Villanova's coach Rollie Massimino: He never lets anything go

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The coach from Boston College was waiting for the coach from Villanova, to shake his hand and say hi, good to see you, hope there's no hard feelings. Big East coaches had gathered in New York before the 1989-90 basketball season, and if Jim O'Brien of Boston College felt like a new father, who could blame him? His latest arrival -- a 6-foot-9 recruit named Bill Curley -- was supposed to do for Boston College basketball what Doug Flutie did for Boston College football.

Rollie Massimino of Villanova was not elated. His face was as glum as a soup kitchen. For Roland V. Massimino, losing goes down like 3 a.m. pizza, leaving his insides roiling and hissing and sloshing in an acid backwash. Watch him after a loss. He puts his hand to his head as if reacting to a punch. A game, a recruit, it doesn't matter.

Villanova, too, had wanted this kid Curley. Losing him was bad enough. Massimino was also irritated by some minor BC recruiting tricks. O'Brien and Massimino were friends, though. O'Brien thought he could always call on his older colleague for advice. But at this meeting in New York, when O'Brien offered his hand, Massimino returned a flaccid shake.

"I went back and told our staff, 'Maybe we've arrived when a guy starts blowing you off,' " O'Brien said. "I thought it was a little comical. Rollie shouldn't have much need to be on the defensive. But it was interesting that he took it personally. He's emotional. But maybe that's why he's so good. He doesn't let anything go."

He doesn't let anything go.

With that verbal passkey, O'Brien had deftly unlocked a personality of contradiction. In his 18th season at Villanova, Rollie Massimino remains a man of extreme opposites, exquisitely charming one instant, volcanically surly the next. Not even his friends completely understand him, how he can be warm and soothing and then turn around and become a scalding geyser. Usually, the explanation is simply, "That's Rollie."

He doesn't let anything go.

It explains why he'll call every one of his former players over the Christmas holidays. And why all 55 of his seniors have graduated. And it explains why he attends their weddings (four last summer alone) and, in moments of tragedy, their funerals or those of their parents. It explains his impeccable preparation and great success as an underdog. And the ferocious loyalty he fosters. It explains why 28 former players and coaches phoned on the first day of practice, to wish him good luck.

"My dad passed away last year when I was in camp with the Miami Heat," said former Villanova star Mark Plansky. "I flew home to Boston. The wake was on a Tuesday at 2 o'clock. Rollie had been in Miami recruiting. That Tuesday, there's a knock on the door. Rollie had flown all the way from Miami to see our family and pay his respects to my dad. No other coach in the country would do that. My dad was close personal friends with Tom Davis of Iowa. He sent an assistant coach with his regrets. Rollie came himself."

He doesn't let anything go.

If these words illuminate his magnetism, they are also lamplights that bathe his impulsiveness and irascibility and need for control. They explain why he can be such a magnanimous winner and such a churlish loser. He is an emotional man, more reflexive than analytical. ("What's in his heart is often on his tongue," said former assistant Marty Marbach, coach at Canisius.) He is so thin-skinned that grudges harden like concrete. Four years ago, Bobby Martin of Atlantic City told Massimino he'd attend Villanova, then went to Pitt instead. Not only has Massimino not spoken to Martin since, for a time he would not so much as shake hands with Pitt coach Paul Evans.

To those in his extended Villanova family, Massimino's generosity can seem bountiful and endless. They call him Daddy Mass. "My son sees him as a second father," said Robert Greis, whose son is the recently graduated center Tom Greis.

To those on the outside, his circle can seem restricted and closed, clenched like a fist. Some use harsh words to describe him: "paranoid," "insecure," even "fraud."

"With Rollie, there's a real dichotomy," said Bill Bradshaw, athletic director at DePaul. "With the inner circle, his players, his so-called mafia, there is a fierceness of loyalty. But anyone outside of the circle better beware. There's a terrific insecurity and paranoia."

Bradshaw had a serious falling-out with Massimino 12 years ago, when Bradshaw was the AD at La Salle, over a long-forgotten (by everyone else) vote in the Big Five.

"You look at his record, the kids he recruited, what kind of family man he is," Bradshaw went on. "He should be buoyant and magnanimous. But I believe there are many more people laughing at him than with him.

"He can't handle criticism. If he doesn't get a kid, the school that does 'cheated.' Or if a player makes a mistake, 'he'll never play for me again.' Or if a referee makes a critical call against him, 'he'll never referee another game.' "

His friends and enemies will tell you that Rollie Massimino sees things in black and white: You're either for him or against him. Opinion about him is certain, too -- strong, immutable, contradictory. It's the same with Buddy Ryan. You listen to people and sometimes you wonder if they're talking about the same man.

