PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Rollie Massimino took the stage surrounded by a band, students, and scores of blue-and-white balloons and delivered a speech as fiery as one of his Villanova halftime pep talks.
Thirty one years after Massimino brought an improbable national championship to Villanova, the 80-year-old coaching lifer exhorted protege Jay Wright to win a second title.
“We’re going to win tonight! We’re going to win tonight!” he commanded as the crowd in Houston roared. “You have family here that is part of your own personal family, but you’re part of the Villanova family. That’s why we’re going to win! Just remember, that part of me is we and Villanova’s guys are all in it together. When Jay wins that championship, with all his great players, we’re going to root, root, root for Villanova!”
The Wildcats delivered that night in 2016 for Daddy Mass and won the national championship. Six months later, Massimino returned to campus for a championship celebration and danced a little jig as he took the court. Wright, the cool, calm leader of the Wildcats, choked up when he surprised Massimino with a championship ring. The setting was perfect on a night when the 2016 banner joined the one for Massimino’s ’85 team in the rafters.
With Massimino in hospice care, a long battle with cancer about over, Wright traveled to Florida to say goodbye.
“We just thought if anybody was going to beat cancer and never die, you just thought it was going to be coach Mass,” Wright said Wednesday. “We watched him really struggle at the end, so it’s nice that he went peacefully and with his family. But it’s a big void in this Villanova basketball family because his presence was just so powerful. It impacted current players, current coaches, all his players, the players that came before him, coaches before him. He was just larger than life.”
The patriarch of the Villanova family is now gone. Massimino died Wednesday at his home, with his wife of 59 years and some of those closest to him at his side.
Massimino, who was still the coach at Keiser University, was 82. He won more than 800 games in his coaching career, the most notable of those wins coming when Villanova played “The Perfect Game” and stunned Georgetown for the 1985 NCAA title.
“Coach Mass’ job was to disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed,” 1985 Wildcat Gary McLain said.
Massimino, a finalist for enshrinement in the Basketball Hall of Fame this year, was a fixture behind the Villanova bench during its runs to the Final Four in 2009 and 2016. Wright was hired by Massimino to serve as an assistant at Villanova in 1987 and the two held the same jobs later at UNLV. When Wright was hired to coach the Wildcats, he patched the relationship between Massimino and Villanova that stemmed from an acrimonious split in 1992.
“I think he was really comfortable and knew that we all wanted him around, and he wanted to be here,” Wright said. “He always wanted to be at Villanova.”
Massimino, who was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2011, also coached at Stony Brook, UNLV and Cleveland State. He spent the last 11 years at Keiser, where he started the program and turned it into an NAIA power.
But he’s forever linked to Villanova and that April 1, 1985 night when the eighth-seeded Wildcats topped mighty Georgetown for the title. They remain the lowest-seeded program to win an NCAA title.
Villanova won games against Dayton, top-seeded Michigan, No. 5 Maryland, No. 2 North Carolina, and No. 2 Memphis State before defeating Georgetown in an all-Big East final 66-64.
The Wildcats sank 22 of 28 attempts, including nine of 10 in the second half. They made 22 of 27 free throws, with 11 coming in the final two minutes. Like the Miracle on Ice, the Miracle Mets or Buster Douglas, the ’85 Wildcats remain forever frozen near the top of the short list of great sports upsets.
Massimino always laughed when he said he never watched a tape of the ’85 title game.
“I’m afraid we’re still going to lose,” he said.
That game with the Tar Heels was the one where Massimino gave what those linked to that ’85 team still call “the pasta speech” at halftime.
“He looked at all of us and threw his coat down,” Chuck Everson, who played on that team, said Wednesday. “He said, ‘If I knew it was going to come down to this, I’d rather have a bowl of pasta with clam sauce and a lot of cheese on it.’ Everybody was looking at him like, ‘What the heck does this have to do about playing?’ What he was saying was just go out and have some fun. Do something you like. Play. Everybody’s eyes exploded.”
Massimino would never again find that so-called one shining moment. His critics said that success ruined him, something Jim Valvano — who led NC State to an improbable championship in 1983 — had warned Massimino about. Massimino and Villanova were held responsible for the crumbling of Philadelphia’s hallowed Big 5 and the Wildcats never got past the regional final again before he left in 1992 after 19 seasons at Villanova.
He kept his promise to his players that they would always be a part of his family. Massimino and his wife, Mary Jane, let grown men sleep on air mattresses scattered all over their home while dining on his favorites — tons of pasta, tons of eggplant, all the while toasting the past and the future.
Until this summer when the Pavilion was closed for renovations, a 50-foot mural inside the entrance to Villanova’s home court highlighted the Wildcats’ greatest basketball glory. There were pictures of Massimino and photos of the 1985 title team wildly celebrating in a parade, hoisting the trophy over their heads as crowds jammed the streets of downtown Philadelphia.
Weakened by cancer, Massimino made an appearance this summer at Villanova’s “Summer Jam,” a chance for past and present Wildcats to celebrate under one roof. Everson and fellow ’85 Wildcats Brian Harrington and Harold Pressley saw Massimino this week in hospice to tell their coach they loved him.
“The last thing he said to me was, ‘I love you,'” Everson said. “That’s a rarity with a coach and a player relationship. That doesn’t happen. He taught us that it was OK to be that way, to show your feelings like that. It was OK to do all that stuff.”
Pressley laughed as he recalled a bucket list trip he made just weeks ago with Massimino to Atlantic City, New Jersey.
“I never gamble! Let’s go gambling,” Pressley recalled Massimino telling him. “We lost a couple of hundred dollars each. He said, ‘How do people do this?’ I told him, Coach, let it go. It was something we had to do.”
Massimino is survived by his wife, five children and 17 grandchildren. Funeral arrangements were not immediately announced.
“He’s going to live in all the players he coached, all the coaches that coached with him,” Wright said. “We are all products of him.”
Dan Gelston, Associated Press