2017-08-31 11:24:21 UTC
Former Villanova coach Rollie Massimino dies at 82
Updated: August 30, 2017 - 4:01 PM EDT
by Frank Fitzpatrick, STAFF WRITER
Rollie Massimino, the crafty little coach whose successful and sometimes
controversial career at Villanova will be colored forever by the Wildcats'
startling 1985 NCAA championship and by his role in the downfall of a
beloved Philadelphia basketball institution, died Wednesday.
Mr. Massimino, 82, had been battling lung cancer for several years.
The son of an immigrant shoemaker, Mr. Massimino was a brilliant game
strategist whose matchup zone and patient offense drove opponents to
distraction. He won 481 games at Division I schools and another 332 at the
smaller colleges that bookended his 41-year career, 34 at Stony Brook and
298 the last 11 seasons at Florida's tiny Keiser College.
He built his reputation at Villanova, where from 1973 through 1992, his
teams won 355 games, four conference titles and, in what remains one of
sport's greatest upsets, that 1985 title, when his eighth-seeded Wildcats
toppled mighty Georgetown on a surreal April Fool's night in Lexington,
Mr. Massimino's roly-poly shape and often frenetic sideline behavior
became familiar March Madness features in the 1980s, when his Wildcats
made eight NCAA tournament appearances, advancing to the Sweet Sixteen and
beyond on four occasions.
Devoted to his close friends in the profession and to the players who
became his extended family and frequent guests at home-cooked pasta
dinners, Mr. Massimino had a relationship with others, particularly
Philadelphia sportswriters, that could be contentious.
"With the inner circle, there's a fierceness of loyalty," Bill Bradshaw,
an athletic director at DePaul, Temple and La Salle, once said of him.
"But anyone outside the circle better beware."
After leaving Villanova in 1992, Mr. Massimino concluded his long
major-college career at two tarnished programs, UNLV and Cleveland State.
In 10 frustrating seasons at those schools, he never got back to the NCAA
All that couldn't diminish the glory he'd earned at Villanova, where Mr.
Massimino's cerebral teams consistently frustrated foes with an array of
shifting defenses and, especially in the years before a shot clock, a
highly disciplined attack.
In 19 seasons there, his Wildcats earned 11 NCAA and three NIT bids,
gained a leg up on their Philadelphia rivals by joining the Big East, and
moved into a new campus arena. But the highlight came on April 1, 1985, in
the last college game without a shot clock and three-point shot. Playing
and shooting so flawlessly that their improbable victory would become
known as "The Perfect Game," Mr. Massimino's Wildcats defeated the
tournament's top seed, No 1-ranked Georgetown.
Dressed in a tan suit on that early spring night, his hair typically
disheveled, Mr. Massimino careened ecstatically around the Rupp Arena
court after the buzzer sounded, hugging players, assistants and friends,
and telling CBS commentator Billy Packer how sweet the victory was.
"Nobody thought we could do it," he yelled. "But I did!"
Ironically, despite another 27 seasons as a coach, that victory would
remain his mountaintop.
Immediately following the title, he was a campus demigod. But in March
1987 things started to unravel. Gary McLain, the point guard on his '85
team, wrote in a Sports Illustrated cover story that he'd been high on
cocaine during much of that NCAA tournament run. He said he'd long used
cocaine and marijuana and implied that his coach and university knew, a
charge Mr. Massimino vehemently denied.
At about that same time, Villanova's increasingly lucrative and successful
affiliation with the Big East almost severed its once-deep bonds with
Philadelphia's Big Five. When the Wildcats said they would no longer
schedule Temple, St. Joseph's, La Salle, and Penn each year and decided to
play all their home games on campus or at the Spectrum, the unofficial
city league dissipated and the Palestra doubleheaders that had defined it
disappeared. However, the Big Five survives to this day.
While the decline of that longstanding and peculiar Philadelphia
institution was probably inevitable and the reasons for it complex, Mr.
Massimino became the villain of the piece, a criticism that infuriated him
as much as a turnover.
"It wasn't Villanova's fault, it was Rollie. Rollie is Villanova," he said
in trying to explain the thinking behind the ill will. "Well, Rollie's not
Villanova. The decision was made by the institution."
Becoming increasingly sensitive and irascible, he often feuded with local
sportswriters, who eagerly returned the fire.