"I think, basically, Rollie's a good guy," said Mark Whicker, a columnist for the Orange County (Calif.) Register who hosted Massimino's weekly television show when he worked for the Philadelphia Daily News. "It's a classic family thing, a classic Italian thing. If you're one of his guys, there's nothing he won't do for you. Everyone else is either neutral or the enemy. He might lash out at someone he feels is antagonistic. But if that same person needed a heart transplant, Rollie would make whatever arrangements are necessary."

The family thing -- the Villanova family -- is the cornerstone of Massimino's program. It is the assurance that he will take kids under his wing and treat them like a father, laughing with them and crying with them, patting them on the back and kicking them in the pants, and always making sure they leave with what they came for -- a degree. It is what parents find most appealing about Villanova basketball.

Even the most skeptical outsider, given any knowledge of the love and tragedy in Massimino's own family, would acknowledge the importance of familial bonds in the coach's life. His father, Salvatore, emigrated from Sicily at age 16, settled in Hillside in North Jersey and opened a cobbler shop. Sometimes he worked hard making shoes, his fingernails fell off. Salvatore Massimino named his first son Tom. At age 6, the boy died in a gas explosion. The next son was named Tom, too, and at age 6 he died in an auto accident.

Rollie was the youngest of Salvatore and Grace Massimino's four sons, and even when he was 21 and had graduated from Vermont in 1956, and taken his first coaching job at Cranford (N.J.) High for $3,600 a year, his parents wanted him home by 11. They would sit up and wait.

Rollie's own five children have stayed close to the nest. Tommy, his eldest son, is an assistant coach at Villanova. R.C. Massimino, the middle son, played for his father. Rollie's daughter, Michele, handles his personal appearances. His wife, Mary Jane, is legendary for whipping up pasta for intimate gatherings of 30 or 40 after each home game.

"We had our disagreements about basketball, but all that stuff about 'the family' and Rollie being a father figure is true," Robert Greis said. "As much as kids are willing to give to Rollie, he's willing to give back to them."

Have there been family feuds? Sure. There are in every family. The infamous Gary McLain cocaine story in Sports Illustrated is a noisy skeleton still rattling in the Villanova family closet.

"I hear about that more than I hear about how great we played in the championship game," said Connally Brown, who played with McLain on the 1985 national championship team and now works for the 76ers. "You wonder if it's going to scar you for the rest of your life."

And not all former players remember Massimino fondly. Eric Leslie, a marginal contributor at guard, was unwilling to bide his time behind Doug West and transferred to Rhode Island, where he averaged 23 points last season.

"If you're one of his favorite players, you're set," Leslie said. "If you're in the doghouse, he'll criticize you and burn you for your entire career. I was in the doghouse. I wasn't the type of player that was going to kiss his rear end."

But for every Eric Leslie, there are five, six, 10 players and coaches who remain loyal to Massimino, who write and call regularly and remain part of the extended family.

John Olive, Massimino's first recruit and now his top assistant, left a job as personnel director of the Los Angeles Clippers to return to Villanova in 1985. He is only eight credits shy of a law degree, so he doesn't need the basketball life. But when Massimino gave him a chance to coach at Villanova, Olive said, "my wife and I didn't discuss it more than five minutes. We were coming."

Said Whitey Rigsby, who played for Massimino in the mid-'70s and is now the radio voice for Villanova basketball: "I have four sons, and I would love for them to play for Rollie. What higher honor is there to say about someone?"

In many ways, Massimino provides the ideal in amateur athletics -- loyalty, propriety, motivation, education, the possibilities of underdog achievement. That 66-64 victory over Georgetown for the 1985 national championship will forever be remembered for the resourcefulness of the little man against the big man.

"Every coach dreams of coaching the perfect game," said Kentucky's Rick Pitino. "Rollie's about the only one who's done it."

He is a coach who runs a clean program, graduates his players, a coach who has a sterling reputation. A man of sincere benevolence, running a program that is nationally recognized for having struck a balance between academics and athletics.

Quietly, selflessly, without any public trumpeting, he gives time to charity work. Three years ago, he sponsored a golf outing on behalf of Karen Thum, then a 9-year-old March of Dimes poster child, to buy a van for her. But rain washed out the tournament, in Rochester, N.Y., after three or four holes, and only $5,000 was raised. So Massimino made the first two payments on the van and lined up 34 other guys to make one payment each. The week of Karen Thum's first communion, Massimino presented her with the keys. Last year, she insisted he sponsor her confirmation into the Roman Catholic Church.

