Updated: Wednesday, August 30, 2017, 4:01 PM
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, Ky.
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 tournament.
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 … GOODBYE!”
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 Ron Lee.
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 Quakers assistant.
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 Regional final.
That’s when Mr. Massimino then gave his most famous locker room performance.
“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 things.”
As players awaited the tongue-lashing they knew their sluggish play warranted, the always animated Mr. Massimino began wildly gesticulating and yelling.
“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 semifinal.
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 exaggerated.
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 anything.”
Mr. Massimino is survived by his wife, Mary Jane, five children, and 13 grandchildren.
Services are pending.
Read full story: Former Villanova coach Rollie Massimino dies at 82