Rollie Massimino wanted to be in Houston last year to watch his protege, Jay Wright, coach Villanova to what he hoped would be the second national championship in school history. But Wright was concerned that the man he fondly calls "Coach Mass" would be putting his already fragile health in jeopardy.
"He was really sick during that Final Four," Wright said Wednesday at the Davis Center, reminiscing about the former Wildcats head coach who died earlier in the day.
"He couldn't make the semifinal game, and even our alumni who flew him on their plane, they were afraid on the way up that he wasn't going to make it. Then when he got there, all of a sudden, the lights came on and he was on top of his game. I knew, and we all did, that it meant probably as much to him that we won it than when he won it.
"It was a struggle for him to get there. I know he wanted to be there for us, and it meant the world to all of us to have him there."
The CBS cameras were trained on Massimino, the coach of the Wildcats' 1985 title team, just seconds after Kris Jenkins knocked down the game-winning three-pointer for a 77-74 victory over North Carolina.
Massimino, whom Wright called a "powerful force" and "larger than life," hired the young Bucks County coach as a Villanova assistant in 1987.
"When he hired me, he thought I was Italian," Wright recalled with a smile. "When he found out I wasn't Italian, he told me he wouldn't have hired me if he didn't think I was Italian. I said, 'You never asked me.' And he told me, 'Well, don't ever tell anybody you're not Italian.' So I can finally admit it and he won't get mad."
It was Wright who brought Massimino back to the Villanova program when he took over as head coach in 2001, nine years after Massimino left the university and kept his distance from the program.
"It was just, I think, natural when we came back," Wright said. "I think he probably had a lot to do with telling the alumni to bring us back, so I think it was already in motion. I think he was really comfortable and knew that we all wanted him around, and he wanted to be here. He always wanted to be at Villanova."
Wright said the legacy of Massimino was the way he loved his players and staff as if they were family, treating them to dinner at his home every Sunday back when he was at Villanova, and even the last 11 seasons at Keiser College in Florida, where he continued to coach.
"That's what he lived for," he said. "That's what he loved, and he did it right to the end. There's no one that lived life harder. No one got more out of life than him. He ate everything that was in front of him. He had a lot of good cigars. He drank a lot of wine. He didn't miss out on anything. He had a lot of friends, and he lived a full life."
Though in declining health, Massimino attended Villanova's annual Summer Jam on July 31. Wright said more than 60 of his former players were there, and "I think they kind of sensed this might be the last time they see him."
"He fought," he said. "He had every kind of cancer and he just wouldn't stop coaching, and I think it kept him going, maybe for three or four extra years. All of us would see him, thinking he can't coach another year."
Wright said Massimino had just returned to Florida to begin another year at Keiser and was thrilled to have St. Joseph's and coach Phil Martelli on his schedule, the days of his role in reducing the Big Five schedule long passed