This is the picture of Rollie Massimino, circa 1980. This is what he was, what he did, what he meant.
It is at the Palestra, because that is where my mind’s eye wants it to be, where it insists it must be. It is before the most recent renovations, and before the renovations that preceded the most recent renovations. The boards on the floor still ran the wrong way, from sideline to sideline, unlike any other arena you have ever seen. The lighting in the place was a rumor. All of the seats were benches. The color scheme was darker, everything was darker, but the press seats were right behind the visitors’ bench and you could hear and see everything.
And there Rollie was — yelling, prancing, demanding, orchestrating. This was before there was a shot clock. Teams could hold the ball forever, and occasionally did. Someone else undoubtedly invented the concept, but Massimino is the first one who I ever heard talk about “time, score and situation.” And that is what the endgame was before there was a shot clock, this never-ending calculation.
So the Wildcats would be holding a smallish lead with a minute to go. They would have the ball and they would hold the ball as the clock ticked down. And there Massimino was on that Palestra sideline, looking at his guard with the ball, and then at the clock. It is very vivid, just thinking about it — the guard looking for some kind of instruction about whether to attack the basket, Massimino holding up a hand to stop him as he considered. Look at the player, look at the clock, then the player, then the clock, his shirt half untucked, face red, sweating. You could see the cliche, the wheels turning in his head. You could see him calculating, the ciphering almost perceptible on his lips. Look at the guard, look at the clock, player and clock, player and clock, the noise incomprehensible, the place shaking, and then the final wave of the baton and the shouted pronouncement that you could hear only if you were sitting right behind him:
“We’ve got enough!”
Which meant it was over. And he was never wrong.
Man, he could coach. He was not everybody’s favorite, not nearly. In a lot of ways, he was as polarizing a figure as the Big Five has ever seen, mostly because he was the coach at Villanova when the school — because of Big East scheduling demands — blackjacked the Big Five into a bastardized, half-round robin format that lasted for almost a decade in the 1990s.
But, man, he could coach. And while it is a hard statement to make without causing all manner of bad feelings in this town, and all sorts of angry debate — and I don’t go back to Jack Ramsay and Harry Litwack, so I’ll limit myself — but if you were going to go back over the last 40 years and have to choose one Big Five coach to win you one game in a big spot, I’d take Rollie.
Thinking about those tournaments, it is hard not to remember fondly. They were great trips if you were a Philadelphia sportswriter — a bunch of your friends from the other papers traveled, and the NCAA tournament is a great, fun, exciting event.
And you would be there on a Thursday night, in a press room in Syracuse or Providence or Raleigh or somewhere. You’d have a half-eaten sandwich next to your laptop — no, it was a word processor back then — and you could see a beer in your immediate future, and everyone was typing furiously. The whole room had just witnessed another one of those total maestro jobs by Rollie — showing a zone he hadn’t shown all season, paralyzing one team; pressing an inept point guard into embarrassing submission on another team — and it would get to the point in the story where you needed a certain stat, and you would ask without looking up in typical press-room-on-deadline fashion:
“What’s his record now?”
And somebody in the Philadelphia press corps would instinctively know what you were asking and answer, also without looking up:
“9 and 0.”
Or, later, “12 and 0.”
Or, at the end, “15 and 1.”
Because that was the stat we all quoted. That was Massimino’s record in NCAA Tournament games when he had more than one day to prepare: 15-1. Think about that for a second: 15-and-1. Bum Phillips, talking about Bear Bryant, was the one who said, “He could beat your’n with his’n, and then he could turn around and beat his’n with your’n.” Bum might never have heard of Rollie. But if he had, he would have recognized something, and smiled.
He was a superior coach. There can be no argument there. He was a big believer in the concept of the Villanova family, highlighted by pasta dinners in his home cooked by his wife, Mary Jane. He was a fierce protector of that family, and a fierce competitor, and it got the best of him at times.
In the very early days of the Big East, there was one of those blood-on-the-moon nights at the Palestra, Villanova vs. Syracuse. The headline event came when Dolph Schayes, the retired NBA Hall of Famer, ran out of the stands and onto the court to confront a referee after one too many whistles went against Dolph’s son, Danny, who played for Syracuse. But the more lasting impression was of Massimino, unrelentingly berserk for pretty much 40 minutes, looking as if he were about to have a stroke for about 38 of them. Big East commissioner Dave Gavitt called him up the next day, former coach to current coach, old friend to old friend, and expressed concern for Rollie’s health. And after that, Massimino did calm down. Some.
But that edge of his was all a part of the package. It helped make Massimino’s teams great and it also rubbed some people the wrong way. But time has sanded some of the harder edges. The decades have supplied the necessary perspective. As the Big East became a behemoth, and as conference play and the NCAA tournament grew in importance, the Big Five was going to be diminished regardless of who the Villanova coach was. Whatever you thought about the how the details went down, in the end, that is just the overriding truth.
And so, all of these years later, we are left with two things, mostly. One, the whole Villanova family that Jay Wright preaches today is a very real thing, and an integral part of their success, and Wright learned of its importance at Massimino’s knee as a young assistant coach. That is one pillar of Rollie Massimino’s legacy. The other is this, and it is simple: In a great basketball coaching city, he truly was one of the greatest.