Divorce, Vegas-style

Oct. 24, 1994
Oct. 24, 1994

Table of Contents
Oct. 24, 1994

College Football
College Basketball
Pro Football
Andre Rison
SI 40th Anniversary
Point After

Divorce, Vegas-style

UNLV gave embattled basketball coach Rollie Massimino his walking papers but not before paying him a fat cash settlement

The University of Nevada at Las Vegas found itself caught up in yet another rancorous Gucci row last week, a contretemps that involved money, basketball and allegations of improper benefits. Only this time the beneficiary wasn't a player, but a UNLV coach—Rollie Massimino, who quit on Friday in a dispute that befouled the image of the man who guided Villanova to its storybook NCAA title in 1985.

This is an article from the Oct. 24, 1994 issue Original Layout

In a town where numbers are all-important, these are the figures that sealed Massimino's doom: 36-21 (his record over two years at UNLV), 15-13 (the Runnin' Rebels' mark last season) and 8,915 (the average attendance last season at the 18,500-seat Thomas and Mack Center). But there were other relevant numbers, too, breathtaking six-and seven-figure ones. Massimino had become so reviled in Las Vegas that school officials offered him $1.6 million if he would simply go away. The mere possibility that he would do so touched off a season-ticket buying spree that brought in $450,000 over three days, some of it from the old denizens of Gucci Row, the courtside Scats That Good Taste Forgot.

Massimino found the $1.6 million buyout offer so insulting that on Oct. 12, three days before fall practice was to begin, he stormed out of a meeting with UNLV interim president Kenny Guinn. The reason: He wanted the school to honor a secret supplemental contract, worth $375,000 a year, that had been negotiated by former UNLV president Robert Maxson. On Friday, Massimino and Guinn finally agreed to a $1.8 million settlement. The school also kicked in $83,000 to get rid of Rollie's son Tom, an assistant coach.

At week's end the Runnin' Rebs appeared ready to replace Massimino with Seattle SuperSonic assistant coach Tim Grgurich, who had served on the Vegas basketball staff under Massimino's predecessor, Jerry Tarkanian, for a dozen years, until both departed in 1992. Grgurich's hiring would restore to power forces loyal to the roguish Tarkanian, whose exile Maxson had worked so hard to bring about. Indeed, any choice besides Grgurich would likely further imperil the financial health of UNLV's athletic department, which faces a budget shortfall of more than $1 million this year. Last Friday, getting the town's mood just right, Las Vegas's KTNV-TV aired a parody of My Way that went like this:

Rollie sucks/Let him have the bucks/And lake the hiiiiiiiiighway.

UNLV's latest imbroglio began after Guinn learned in August that Maxson, through a confederation of boosters called the Varsity Club, had arranged to funnel to Massimino the 375 grand a year in privately raised funds, over and above the $511,000-a-year salary publicly disclosed when Massimino was hired. The Nevada Board of Regents must approve all university salaries of more than $500, but only chairwoman Carolyn Sparks was told of the supplemental contract. The eight other members of the board were appalled when they learned of the secret deal, which Sparks says she didn't disclose because it was a private business arrangement.

In a meeting on April 9, 1992, regent Shelley Berkley says, Maxson presented Massimino to the board as "a bargain"—a coach who would deliver integrity for less than the $600,000 that Tark had made. The board approved Massimino's basic contract without seeing a copy because Maxson told the regents the deal hadn't yet been put into writing. "I asked Maxson if there were other substantive provisions, and he said no," says Berkley. "Massimino was sitting 20 feet away from him, and he didn't attempt to correct the misrepresentation. In my mind, that makes him culpable. Later we found out the contract [including the supplemental deal] had been signed on April 1."

Well, April fool. Maxson insists—and minutes of the meeting confirm—that Maxson did tell the board Massimino would benefit from unspecified "private business arrangements" beyond the $511,000. In any case Maxson resigned as UNLV's president in May 1994, and Massimino eventually tried to get Guinn to honor the terms of the supplemental contract. Guinn declared the deal nonbinding because it had never been approved by the regents. On Aug. 15 he told Massimino that the university had no intention of honoring something to which it hadn't been a lawful party.

But the public relations damage had already been done, and Guinn began negotiating to get Massimino to go. Guinn eventually put the $1.6 million settlement offer on the table, but Massimino blew it off, stalking out of their meeting after only five minutes.

After that, any residual community support for Massimino evaporated like droplets in the desert sun. Massimino, the son of an immigrant shoemaker, must have realized he had finally been brought to heel. On Friday he stepped down, still insisting that the side deal had been perfectly legal. That's a fine point of law, and it is probably moot now. But another comment of Massimino's calls his word into doubt. When he was hired by UNLV, he scoffed at reports that he would be paid as much as $700,000 a year. "People tell me about the $700,000 figure," Massimino said on the very day he was introduced as a paragon of probity. "It's just amazing. I don't know where it came from."

It was amazing. He was really getting $886,000.

Not a decade ago Massimino was Daddy Mass, the rumpled engineer of the warmest and fuzziest of NCAA basketball titles, Villanova's improbable defeat of Georgetown. He had a reputation for strict fealty to the rules and even stricter loyalty to those around him, people like Jake Nevin, the wheelchair-bound Wildcat trainer who became a symbol of Villanova's pluck. But after Massimino won the title, something happened. "Everybody told me he changed," says Tarkanian. "Even people I thought were his friends told me that."

