Power forward John Pinone was one of Rollie Massimino’s first great players, part of the Wildcats’ back-to-back trips to the Final Eight in the early 1980s. Daddy Mass has first made it that far in 1978. But the next season they went 13-13, a drop of 10 wins. Welcome to Pinone’s freshman experience.
“It was awful, just brutal,” Pinone recalled on Wednesday, talking about the passing on Wednesday of the father figure who helped shape him into a man. “He was not going to let that happen again. And that was back when there was no 20 hours a week rule, no limitation on practice, no days off. I think that was the fear in him going, ‘I can be 9-18 again (their record in 1974-75, Massimino’s second season on the Main Line) in a heartbeat.’ Boy, did that drive him.
“Our scouting reports, and our preparation, were unbelievable. We had books on the other teams. It was film session after film session, no matter who it was. And you were doing it with a projector. Not like you push a button now. So you’d be rewinding the reel, stop it, go back. Over and over.
“He was the world’s worst loser. And I say that in a totally complimentary mode, because I’m not much different. It’s not a bad thing. I think that’s what made him as great as he was. (Losses) stuck with him. Which meant it stuck to us. We didn’t want to deal with that. But as a young coach taking over at Villanova, you had to be like that. You know it’s going to be tough. You have to have that personality. And he was not a patient person.”
But he was a family man, and he passed that on to his players. When they were at Villanova, and long after they’d moved on.
“When he took you in, you were in,” said Pinone, who lives in his native Connecticut, where he’s been a success at several ventures. “Nobody was like halfway in with Coach Mass. You’re one of his guys. And we brought into that.
“It’s who he was, what he believed in. It wasn’t just on the court. People might have thought it was phony, but we knew. It wasn’t like you played your four years and were done. Even when you were gone, you were still part of it. We all benefitted from that.
“He was a blue-collar guy who was going to outwork you. He’s not giving you a nickel. But he doesn’t want one, or is looking for one. I think the thing he was most proud of the people he sent out into the world.
He always said nothing comes easy. You’re going to come across adversity. Then what are you going to do? He instilled a lot of life lessons.”
John Chaney coached against Massimino for a decade. Their game in 1988, when Temple was No. 1 and the Wildcats were ranked 20th, is considered by many to be among the best ever in the Big 5. But Chaney said he got to know the person when he was still coaching (and winning a Division II national title) at Cheyney in the late 1970s.
“Along the way, every step of the way, he would send a telegram or something to congratulate us,” Chaney recalled. “Later, I always made sure that Rollie never got the advantage of talking to the officials. In those days, they took a lot from us. They’d been around. They knew how to handle guys like us. I always kept my eyes on him. He didn’t get a call one time, and he was pulling his hair out. On top of his head it would be sticking straight up. It made him look like a Viking. Hie tie would be all screwed around. Even worse than mine. It would be in the back of his body somewhere.”
In many ways they were like characters. Two underdogs trying to pull off another upset. And sometimes they were simply friends.
“I’ll never forget when WIP or somebody organized a kind of auction, and it turned into the greatest thing,” Chaney offered, as only he can. “See, Rollie didn’t know I was from South Philly. I had always lived in an Italian neighborhood, a mixed neighborhood. So somebody paid to have us come to their house and cook an Italian meal. Rollie had brought the pasta and the sauce — I don’t call it gravy. I went down to Giordano’s on 9th Street, and they gave me a box of broccoli rabe. Some of the best. Rollie was happy I brought it. He was in the kitchen cooking, we both had aprons on, and we served dinner. You should have seen it.”
But when it came time to try and win, well the aprons came off.
“When he got on the court he’d laugh at you, but he had evil in his heart,” Chaney said with a cackle. “No question about it. He argued for his kids. He was so energetic, one of the most competitive coaches I ever knew. Especially at the end of games. If it was close you knew he’d be revved up. He’d get right in somebody’s face, like an exclamation point. And you could hear him from a long ways off.
“Those were fun days.”