By Harry Allison
There is mourning all over Philly, the greatest basketball city in the nation.
Rollie Massimino, the coach who guided Villanova to the 1985 national title, died yesterday at the age of 82. He had been battling lung cancer and had recently entered a hospice care facility near his Florida home.
Even though Massimino (above left with current Cats coach Jay Wright) won more than 800 games in 48 years as a college head coach, he’ll always be best known for one momentous victory in particular. Massimino’s 1985 Villanova team capped off an unfathomable run from No. 8 seeds to national champions by upsetting Patrick Ewing-led Georgetown in the title game.
The 1985 Wildcats entered the postseason with an 18-9 record and remain the worst-seeded team to capture a national title. Massimino made his players believe they were better than they really were throughout their run, inspiring them to topple the likes of Michigan, North Carolina and Memphis State en route to a title game clash with Georgetown, which at the time was considered to be one of college basketball’s all-time elite teams.
Villanova entered that game surprisingly confident for a big underdog because it had led the Hoyas at the half in both previous losses earlier that season. In the third game, the Wildcats finished the job by slowing down the tempo, waiting for quality shots and sinking 22 of 28 field goal attempts and 19 of 23 second-half foul shots.
It would have been difficult to imagine Massimino reaching such heights when he began his coaching career as an assistant at Cranford High in New Jersey. He didn’t land a college gig for another decade until he was hired at Stony Brook in 1969.
When Massimino became coach of Villanova in 1973, the Wildcats were an independent. Massimino went on to lead Villanova to 11 NCAA tournament bids and successfully transitioned the program to the Big East.
Coaching was such an addiction for Massimino that he could not bring himself to retire after a failed stint replacing Jerry Tarkanian at UNLV and a forgettable seven years at Cleveland State from 1996-2003. Instead of spending his final years golfing in Florida as he initially planned, Massimino took a head coaching job at Northwood University (now Keiser University), a West Palm Beach NAIA school that had just launched its basketball program.
When Massimino took the job, Northwood didn’t have an indoor gym. But he coached tirelessly like he was still at Villanova, fighting through a flurry of health problems to win 298 games from 2006-2017.
Eighteen months ago, Massimino was on hand when Villanova won its first national title since 1985, edging North Carolina in one of college basketball’s most thrilling title games. Massimino was selected as a finalist for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame earlier this year, but he fell short of the votes needed for induction.