In the winter of 1997, when onetime Villanova center Ed Pinckney was playing for the Miami Heat, the last stop in a peripatetic 12-year NBA career, he found himself riding in a hotel elevator with then-Heat coach Pat Riley. It was just the two of them. As the elevator rose, Riley turned to Pinckney and said, "Someday you’ve got to tell me what Massimino said at halftime of that game." Riley didn’t need to specify which game he was referencing and Pinckney most definitely didn’t need to ask. They both just knew. Anybody would know.
Rollie Massimino, who died Wednesday at the age of 82 after battling lung cancer and other illnesses, coached 1,278 college basketball games (he won 816 of then, including 481 at the Division I level) in a 41-year career that started at Stony Brook University on Long Island in 1969 when he was 35 years old and ended last winter at tiny Keiser University in West Palm Beach, Florida, when he was fighting for his life. He leaves behind hundreds of former players and assistant coaches who will remember the way he tried to make every team a big, Italian family and the meticulousness with which he managed both ends of the floor. Yet he will always be best known for what took place on the night of April 1, 1985 at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky. On that night, Massimino’s Villanova played a game as near to perfection as any team has ever played, and took down seemingly unbeatable Georgetown, 66-64, to win the NCAA Championship.
It was a performance that has risen over the years to almost mythical status in March Madness history, and it finished off a dreamlike championship run that drew upon all of Massimino’s best qualities. The son of an immigrant shoe repairman from Sicily, Massimino took over the Villanova program in 1973 and carried it into the mighty Big East of the 1980s on the promise that a recruit would always be loved like a family member. That was his schtick, and it worked. "His family atmosphere was absolutely key," Harold Pressley, a member of ’85 team, told Sports Illustrated in 2004. They called him Daddy Mass.
In 1985, Massimino counseled sophomore guard Harold Jensen through fits of insecurity and it was Jensen who hit the winning shot in the first round the NCAA tournament and a key basket in the final. "I was a difficult kid, and he was incredible," said Jensen in 2004. In the regional final against North Carolina, Massimino loosened his struggling team with a halftime speech about eating a big bowl of pasta. And in the final, after Georgetown’s Reggie Williams shoved popular Villanova reserve Chuck Everson right before halftime, Massimino stormed off the floor, shaking his first and emotionally told his team, "They are not giving that intimidation s--- to us. Who the f--- do they think they are? Do they think we’re going to lie down for them? That is not happening!" Villanova made nine of 10 field goal attempts in the second half. At the buzzer, Massimino, in a rumpled tan suit, with his thinning hair typically disheveled, fell into a wild celebration with his assistant coaches and, eventually, with his players and friends. It’s still a must-see One Shining Moment that endures.
It would never get any better than that night for Massimino. The success made him a celebrity, but also launched him into a succession of dramas. Two years after the championship, SI published a story written by Massimino’s championship point guard, Gary McLain and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jeff Marx, in which McLain said he been high on cocaine during parts of the tournament run. The story crushed Massimino; he and McLain didn’t reconcile until 2005, and then, only tenuously. Massimino also didn’t talk to SI for 19 years. Villanova pulled out of the parochial and beloved Philadelphia Big Five, and Massimino was blamed for that, accused of letting his ego run wild (Massimino always said it was the school’s decision). Reverend John Stack, a Catholic priest who was Villanova’s dean of students in 1985, told SI in 2004, "People say Rollie changed when he won the title. Rollie always had a big ego. But after he won the title, more people were watching."
In 1987, Philadelphia Inquirer writer Jere Longman wrote, "[Massimino could be] such a magnanimous winner, and a such a churlish loser."
Massimino’s last Villanova team, in 1991-’92 was 14-15. He left on poor terms with the school that he had lifted to its highest moment, and which made him wealthy, famous and bitter. There were other stops. He stunned the college basketball world in 1992 by taking the head coaching job at UNLV, but that lasted only two years and ended in controversy when it was disclosed that Massimino had taken part of his salary under the table. He coached seven years at Cleveland State and lost 23 more games than he won, and as time passed he came to realize what he had lost. "I should have stayed at Villanova," he told SI in 2004. "That’s where I belonged, and that’s where I should have finished my coaching career. I can see that now." He should have been like his Big East brethren, Jim Boeheim, Jim Calhoun and John Thompson, none of whom have coached anywhere else after their peak years in the conference. All of them are also in the Hall of Fame; Massimino is not.
The wounds incurred during Massimino’s Villanova years slowly healed. In 2005 the school raised a banner in Massimino’s honor and Villanova coach Jay Wright ensured that Massimino remained a part of the family. He was along for the ride during Villanova’s national championship run in 2016, a part of the family. In November of 2014, nearly every player and all the assistant coaches from the 1985 team gathered at Massimino’s home in Florida for a celebration of the coach’s 80th birthday. "One of the most memorable experiences my wife and I will ever have," said Massimino in 2015. The players from that team adored him to the end.
And he never really did stop coaching. In 2006, tiny Northwood University asked Massimino to help start a basketball program and he became its coach for 11 years, including the final three after Northwood sold its campus to Keyser. He won 298 more games and went to the NAIA championship tournament three times. All of which brought to mind a lunch in Florida in 2004, where Massimino ate bowls of soup with NBA legends and Philadelphia cronies Chuck Daly and Billy Cunningham. "I think I’m done coaching," Massimino said that day. "I’m going to give some time back to my wife."
Daly laughed out loud. "You’re a lifer," he said.
That is an epitaph that Massimino would embrace. A family man who one night took down a giant, and then coached to the end.