. I recounted a few of those stories to him when he was on the podcast two years ago.
Over these 15 years, I can’t recall having ever seen him react like this to a win. Or a loss.
When Villanova got screwed on a last-minute traveling call against Allan Ray in that 2005 Sweet 16, Jay, though furious on the court, described it after the game as a teaching moment or some other holy restraint that did nothing to calm me from wanting to abduct the official and make him watch the play on a loop narrated by The Count, who would be shouting, “ONE! TWO! TWO STEPS! A HA HA HA.”
He, incredibly, didn’t assault an official after they handed Georgetown game-winning free throws in 2007 or 2008 when Villanova was on the cusp of upsetting the then-number two Hoyas. I threw a big body pillow thing into my apartment wall so hard that I nearly put a hole in the drywall.
He was outwardly happy after big wins – beating UCONN in 2006, advancing to the Final Four in 2009 – but, as is usually the case, seemed more thrilled for his players (and his seniors– always the seniors) than for himself, at least publicly. I was running around the balcony level of the TD Garden like a genuine idiot just before this picture was taken:
Today, though– something different from Jay.
Maybe he’s been hiding this Andy Reid-esque emotion behind closed doors all these years. He’s not a particularly reserved guy. Anyone who’s ever seen a Villanova practice or knows how tough Jay can be on his players will tell you he’s anything but mild-mannered. His public persona is not some calculated facade, however. By all accounts, he’s genuinely a nice guy. He always says the right thing, I think because he’s usually just being himself. He’s embraced the Big 5 in ways that Lappas and Rollie Massimino never did. The most scandalous thing that’s happened to Nova during his tenure was a pointless phone card scandal and a slap on the wrist from the NCAA for introducing players to Brown while he was coaching the Sixers. Jay’s biggest fault as a coach may be his sometimes over-reliance on a motion offense that curiously lacks motion (or offense) when the going gets tough and shots aren’t falling.
But out of nowhere these last few years a monkey climbed up his back and wouldn’t jump off. Can’t get out of the second round. Never mind that Villanova ran into a hot, virtually unbeatable UCONN two years ago, and fell victim to a poor shooting night against an ACC team last year. And this is in addition to previously losing to the eventual champion in four out of five tournaments (North Carolina in 2005, Florida in 2006, Kansas in 2008, and North Carolina in 2009). Don’t get me wrong, there were some real frustrations for Nova fans from 2010 to 2015, even if it’s hard to get too worked up about a perennial top 10 team. But somehow Jay got labeled as a coach who couldn’t win in March– this in a city where La Salle is the only other team to advance to the Sweet 16 in the last decade (Wright has now done it five times in 11 years). The narrative hardly fit the coach or the program, but it was there nonetheless. Villanova had to win today to get rid of it, and to see just how far they can take this thing now that they’re playing for themselves and not to defy some silly media trope. So the fist pump, as best as I can tell, was Jay figuratively punching the haters in their big, fat guts. Keep looping it, please.
Side note: I’m not trying to be sappy here. Nor was I trying to write 1,000 words. But this was an awesome moment of euphoria and relief from a guy who’s typically a deferential diplomat. Even if you hate Nova, it’s hard to root against Jay. He’s a good dude whose teams play a unique brand of basketball.