Fans in Philadelphia blamed Massimino for the breakup of the Big Five, the crosstown series that had given Philly hoops culture a texture unlike that of any other city. Massimino insisted he had nothing to do with Villanova's decision to pull out of the city series, blaming the move on the school's president, the Reverend Edmund Dobbin. Other coaches in town, though, harbored the feeling that Massimino wanted an easier schedule and was responsible for Villanova's unbrotherly act.

The disaffection extended out the Main Line to Villanova, where the Augustinian fathers had opened the vaults in order to keep Massimino when the New Jersey Nets wooed him following the championship season. Critics complained that even as the game sped up with the introduction of the shot clock, the Wildcats continued to play a taut, joyless, ball-control style. He was confrontational and unyielding, arguing with a male cheerleader whose ponytail he didn't like, challenging students and fans who criticized him, once even ordering security guards to forcibly remove a heckler from the Spectrum.

Near the end of his tenure at Villanova, Massimino reportedly wanted to move up to athletic director. Miffed that the administration wouldn't assure him that his son Tom would succeed him as basketball coach, he felt that his loyalty to the university had been betrayed. The Wildcats reached the NCAAs only four times in the seven years following the championship season. After Villanova finished 14-15 with a first-round loss in the 1992 NIT, Massimino lit out for Las Vegas. The day that Villanova athletic director Ted Aceto announced the departure, students at the press conference broke into a chorus of "Na na na na, na na na na, hey, hey, goodbye."

Since the 1950s, when he was a high school coach in Hillside, N.J., and Lexington, Mass., Massimino has incanted a mantra of "family" and "loyalty." He would call former players on holidays, and he did all he could to set up his assistants with head coaching positions. At Villanova a recruit had to meet with the current players so everyone could sign off on him before Massimino offered the kid a scholarship.

Yet Massimino's notion of family, which sometimes degenerated into a secretive, us-against-them clannishness, didn't sit well with everyone at UNLV, where he was an outsider called upon to bring order to a renegade basketball program. Las Vegas was cleaved into two camps, one loyal to Tarkanian, the other to Maxson, and Massimino was immediately pegged as Maxson's man when he vowed the day he was hired that neither he nor his players would ever embarrass the university, a statement that Tark partisans took as a slap at their man.

Despite his pledge, several episodes occurred under Massimino that had a same-old-Vegas smell to them. In March '93 it was discovered that one of Massimino's first recruits, forward Kebu Stewart, had received free plane tickets to and from his home in New York City from a street agent. Last year, star guard J.R. Rider became ensnared in an academic scandal after it was discovered that a tutor had written a paper for him. When a number of players received free workout privileges at a local health club, the athletic department blamed the improper benefit on "the previous men's basketball administration." Then it came to light that one of Massimino's assistants had written a letter designating which of the Rebels were to be allowed to use the club. Suddenly the moral high ground had eroded under Massimino's feet.

The missteps might have been forgiven if he had won at a rate to which the UNLV community was accustomed. Instead, despite a schedule spritzed with Downy, Massimino failed to reach the NCAA tournament in either of his two seasons at UNLV. This didn't go over well in a city where the losers are supposed to come from out of town. Attendance figures reflected Vegas's disappointment.

"What a laugh," says Al Levy, a real estate agent and Tarkanian supporter who vows that he'll now return to UNLV home games. "These guys did all the things Tarkanian and the others were accused of. I haven't gone to a game in two years. But now the white hats are wearing the white hats again."

Tarkanian's ouster also embittered some former Rebel players. One of them, current NBA star Larry Johnson, has been known to cite Odessa College, the junior college in Texas he attended before enrolling at UNLV, when asked his alma mater. Those sour attitudes will change if Grgurich is brought onboard. Last week the NCAA cleared Grgurich, the man everyone in town knows as Gurg, of any wrongdoing in the Runnin' Rebs' eight-year-old infractions case.

"Tim is the perfect guy for the job," says Tarkanian, who finally settled his long-running legal battle with the university only three months ago. "He's the most loyal person I've known in my whole life. He'll work 16 hours a day, seven days a week. The kids all love him. I love him. I know he'll bring back a big part of the community."

As Grgurich prepares to ascend and complete the UNLV counterrevolution, there are several pungent ironies to the story. Grgurich was the assistant who conducted the improper out-of-season conditioning practice that the UNLV administration secretly videotaped in 1991 in an effort to discredit Tarkanian. Further, in 1980, when Grgurich resigned as head coach at Pittsburgh, the Panthers offered his job to none other than Rollie Massimino. Massimino accepted, then reneged. It seems he had gone back to his employers at Villanova and extracted something that prefigured the events of last week: a better deal.

It's left to Lois Tarkanian, Jerry's wife, to sum up the two seasons since her husband was turned out. "If Massimino was 30-2, do you think the fans would have stayed away?" she says. "Did Massimino lose his job because of the improper contract and the J.R. Rider affair, or because he didn't win enough? And are they bringing Tim Grgurich back because it's the just thing to do, or because they need to sell season tickets?"

As she poses each question, she knows you know the answer. "I've become a cynic," she says. "A big one."

PHOTOGREG CAVAPHOTOR. MARSH STARKS/LAS VEGAS SUNThe fans who came out to see Clayton Johnson and the other Rebels last season were few and often hostile to Massimino.PHOTOSTEVE SPATAFORE[See caption above.]PHOTOJOHN BIEVERFour years after Tark won a title, Grgurich (right) is shaping up as the man for the job.PHOTOGARY STEWART/AP[See caption above.]