So, with all the good he does, why is he so sensitive?

Why does he erupt if a caller contradicts him on his talk show or a writer questions a decision he made on the bench? Why, two years ago, when Mark Plansky was not named to the all-city first team, did Massimino send an assistant to pick up Villanova's awards at the Big Five banquet instead of being gracious enough to collect them himself?

For a coach who has nothing left to prove, Massimino regularly finds himself on the defensive. When Dallas Comegys chose DePaul over Villanova and La Salle in 1983, Massimino had to defend himself against charges of negative recruiting. Despite his fiercest denials, he has been unable to convince doubters that he knew nothing of McLain's cocaine use.

"That's probably the thing that hurt him more than anything else -- the feeling that Rollie might have known, and might have tried to look the other way," said Craig Miller, the former Villanova sports information director who is now with the U.S. Amateur Basketball Federation.

And now Massimino again finds himself portrayed -- wrongly, he feels -- as the heavy in the decade-long decline of Big Five basketball, an issue back in the forefront now that Miami is entering the Big East.

But why let people get under his skin like splinters?

"Rollie doesn't handle criticism real well," La Salle coach Speedy Morris said. "I don't think he should worry about what people say. . . . His record speaks for itself. He's got the ring. He won the national championship. Once you've done that, you've made it. They're never going to take that away."

Said Massimino: "I am an impulsive guy. I've worked on that. It's probably a fault. I'm not a perfect guy. But don't say something about our program if you don't know what goes on. I get upset when someone poops in my lunch box."

Once, in his early years at Villanova, after a tense defeat at St. Bonaventure, Massimino bolted out of the arena into the dead of an upstate New York winter and, without an overcoat, trudged back to the hotel in three feet of snow, his collar turned up against the howling afternoon and the futile pleas of players and assistants to get on the team bus before he froze to death.

That's how impulsive he can be.

Jim Brown, a former assistant athletic director, remembers changing the nets before a home game once; when Massimino found out, Brown said, "he went out of his mind." Bobby Domenick, owner of Wayne Beverage and perhaps Massimino's closest friend, remembers the old Eastern Eight days, when a dispirited Massimino would call at 2 or 3 in the morning from Pittsburgh or West Virginia and fume, "We lost because you weren't there!" If the team bus is scheduled to leave at 1 p.m., it leaves at 12:55. You're late, you get left. Ed Pinckney found that out once before an important game at Seton Hall.

"I've seen him get upset with the cooks at the team meal because the steaks weren't done right," Miller said.

That snarling, impetuous side of Massimino can cloud a sunny, pranksterish part of his personality. Once, he and Rick Pitino, then the Providence coach, played golf against P.J. Carlesimo of Seton Hall and Jim Boeheim of Syracuse. The match started at five bucks a hole, but as Massimino and Pitino fell behind, they kept doubling the bets. By the 18th hole, they were down $400. "Double it," Massimino said. "Rollie, I can't lose $800 in a golf game," Pitino replied. "Don't worry," Massimino said, "we're not paying." And they didn't. As Boeheim and Carlesimo were putting out, Pitino and Massimino ran to their car and drove away.

There are two things he is not impulsive about: clothes and coaching. Here the word is "meticulous," maybe even "compulsive."

The son of a shoemaker, Massimino has by his own count more than 120 pairs of shoes. Once, in the early '80s, an assistant coach helped the Massiminos move and found 50 silk shirts still wrapped in their original plastic sleeves.

As a coach, Massimino has never had the most talent, the best players, so he has always had to outprepare, outhustle and outthink opponents. In 1983, Villanova left the Main Line in 20 inches of snow, caught a flight from Atlantic City and arrived after midnight in Chapel Hill to play top-ranked North Carolina the next afternoon. By 9 a.m., Massimino had his players walking through plays in the hotel parking lot. Villanova won, 56-53.

Working for him is not for everybody. When Mike Fratello joined the staff in the mid-'70s, the job was so consuming he moved into Massimino's office, hanging his clothes on the wall, sleeping on a sofa, showering in the locker room. One of Massimino's early assistants left after a week. Just walked away. Stick with him, though, and the payoff can be big. Nine of his former assistants are head coaches now on the college level. Until this year, Fratello coached the National Basketball Association's Atlanta Hawks.

