Like an angel dispatched to guide them, he mysteriously appeared on the cold November night in Vermont when the Villanova Wildcats’ 1984-85 basketball season began. Then, on the April day it concluded so miraculously, he returned to the heavens.
Al Severance, the Wildcats coach from 1936 through 1961, was a footnote in last week’s obituaries for Rollie Massimino. But if, like Massimino himself, you saw something magical in Villanova’s improbable run to the ’85 national title, then Severance’s role in it – though ultimately tragic – was essential.
When Massimino, the Wildcats’ coach for 19 seasons, succumbed to cancer Wednesday, some credited him with “putting Villanova basketball on the map.”
Those who did need a geography lesson.
Villanova, with more NCAA tournament wins than all but eight schools, has always occupied a prominent spot on college basketball’s map. And the man who first led the Main Line school there was Severance.
In 25 seasons, he compiled a 413-201 record. His teams got to five postseason tournaments and in 1939 participated in the first Final Four.
A native New Yorker, Severance graduated from Villanova in 1929 and earned a Temple law degree in 1932. He was an unknown when, in the sixth paragraph of an Aug. 14, 1936, story on the Wildcats’ football banquet, his hiring was revealed to Inquirer readers.
“Severance, also the Graduate Manager for Athletics,” the account noted, “was the freshman court coach last season, developing a team that won 32 straight.”
Tall, bespectacled, red-faced, and easily agitated, he quickly displayed a penchant for the job.
“He was a yeller,” Paul Arizin, the late Hall of Famer who was Severance’s greatest player, recalled in 1985. “He had the ability to holler at you and at the same time make you realize he was doing it for your benefit.”
Severance’s Wildcats won 25 games his second season and 20 the following year, when they made that historic Final Four appearance. But it wasn’t until he accidentally discovered Arizin that Villanova took flight.
Arizin didn’t make La Salle High’s team and, as a Villanova freshman in 1946, was playing in a CYO league. Severance happened to be at a game and was impressed enough to ask the South Philly native to come to Villanova.
“I’m already there,” Arizin replied.
Severance taught business law at the school for decades, right up until the last week of his life. A widely educated man, he gave locker-room pep talks that he often spiced with literary and classical allusions. Pittsburgh sportscaster Myron Cope, in his book, Double Yoi!, recounted one he had overheard before a Villanova-West Virginia game in the 1950s.
Trying to ensure that his favored Wildcats weren’t complacent, Severance opened with a line from Shakespeare’s Henry VIII:
“Cromwell, I charge thee, fling away ambition! By that sin fell the angels.”
In the midst of his cautionary words, the coach spotted a player — 6-foot-8 John Driscoll – sprawled inattentively in a folding chair.
“Driscoll!” Severance shouted. “Tonight, Driscoll, you are Samson tearing down the pillars of the temple to destroy the Philistines! Do you hear me, Driscoll? Tonight you destroy the Philistines!”
By all accounts, Severance was also a hypochondriac. No one knew that better than the Wildcats’ impish trainer, Jake Nevin.
On one extended road trip, Nevin kept insisting he didn’t look well and urged him to see a doctor. Eventually, Severance grew worried. That’s when Nevin stuffed several bricks into the coach’s suitcase.
As they boarded a train, Nevin watched with delight as Severance struggled to hoist his bag.
“You know, Jake, maybe you’re right,” he said. “I can hardly lift my suitcase.”
Severance integrated Villanova basketball, and when he sought a larger venue for big games but refused to play at gambler-infested Convention Hall, he inadvertently created the tradition of Big Five doubleheaders at the Palestra.
He stepped down after the 1960-61 season and was replaced by Jack Kraft.
On Nov. 24, 1984, Villanova began its season at Vermont. It was a notable opener — the hosts were honoring Massimino, an alumnus, and the Wildcats were one win away from the program’s 1,000th victory. For those reasons, and to surprise the coach, Severance traveled to Vermont.
When the Wildcats romped and won their next seven games, the superstitious Massimino began to view Severance as a good-luck charm. So four months later, when Villanova journeyed to Lexington, Ky., for the Final Four, the 79-year-old coach came along.
He shared a Ramada Inn room there with longtime Philadelphia sportswriter Bob Vetrone. The night before Villanova’s April 1 championship date with Georgetown, Severance, Vetrone, Nevin, and others sat in the hotel bar, dissecting the matchup and reminiscing.
The following morning, Vetrone rose early and went to breakfast. When he returned to the room at 8:30, he found Severance unconscious on the bathroom floor.
Villanova’s team doctor briefly revived him. He was rushed to nearby St. Joseph’s Hospital and at 9:35 a.m., roughly 12 hours before the title game’s start, pronounced dead.
Meanwhile, Villanova’s players were gathering in a Ramada meeting room for a pregame Mass. Massimino somberly informed them of the death, recalled that Severance had been with them at Vermont, and promised he’d be with them now.
“We’ve got to do our best to remember him the right way,” he said.
In his sermon, the team chaplain, the Rev. Bernard Lazor picked up the theme,
“You’ll have a guardian angel watching over you tonight,” Lazor said. “Al Severance will be up on the basket, swatting Georgetown’s shots away, guiding yours in.”
The Wildcats, of course, missed just six shots in their historic upset of the fearsome Hoyas.
Severance would have been pleased. They had slain the Philistines.