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.
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."