How Jay Wright went from the hot seat to the title

ByDANA O'NEIL via <a href="" title="ESPN" class="espn_sc_byline">ESPN </a>
April 11, 2016, 9:43 AM

&#151; -- VILLANOVA, Pa. -- The K-9 unit dogs sniff around the baggage doors of each of the nine buses idling on the edge of the parking lot. Off in the distance, the sounds of sirens inch closer and closer to campus.

In the cocoon of his office, Jay Wright peeks through the blinds and out his window.

"Here comes our motorcade,'' he says. "This is crazy. Just crazy.''

The day after Villanova won its national championship, I texted Wright: "I want to have breakfast.'

"LMAO,'' he wrote back. "My pleasure.''

For each of the seven years that he was the Villanova coach and I was the team's beat writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, Wright and I met at the Villanova Diner and, over eggs and coffee, discussed the upcoming season.

In 2004, after three disappointing NIT berths, we grabbed a table in the back, stopped by only a few people who looked up from their plates long enough to offer a 'Hey, Coach.'

For a good hour that October day 12 years ago, Wright openly and honestly acknowledged the sagging faith in him. He understood that in the eyes of plenty of fans, media and alumni, he was on the hot seat -- and deserved to be.

Now, at 9:30 a.m., it's just four days after the Wildcats' epic, buzzer-beating national championship win over North Carolina. In a few hours, those buses, cleared by those sniffing dogs, will escort the Villanova basketball team and its growing entourage to Center City for a parade.

But first the team will gather in a meeting room for breakfast.

"You want to get something to eat?" Wright says in his office. "Let's get something to eat.''

And so Wright walks down the empty and quiet corridor, through the door that partitions the coaches' offices from the reception area and into the bright lights of his new world order.

The eggs are still scrambled.

The coffee is still strong.

But now, Jay Wright isn't on the hot seat. He's the hottest college basketball coach in America.

For three mornings last week -- Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday -- Wright woke up with the same anxiety-ridden, sweat-inducing terror.

"I've got to get prepared for Carolina,'' he thought.

Retelling the story, he sits back in his chair and laughs at the absurdity of it.

"You know when you have a bad dream, and you wake up and think, 'Thank God, that didn't actually happen'? This is the opposite of that,'' he says. "It's, 'Wow, we really did beat them. It's over.'"

Wright has spent the better part of a week trying to come to grips with his new normal. Still, he can't quite grasp what normal is. He has done countless interviews -- on the day he finally sat down to eat breakfast at 10:15, his media obligations began at 6:45 a.m. -- but he feels like he's talking about any big game -- like the Wildcats just beat Georgetown or won the Big East regular-season crown.

In 2004, he wasn't worried about the hot seat. He knew people talked about it, but the people who mattered -- the school's president and athletic director -- didn't. That's what Wright has always loved about Villanova. It's a unique place, one that wants excellence but doesn't demand it instantaneously. The administration allowed Wright to grow, content that in his progress there was a future.

But this is different. This whole national championship thing, quite frankly, frightens him.

As excited as he is, as proud as he is, the Jay Wright who sits down for breakfast is even more introspective, curious and concerned about what comes next.

"I'm afraid a little bit,'' he says. "Definitely.''

He explains how, right before he joined his team for the pregame meal on national championship Monday, he cued up Villanova's 2009 national semifinal game against North Carolina on his laptop.

In the days leading up to and in the days of Final Four weekend, Wright used that experience as a what-not-to-do prep kit. Instead of welcoming anyone and everyone into film sessions and team meetings, as he did in 2009, he sequestered his players from everyone, recognizing that seven years earlier, his team was satisfied with merely arriving at the final weekend of the season.

In Wright's opinion, this team won not because it wanted to prove people wrong but because it didn't care what people thought.

For five of the past six years, Villanova had been dogged by early NCAA tournament flameouts and labeled an epic disappointment. Yet when the Wildcats got to their Waterloo moment in this tournament -- a second-round date against Iowa -- they played their best game and humiliated the Hawkeyes by 19 points.