Though he is loyal to those who work for him, Massimino can be dismissive of those who haven't reached his rung on the coaching ladder. In his book, "Big Hoops," about the Big East season of 1988-89, Bill Reynolds recounts an episode of flash-fire resentment by Tim Tolokan, sports information director at Connecticut. Villanova had just lost to Connecticut for the first time in 15 games, and, Reynolds wrote, Massimino was "generally considered the worst loser in the league." The author describes Massimino intruding on a postgame UConn news conference, which set off Tolokan like a cherry bomb.

". . . him and all his Daddy Mass bull," Tolokan is quoted as saying about Massimino. "He comes into our building and pulls that stuff. Like we aren't big enough for him . . . and what a good guy he is. The man's a fraud."

Today, two years later, Tolokan will not discuss the incident or even talk about Massimino.

To Massimino's credit, he has worked to patch up his differences with Paul Evans, the Pittsburgh coach. When Bobby Martin detoured around Villanova after committing orally to a scholarship and ended up at Pitt, Massimino suggested that something improper had happened. Later, the coaches refused to shake hands after a game. Evans said Massimino had "fallen in love with himself" after winning the championship and had "alienated a lot of friends." Now both insist they have buried the hatchet.

"It's a game now, not a war," Massimino said.

"We've got a good relationship now," Evans said. "Rollie realizes we're doing things the right way. The only problem I had with him was when he was saying things to the contrary. I think he's different now. He's helping the younger coaches; he's concerned and sympathetic. He's back to the way I remember him before."

Which brings us back to the central question: Why did Rollie Massimino ever feel such a need to circle the wagons? Paranoia? Insecurity? A paternal instinct to protect his family? Perhaps the best answer lies in the circumstances under which he took the job at Villanova nearly two decades ago. He was an outsider, an excitable, rough-edged guy from North Jersey, coming to the provincial, buttoned-down Main Line. The cupboard was bare of players. Even the refrigerator in the coach's office was padlocked.

When his first two teams finished 7-19 and 9-18, the boos and ethnic slurs hailed down on him like paper cups: "Fire that dago." He needed to find out who his friends were. Who was loyal. Who could be trusted as part of the family. He operates the same way today. Cautiously. Defensively.

"It's something I believe in, family, togetherness," Massimino said. "I hear people say, 'Rollie stays with his group; you can't break that barrier.' What a bunch of crap. It's crazy. They don't know how big that group is. You've got to cut it off somehow, somewhere, or your whole life is exposed."

He chafes when he hears that he has changed since winning the national championship. If his income approaches half a million dollars a year, who can begrudge him? The critics, he snorts, they don't know the half of it. Do they know how he took his wife and five kids and piled them into a 10-year-old Pontiac in 1970 and took a pay cut from $15,000 to $13,000 to leave a head-coaching job at New York University-Stony Brook and take an assistant's job at Penn? Do they know how in 1973 he took another pay cut, from $19,000 to $17,000, to take the head-coaching job at Villanova? And how he had to rent a house from the state on the Blue Route, and when his players would come over for team dinners, he brought in stools from the locker room because there wasn't enough furniture to seat them all?

Yes, he knows where a buck is. Yes, he has cashed in on his rumpled, excitable, underdog image. And he has enough money to provide homes for his kids and a place in the Poconos and a condo in Florida. Who can resent that?

"I've paid my dues," Massimino said.

The best part about winning the championship has been the celebrity. His office wall is adorned with pictures of Rollie with his pals, Perry Como, Tommy Lasorda, Mario Andretti. There is even a picture of him and Ollie North. So excited was Massimino when he met Frank Sinatra in Los Angeles two years ago, he called friends on the East Coast at 5 in the morning and cooed into the phone, "Just had a little dinner with Frank."

As he tells the story, it is apparent that, lately anyway, Massimino has been avoiding his beloved dead-of-the-night meals. He knows that, at age 56, the weight isn't good for him. He has dropped 36 pounds and appears to be in running shape. It is early in a new Big East season. His team will run more, he promises. It will be an interesting challenge. Can a coach who lets nothing go, who wants to approve of every dribble and endorse every pass, let go completely? We'll see.

In five or six years, he says, he will be ready to give all this up and retire to Florida, near his golfing buddy Perry Como. But he's been saying "five or six years" for 10 years now.

"The kids keep me going," he said. "We're going to win it again. I really feel we have a chance. That's my goal. Not many guys have won it once. Only about 10 have won it twice or more. I really feel we have a chance."

Of course he does. He never lets anything go.

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