He started each game with the best of intentions, turned out to sartorial perfection in one of those thousand-dollar sharkskin suits with a silk tie knotted just so, French cuffs for shooting, and diamond studs for a finishing touch of elegance.
And then the ball would go up, taking with it all of the good intentions and solemn vows about self-control that Daddy Mass had made just moments before.
And by game’s end, Rollie Massimino was Daddy Mess, a rumpled, disheveled wreck, the silk tie flapping at half-mast, the once-crisp shirt trailing after him like a kite tail, and the suit coat locked and loaded and ready to be launched.
In the frenzied world of college basketball, a sport teeming with rabid tantrum throwers, for foot-stomping, fandango-dancing pyrotechnics, no coach was quite as entertaining as the man the players called Daddy Mass.
He was short but relentless, and as the game wore on strands of hair would stick out like little antennas, but he was impossible to discourage, a bulldog with a face contorted into a permanent snarl. He didn’t just coach the game, he played it, blocking every shot, intercepting every pass, snatching every rebound, and, of course, spotting every foul that those blind zebras missed.
Daddy Mass poured heart and soul into his life, and his life was all about two passions — family and coaching. I told him once that I bet he would coach for nothing, and he said I was probably right.
He was a benevolent dictator, gathering followers and enveloping them into a burgeoning family, with Daddy Mass, the Italian Godfather, at the head table, presiding over steaming bowls of pasta and tough love.
He could be brusque and he was zealously protective, and you enlisted for life.
He started coaching at Stony Brook and in 1973 became the head man at a small Catholic school on the Main Line, and it was obvious from the beginning that he was a man with unbridled ambition and dreams, and with an undisguised lust for the big time — Bright Lights, Big City.
The Villanova gym in those days was a cramped little passion pit with a distinct home court advantage. Daddy Mass prowled the land trying to lure unsuspecting opponents into his lair.
“We’ll play you at your place,” he would tell them, “and then I’d like you to come visit us in our Cat House.”
The best way to upset a team with superior talent was to shorten the game, control the pace of play, limit the number of possessions. He was a maniac about defense, and games that used to be played in the 70s were now played in the 50s. If it was late and you were floundering to score half a hundred, then Daddy Mass had you cooked.
He rode that all the way to the top, to the national championship in 1985. The Perfect Game. The epic upset. Celebrated in legend and lore. It wouldn’t have been possible had there not been the shot clock.
These were the golden days for the Big East, Georgetown and St. John’s, the bullying John Thompson and the snake oil salesman Louie Cerneseca, and, yes, Villanova and the ambitious Daddy Mass. The big games were always at Madison Square Garden, that self-trumpeting the World’s Most Famous Arena, and I still remember a cold winter night in Manhattan, and Daddy Mass, flush from a big win, celebrating with a victory cigar about as big as a baseball bat, surrounded by the usual retinue of loyal followers, breathing in the bracing air, savoring the moment. Bright Lights, Big City indeed.
It was that ambition, that craving for the big time, that ultimately did him in. At least that’s what the critics said at the time — and some still do.
The blame for the unraveling of the Big Five was laid at the feet of Villanova, and the coach who shuffled the schedules to produce more national exposure, more Bright Lights, Big City.
Daddy Mass refuted the charges, but the demise was sealed. Only now have the shattered pieces been swept up, and still not to everyone’s satisfaction.
By 1992, Daddy Mass and ’Nova were done, and he bolted for the ultimate Bright Lights, Big City venue.
It was a long, slow slide downhill. From Vegas to Cleveland State. And, finally, in ‘03, retirement.
He played 36 holes every day. Along the way he got cancer. He got up nose-to-nose to stare at Big C, and Big C realized Daddy Mass wasn’t blinking.
He went after cancer with a fullcourt press, but the chemo all but killed him, so he yanked out all the drip bags and tubing and he found refuge in the most familiar place of all. On the baselines where once he roamed, coaching up a storm.
So here was the safe harbor, in West Palm Beach, Fla., at Northwood University, which became Keiser University, a tiny business school with 726 students, smaller than many high schools. The Seahawks were an NAIA Division II school. The low, low, low minors.
No matter. Remember what he said? You’re right. I’d probably coach for nothing.