When he died last week at 85, it was good to remember the relationship I developed with him 40 years ago. He was a good man. And he never went Big Time!
By Theodore N. Beitchman
It was coming up on 2 a.m., and the lobby of the Hyatt in Lexington, Kentucky, which an hour before had resembled the New York Stock Exchange on a bullish day, was thinning out.
April 2, 1985, is not a particularly important date in sports history.
The night before was.
Villanova had proved the experts way wrong when they made the Cats a 9 ½-point underdog to defending national champ Georgetown by playing “the perfect game” in beating the Hoyas 66-64 for the NCAA title.
Across the Hyatt lobby I spotted the disheveled Cats’ coach Rollie Massimino — hair astray, shirt half out, laughing his ass off with a cigar in his hand.
And as he started walking across the lobby toward me, stopping along the way to accept congratulations from the CBS types including Billy Packer who gave the Cats no shot, his laugh became uproarious.
“Hey Big Time,” he yelled in my ear as he hugged me, “who’s Big Time now?!”
With another national title in 2016, a terrific coach in Jay Wright and momentum towards the top of the pyramid of this hoops-crazy town and country, there’s no telling how high it can go.
But if it weren’t for Daddy Mass, as his players called him, Nova might not have a Nation, let alone another NCAA title.
And it certainly wouldn’t have become the school of choice for almost every high school Catholic kid from sea to shining sea.
I met Rollie in 1975 during his second season on the Main Line, where he got the top job after an assistantship under Chuck Daly at Penn. Jack Kraft had been a terrific coach, but when he retired Villanova’s fortunes had fallen off the cliff after the 1971 team went to the title game before losing to UCLA.
He grew up in Hillside, N.J., coached high school there and at Lexington (MA) High before taking over at Stony Brook on Long Island, and made it to the NCAA small college tournament before heading to Penn for two years as Daly’s assistant.
“Rollie was a great strategist,” says Craig Littlepage, a starter at Penn in the early 1970s who is now athletic director at Virginia. “Chuck was a great motivator, but Rollie was the X’s and O’s guy.”
Littlepage followed Massimino to Villanova as an assistant, along with Tom Brennan — who would revive Vermont’s hoops program and go to two NCAAs. Massimino got off to a rocky start — 7-19 and 9-18 his first two seasons. “We played a lot of freshmen,” Littlepage remembers, “and that’s always a hard way to win.”
Daddy Mass had the hardest time with a Roxborough High phenom, Chubby Cox, whose cousin is Joe Bryant, Kobe’s dad, and whose talent was surpassed only by his ego. There were nights Mass would drown his sorrows — not in drink but in pasta. Mass and his wife Mary Jane used to host pasta dinners for players and friends at their modest house off the campus.
And I attended several of those pasta fests along with Page and Brennan, Bob Vetrone of the Bulletin and attorney and Villanova grad Richie Phillips.
Somehow, Mass survived those first two years and got above .500 the next season. After that, as Al McGuire, the former Marquette coach who won a Final Four in 1977 and walked away into TV nirvana, might say: It was all seashells and balloons.
Sports Illustrated would describe him as, “the coach, a round, cartoonish man,” but parents of high school seniors saw someone who would take care of their sons.
Politicians of all stripes preach “family values,” but to Rollie Massimino it is more than a talking point.
“His family atmosphere was absolutely key,” Harold Pressley, who in 1982 as a senior at St. Bernard High in Uncasville, Conn. and was an All-America, told Sports Illustrated in 2004. “He came in, lounged around with my mother, seemed real comfortable. It worked. It was believable. And it was real.”
Mass ran off 16-11 in 1975-76 and then 23-10, 23-9 and an NCAA Elite Eight spot, 15-13, 23-8, 20-11 and then two more Elite Eights in 1982 and 1983. And he assembled his 1984-85 team — Pressley and Harold Jensen from Trumbull, Conn., Dwayne McClain from Worcester, Mass., Gary McLain from Metheun, Mass., Ed Pinckney from the Bronx and Mark Plansky from Wakefield, Mass.
McLain, McClain and Pinckney would call themselves “The Expansion Crew.”
And if not for the Big East and ESPN’s exposure of it to a hoops-crazy nation, Boston’s Patrick Ewing, Brooklyn’s Chris Mullen and the Expansion Crew all would have flown the east to go to college. Instead, they met in Lexington in the 1985.
Villanova, St. John’s and Georgetown were joined by Memphis State in a Final Four for the ages.
