Rollie Massimino remembered as more than a coach by Villanova community

Family members follow the casket out of the church after the funeral mass for Rollie Massimino at St. Thomas of Villanova Church.

They came, from all over, to celebrate the life of a man who defined Villanova basketball for two decades. And in many ways was the face of the university.

But it turned into something much more personal than that.

As Tommy Massimino, the opening speaker at Tuesday’s funeral mass, put it: “My father [Rollie] was known mostly as a great basketball coach. But he was a great friend, mentor, husband, father and grandfather. That’s what meant so much more to him. Family was always most important. That was the one continuous theme. He made it special. No one lived life more to the fullest.

“The stories are endless. They’ll stay in our hearts forever. We all had our own Rollie Massimino story. When he went to Heaven and St. Peter met him at the gate, the only thing he probably asked was, ‘Do you guys serve linguini in clam sauce with extra cheese.’ ”

That was the vintage Daddy Mass image. Sitting around a tableful of people sharing the good times over some food.

Massimino’s Wildcats won a national title in 1985 as an eighth seed, beating Big East rival and defending champion Georgetown in the final in one of the sport’s memorable upsets. He died on Aug. 30 in Florida at 82 following a lengthy battle with cancer.

The 90-minute service was held in the St. Thomas of Villanova Church on Lancaster Avenue. It was a chance to say a lasting goodbye, pay a final tribute, to someone who became larger than life.

Next it was good friend Billy Cunningham’s turn to talk.

“The 40 years I knew him, he never knocked on my door when he came over our home,” said the man who coached the Sixers to their last NBA title in 1983. “I would have these golf clubs laying around that got sent over, and cases of beer. Before you knew it I had one case. And he always needed another set of lefthanded clubs for someone else.

Cunningham called him, “My boy.”

“As a coach he was never satisfied,” Cunningham. fondly recalled. “He talked constantly … We went to visit him at Magee Rehab after he just had a brain tumor removed. He’s got all these stitches in his head. And he says, ‘Can you get me the tape of Steph Curry’s ballhandling drill?’ I’m like, ‘This is your concern?’ And Jay [Wright] looks at me like what can you do.”

The place was filled with friends, colleagues, former players and ex-Wildcats who didn’t play for him. Jim Boeheim was there. So was Lou Carnesecca. And Chris Mullin, who nearly came to Villanova to be with fellow New Yorker Ed Pinckney.

“We come with tears in our eyes but great joy in our hearts,” said Rev. Rob Hagan, who presided over the service and delivered a moving homily as maybe only a person who was an underclassmen at Villanova in 1985 could. “He did so much for all of us. He changed lives. He put his heart and soul into everything. He engaged you. He had that passion. And he wasn’t afraid to look bad. I had some players tell me I should reach in (the casket) and pull his shirt out and mess up his hair.

“He cared, with a kind of boldness and fierce loyalty. He never stopped pushing. He lived in the truth, often without much sugar on it. He was inspired by that. He had a willingness to say what others were reluctant to say. He made us believe in the impossible, when nobody else saw it. He was a giver. I can hear that barking Italian voice saying, ‘Don’t give up.’ He’s up there with Jake (Nevin) smoking a cigar.”

Finally, it was time for Jay Wright to share his thoughts. Without Rollie, there might not be a Jay. And without Jay, Rollie might not have have regained his rightful place within the Villanova community. The link is forever.

As someone later noted, Wright looked understandably nervous. And Jay never looks nervous. He read from his notes, something else he doesn’t do. And he sometimes spoke faster than normal. There were other times when he almost couldn’t get the words out at all.
The message was humorous and poignant. And he always called him coach.

“God’s plan for coach was amazing,” Wright said. “Can God do wonderful things or what? Wow. He was a man’s man. And in the last few years he became that sweet, charming, lovable man we all wanted to hug. There’s a hole in our souls. It’s like losing a parent. He took responsibility for all of us. His spirit lives in us. His greatest gift was teaching us about life.

“He’s forever our coach. To us, he was the greatest coach in any team sport in our lifetime. He told us work hard and be loyal. Coach wouldn’t relax for a minute. Which meant we couldn’t relax. He now deserves his rest. I just wanted to make him proud.”

When Wright’s team got the program a second national title 17 months ago, Massimino was there. The smile on his face said it all. That will never go away.