"[He could be] such a magnanimous winner," then Inquirer sportswriter Jere
Longman wrote in 1987, "and such a churlish loser."
By the 1990s, it was clear his Main Line honeymoon was over. When in 1992,
after a 14-15 season, news that he was leaving for UNLV was announced at a
Villanova assembly, some students gleefully chanted, "NA-NA-NA-NA
His UNLV tenure was cut short after just two seasons when reports surfaced
that he and the school's president had conspired to under-report the
coach's salary to the state, a subterfuge officials termed a violation of
Nevada's ethics laws.
In eight Cleveland State seasons, his teams had a sub.500 record (90-113).
In 2003, amid various reports of player misconduct, he resigned and
retired to Florida, where he played golf almost daily.
But in 2006, at 71, he returned to head coaching at tiny Keiser, then
Northwood College, in West Palm Beach. There, Mr. Massimino's acumen
resurfaced and he led that school to two NAIA championship games, the most
recent in 2014.
He spent his final years doing what he knew he was meant to do.
"He loves coaching and he loves the kids," Massimino's ex-assistant Mitch
Buonaguro once said. "He'll scream and yell at the kids on the court but
then take them into his office afterward and talk about anything but
basketball. There's not a kid [he's coached] who doesn't love him."
Roland V. Massimino was born Nov. 13, 1934. His father, Salvatore, had
emigrated from Sicily in 1916, settling in the Italian First Ward of
Newark, N.J., before eventually moving to and opening a shoe-repair shop
in a close-in suburb.
The fourth son, Mr. Massimino would lose two of his older brothers in
tragic childhood accidents. The first-born, Tom, was killed at 6 in a
freak gas explosion at the family's apartment. A third son, also named Tom
in his late brother's honor, died at the same age when he was struck and
killed by a car.
While older brother Carmine learned the shoemaker's trade, Mr. Massimino
understandably was the overprotected baby of the family . Determined that
he would get a college education, his parents kept him away from the shoe
store and under their thumb.
His mother, Grace, filled the boy's head with dreams as determinedly as
she filled his belly with the spaghetti she made and served every night
but Monday. She made him take piano lessons, oversaw his schoolwork and
kept him busy. Still living at home at 21, he had an 11 p.m. curfew.
A three-sport star at Hillside High, from which he graduated in 1952, Mr.
Massimino accepted a basketball scholarship to the University of Vermont.
There he was, in his own words, "an ordinary player .. with a set shot." A
devout Catholic like his parents, he attended Mass each morning.
After graduating in 1956, he took a $3,600-a-year job at Cranford High in
New Jersey as a business instructor and assistant football and basketball
coach. He married fellow teacher Mary Jane Reid in 1958, earned a master's
from Rutgers, and became the head coach at Hillside.
Very quickly, Mr. Massimino realized he possessed a penchant for coaching,
one that went beyond X's and O's.
"His greatest ability as a coach," said Harold Jensen, a shooting guard on
the '85 Villanova team, "was that he knew what motivated you. He
understood how to get at you. He didn't focus a lot on individual skill
development. But he was a genius in molding a team."
An eager learner, the young coach became a regular at clinics and summer
camps. He guided Hillside to two state finals and in doing so developed a
reputation as a defensive wizard. In 1963, Dartmouth coach Doggie Julian
had Mr. Massimino lecture his team on the subject.
That same year, he took a job at Lexington (Mass.) High. More success
followed. In six years there, he won a state title, had a 20-1 record
another season and developed at least one future Division I star, Oregon's
By 1969, he had four children and his coaching-camp contacts helped him
land the head coaching job at Stony Brook. Two years later, one of those
contacts, Penn's Chuck Daly, brought Mr. Massimino to Philadelphia as a
While reading the Inquirer one morning in 1973, Mr. Massimino saw that
Villanova coach Jack Kraft was leaving. He applied, impressed Wildcats
administrators during a three-hour interview at a Center City hotel, and
became just their third coach in 36 years.
"I took the job without ever having been to Villanova," Mr. Massimino said
later. "But I knew it was my dream job."
Almost immediately, he began recruiting beyond the school's Philadelphia
base. After hiring Mike Fratello, an ambitious North Jersey native, as an
assistant, his Wildcats began scouring New York for talent, a choice that
alienated some traditionalists here.