"That was the most pressure on them, supposedly, and they didn't care,'' Wright says, marveling at it. "We talked for years about how this tournament doesn't define you, but for them to believe it was big. I'm 54 years old. I'm a professional. I can compartmentalize things. But for them to do that, that's what makes this team so special."

How do you sell the same message now?

Wright is a big motto guy. For years, he has awarded points for Attitude Club to players who dive on the floor, take charges, play hard in practice. One of his favorites is, "Stay hungry, stay humble." That is written on one of the rubber-band bracelets he likes to hand out to kids.

He has no intention of changing his message. He just hopes it will still be heard.

"We've spent more time talking to our players about how to handle this than we did the [early NCAA tournament] failures,'' he says. "Because if you're going to say during the failures that we're not going to judge ourselves by what we do in the tournament, we can't say now we're the greatest thing in the world.''

Wright was on the phone with John Calipari when President Obama buzzed in. He jokingly apologized to the Kentucky coach that even Calipari isn't as big as the president and he has to beg off the call.

Wright has fielded a lot of congratulatory calls and text messages this week: Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie and coach Doug Pederson, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, Michigan State's Tom Izzo and just about every coach you can think of. He has placed a few calls too.

He's not naive. He knows that, with a national championship banner, things will change for him, personally and professionally, but he wants to know how to control what changes. So he called Calipari, as well as Louisville coach Rick Pitino, two coaches who have been down this particular rabbit hole. They gave him all sorts of tips and advice. Something Pitino said stuck with Wright.

"He told me that he left Kentucky for the Celtics in part because he said, 'I didn't want to be a rock star. I just wanted to be a coach,'" Wright said. "I know exactly what he means."

Wright isn't worried that he will be starry-eyed again.

After Villanova went to the 2009 Final Four, the coach enjoyed the smell of his own success a little too much. He recruited guys with the promise that they could be one-and-done NBA stars, and then when they got on campus, he changed his tone and told them they had to be more committed to Villanova than their immediate futures.

It was dead wrong and entirely his fault, a hard lesson learned in a 13-19 crash-and-burn season in 2012.

He's confident he won't make that mistake again. What worries him is that people will be starry-eyed over him.

Despite overtures from other big-name college programs and NBA teams, Wright has stayed at Villanova in part because his is a nationally relevant team that is noticed locally only once the Eagles' season ends.

"I love that,'' Wright says.

This summer, he wants to go to his Ocean City, New Jersey, beach home, pull his baseball cap down low, throw on his sunglasses and sit unbothered. He wants to go to Phillies games and actually watch the Phillies. He wants to stand in the crowd at a Bruce Springsteen concert and sing along.

He wants to hang a national championship banner but somehow not be a big deal.

In essence, he wants to go out to breakfast and simply eat his eggs.

"That's one of my major concerns,'' he says. "I hope by summer it wears off some. I really do. I went to the Eagles-Redskins game, and I had so much fun. People go, 'Hey, Coach,' and that's it because it's an Eagles' game. I really want to keep that. ''

A ball, a rolled up T-shirt, a Sharpie and a piece of notepaper and a pass stuffed inside an envelope sit in front of each of the seats in the meeting room. The Villanova managers have spent the morning prepping the room, schlepping aluminum foil pans filled with water from the nearby kitchenette to the burners for the breakfast buffet set up beneath the huge flat screen TV.

There are eggs and egg whites, sausage, pancakes, blueberry pancakes, water, juice, coffee and the 2016 national championship trophy, net still casually slung across it.

By 10 a.m., coaches, administrators and their families, all bundled up for the 40-degree parade, arrive. The players, wearing their national championship hats, start strolling in. Ryan Arcidiacono is on the phone completing one more interview before he eats.

Wright's family arrives a few minutes after he fills his plate.

"Where should I sit?" he asks.

This space is normally reserved for watching film, so the layout is not exactly conducive to breakfast. It is not, in other words, the Villanova Diner.

But then again, the Villanova Diner is no more. They tore it down years ago to make way for a mini shopping center.

"Hey," Wright says as he finds a seat at the end of a row and digs into his eggs. "They thought I'd be gone a long time ago. I outlasted the diner.''

It's time for a new challenge. It's time for the coach once on the hot seat to navigate being the hottest coach in the country.

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