Among Villanova‘s nine regular-season defeats were two each to Georgetown (both close, a fact that would be widely overlooked by CBS’ Packer, who gave the 9 ½-point underdog Cats “no shot”) and St. John’s, teams that volleyed the No. 1 ranking all season. The most humbling was the regular-season finale. With his team trailing Pittsburgh 40-23 at the half in Pitt‘s Fitzgerald Field House, Massimino told his starters at halftime, “You’ve got two minutes to show me something, or you’re coming out.” He gave them three before yanking them for good. Shock troops played the last 17 minutes. Pitt won 85-62. Villanova slunk home to Philly with an 18-9 record, right on the NCAA bubble.
Villanova made the dance but only because the field had been expanded to 64 from 48 teams, and knocked off Dayton and Michigan and then Maryland to get to the regional final against North Carolina in Birmingham.
At halftime Villanova trailed 22-17. Massimino pulled a chair into the center of the room. “I don’t need this,” he shouted. “You know what I’d like right now? A big bowl of spags, with clam sauce.” He was laughing madly as he said it, spreading his hands as if to illustrate a massive vat of pasta. The players started softly chuckling, until the tension was sucked out of the room. Then Massimino took a deep breath. “Hey, guys,” he said. “Just go out and play.”
The Cats got the message and won 56-44.
In Lexington the following weekend, Villanova knocked off Memphis and Georgetown took out St. John’s, setting up the title game on Monday evening, April 1. No fooling, the Hoyas had beaten Villanova 52-50 in overtime at the Spectrum and 57-50 in Landover, Md.
Villanova gathered in a meeting room at the Lexington Ramada Inn for its pregame Catholic mass and meal. The meal was customarily a time for family fun. “Like Sunday dinner at the Massiminos’,” says sub Chuck Everson. Massimino had never delivered a post-meal speech, but on this day he did. First he spoke softly about former Villanova coach Al Severance, who had died that morning at age 79. “He’ll be up on the basket swatting Georgetown shots away,” Massimino said.
Despite the common perception of the game as a “shot-clock victory” for Villanova, the Wildcats held the ball more than 45 seconds just twice all night, both times enabled by a passive and atypical Georgetown zone defense. True to Massimino’s pregame speech, ‘Nova played to win.
The Wildcats built a 53-48 advantage with six minutes to play, but Georgetown ran off six straight points to take the lead, forced a Villanova turnover and went into a four corners in an attempt to coax Villanova into a man-to-man defense. The stall lasted less than half a minute before Billy Martin‘s hard pass bounced off Horace Broadnax’s shin.
Following the turnover Villanova held the ball for 62 seconds until Jensen bravely drilled the wide-open jump shot from the right side with 2:37 left on the clock. The Wildcats did not trail again and won 66-64.
“The Perfect Game,” as the HBO documentary would call it. The Wildcats had 17 turnovers (to Georgetown‘s 11). Jensen had six. Part of what is so fascinating about the game is that Villanova, when it did not turn the ball over, almost always scored, shooting 79% from the field!
It was sweet revenge for Mass and his minions, and they bathed in the glory in center city Philly where 200,000 showed up for a celebratory event. Two months later, Mass turned down the Nets’ head coaching offer. He stayed another seven seasons on the Main Line, making the NCAA four times and advancing past the first round just once.
Perhaps the unkindest cut was the accusation that he pulled Villanova out of the annual Big Five round robin with LaSalle, Penn, Saint Joseph‘s and Temple. “That was a university decision,” Massimino told me. “But when you look at it, we were playing in the Big East, where you could lose six or seven games a year, and then you’ve got four games in the Big Five. You lose two of those, you’re in trouble and you might not make the tournament.” His last Villanova team, in ’91-92, was 14-15.
“Rollie was a great teacher for me because he could see that I was catching on to what he was teaching, and yet, like a lot of father figures, he never told me what he thought of my ability.
“One night I was out recruiting and I ran into Mike Fratello, who goes back 30 years with Rollie from North Jersey. And Mike told me that Rollie thought I was a good X’s and O’s man. And if you know Rollie there is no greater compliment.
“That’s when I knew I was a good coach.
Oh, one last thing, Wright insists.
“I was here when Rollie got blamed for the breakup of the Big 5, and it was an unfair accusation. It was strictly a business decision on the part of the university, and I am glad that all five of the schools still play one another and that those games mean so much to the alums and the students.”
Mass was especially kind to me.
When I moved to Washington and became sports editor of the late, great Washington Star he sent me a nice note. And when I arrived as a senior editor at Sports Illustrated in Manhattan he called me and warned me not go “go uptown on us.”
He and I hadn’t seen one another for about 20 years — ever since that fateful early morning in 1985 — when I ran into him at a Villanova game 10 years ago.
He was still full of the same piss and vinegar that I spotted in 1975, and he was sky-high on Jay Wright, whom he hired as an assistant in 1987.
When he died last week, it was good to remember the relationship I developed with him 40 years ago.
He was a good man.
And he never went Big Time!