In 1977, the historically independent Cats joined the Eastern Eight and
Massimino led them to two titles in three years. In its second season, the
soon-to-be fabulously successful Big East, comprised of schools from the
Eastern Seaboard's largest cities, added Villanova.
Beginning in 1981-82, Mr. Massimino had a consistent run of success,
behind such New York-area talent as John Pinone, Stewart Granger, and Ed
Pinckney. Expected to prosper in the 1984-85 season, his Wildcats instead
stumbled, finishing the regular season at 18-9 and barely getting into an
NCAA field newly expanded to 64 teams.
With Mr. Massimino pushing all the right tactical and emotional buttons,
Villanova went on a remarkable tournament run. The Cats edged Dayton,
Michigan, and Maryland in three low-scoring and closely fought games. With
the school's first Final Four berth since 1971 on the line, the Wildcats
trailed North Carolina, a No. 2 seed, by 22-17 at halftime of the Mideast
That's when Mr. Massimino then gave his most famous locker room
"Usually I talk to my staff first," he said later, "but this time I went
right in. It was, shall we say, eventful. I needed to reaffirm some
As players awaited the tongue-lashing they knew their sluggish play
warranted, the always animated Mr. Massimino began wildly gesticulating
"Do you think I want to be doing this?" he began. "Do you think I want to
be screaming at you? Do you really think I want to go to the Final Four?
Listen, there's so much more to life than that. Do you know what I'd
really like to be doing now more than anything? I'll tell you. I'd rather
be at home, sitting behind a big steaming, heaping plate of spags. Yeah,
that's right! Macaroni. Linguine with clam sauce. I'd rather be doing that
than losing this damn game. Now get out there and do what got you here in
the first place."
"It was just his way of trying to relax us," said forward Harold Pressley.
Inspired, the Wildcats rallied for a 56-44 triumph. At the Final Four,
where they were joined by two familiar Big East rivals, No. 1-ranked
Georgetown and No. 2 St. John's. Villanova beat Memphis State in its
Set to face a big and powerful Hoyas team that had beaten his three times
that season. Mr. Massimino was oddly calm and confident. On championship
day, he put the Wildcats through a walk-through in their hotel parking lot
and stressed that if they played careful defense on Georgetown center
Patrick Ewing, they could win.
"Play to win," he told them just before tip-off. Don't play not to lose."
"We were so prepared," said Jensen. "Coach had given us such a
understanding of what to expect that we were confident, too."
What followed, of course, was a nearly magical performance. Villanova made
22 of 28 shots from the field, missed just one shot in the second half,
and upset the mighty Hoyas to win the school's first national title.
Mr. Massimino instantly became a national name. That offseason, he turned
down a $1 million-a-year offer from the NBA's New Jersey Nets. The
post-championship euphoria lasted until McLain's sordid story hit the
newsstands in March 1987.
"College kids are going to make mistakes and he understood that," said
Steve Pinone, a reserve on the '85 Wildcats. "But he felt hurt by the way
it got portrayed, that maybe he'd turned the other way. And that
accusation was out there."
McLain's teammates still insist there was no way the guard could have
played so well on drugs and many believe his claims in the story were
Mr. Massimino's years at Las Vegas and Cleveland were as unfulfilling
personally as they were unsuccessful on the court. When he departed
Cleveland in 2003 after an 8-22 season, his worst since his first
Villanova season nearly three decades earlier, he seemed a beaten man.
He thought golf might help and he played constantly, often with coaching
buddies like Daly, Fratello, and Billy Cunningham.
"He was trying to make himself happy," said his wife, "but he wasn't."
Then in 2006, the athletic director at 620-student Northwood asked him to
help form a basketball program. Hired as a consultant, he also became the
coach. The coaching, friends said, helped him endure a variety of health
problems: a stroke, diabetes, and in 2011, lung cancer.
Mr. Massimino's untidy separation from Villanova and Philadelphia decades
earlier had left some wounds, which wouldn't be fully healed until current
Wildcats coach Jay Wright, hired by him as an assistant in 1987, brought
him back into the fold.
In April 2016, he was present when Villanova won another NCAA title,
thinner and frailer because of the cancer but, while celebrating on the
postgame court, seemingly as happy as he was in 1985.
"This was great," Mr. Massimino said. "I wouldn't have missed it for
Mr. Massimino is survived by his wife, Mary Jane, five children, and 13
Services are pending.