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Family and coaching were Massimino's ruling passions | Bill Lyon

Bill Lyon, For The Inquirer

Updated: Wednesday, August 30, 2017, 4:06 PM

From April 1, 1985 – Rollie Massimino celebrates along the sidelines with his Villanova team on its way to a win over Georgetown in the NCAA Championship game in Lexington, Ky.

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.

** FILE ** In this April 1, 1985 file photo, Villanova coach Rollie Massimino is up on his toes as he dances his way to victory over Georgetown in the NCAA Championship game in Lexington, Ky. Massimino really made his mark when he led Villanova to the 1985 national championship. Now coaching at tiny Northwood University, Massimino returns to coach against star pupil Jay Wright and the No. 23 Wildcats on Thursday night at the Spectrum. (AP Photo/Bob Jordan, File)
Basketball great Wilt Chamberlain jokes with former Villanova coach Rollie Massimino during a celebration in Philadelphia April 25, 1988. Chamberlain died Tuesday, October 12, 1999 at his Los Angeles home. RON CORTES / PHILDELPHIA INQUIRER KRT
Northwood head coach Rollie Massimino, left, and Villanova head coach Jay Wright greet each other before the start n exhibition college basketball game at the Wachovia Spectrum Thursday, Nov. 6, 2008, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/H. Rumph Jr) ASSOCIATED PRESS
Cleveland State's head coach Rollie Massimino jumps in the air after a call he didn't agree with during his team's game against Temple University in Philadelphia on December 23, 2000. Massimino argued with the referee and drew a technical. JERRY LODRIGUSS / PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER KRT
Rollie Massimino is carried by his players after their NCAA championship victory on April 1, 1985. Rick Bowmer / Philadelphia Daily News
Villanova coach Rollie Massimino rejoices with his team in cutting down the nets after their win over St. Joe's. Philadelphia Daily News photo DN Photo
Villanova head coach Rollie Massimino reacts to bad Wildcat offensive play during 2nd period action first half on January 7, 1983. MICHAEL MERCANTI / PHILADELPHIA DAILY NEWS
Rollie Massimino on December 3, 1974 Sam Psoras / Philadelphia Daily News
( UPDATED CAPTION ) Rollie Massimino (in plaid jacket) watching his Villanova team play from the bench on February 19, 1976. Inquirer photo
Rollie Massimino being held back by asst. coach Marty Marback after call from Ref Durin during the second half of the Villanova vs. St. Johns basketball game on February 18, 1986. Coach Massimino was given a techinical foul. RICK BOWMER / PHILADELPHIA DAILY NEWS
( UPDATED CAPTION ) Rollie Massimino (in plaid jacket) watching his Villanova team play from the bench on February 19, 1976. Inquirer photo
FILE - Head coach Rollie Massimino hugs his son R.C. after the Villanova victory over North Carolina to win the NCAA Southeast regionals in Birmingham en route to the 1985 championship. Bernard Troncale / Associated Press
Villanova basketball coach Jay Wright (right) and his wife Patty, present legendary Nova coach Rollie Massimino and his wife Mary Jane a framed print of the current members of his 1985 team which won the NCAA national championship. Massimino now coaches Northwood University and his team was playing an exhibition game against Villanova. ( CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer )
Photo Gallery: Rollie Massimino Through the Years

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.

UNLV.

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.

Bill Lyon, For The Inquirer

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