The 1984-85 Villanova Wildcats were the white-bread warriors of college basketball, sharpshooting overachievers who became that season's great success story by beating powerful, Patrick Ewing-led Georgetown 66-64 in a memorable NCAA final that took place, fittingly, on April Fool's Day. The Wildcats' rumpled coach, Rollie Massimino, was right out of central casting, a happy paisan who coaxed miracles out of his troops on the court and served pasta to them off it. Rollie and Villanova was a love affair that seemed as if it would go on forever, like Dean and North Carolina or Bobby and Indiana.
It didn't. Only once in the next seven years did the Wildcats make it deep into the postseason (they advanced to the Southeast Regional final in 1988), and twice they finished below .500. Then, after the '91-92 season, Massimino packed his bags for Las Vegas, where he would add a new dimension to the phrase "fish out of water." Villanova, meanwhile, turned to a Massimino protégé, Steve Lappas,—a guy whose first college job had been as an assistant on that '85 championship team—to rebuild its fortunes.
Consider the Wildcats rebuilt. Lappas started slowly, with an 8-19 record in 1992-93, but followed that with 20-and 25-win seasons that included an NIT championship in '94. This season, after nonconference wins over Hofstra and Delaware last week, Villanova was 10-1 and ranked eighth in the country. It seems to have set out on a character-building, prepare-for-April course with impressive victories over such established teams as North Carolina (77-75) and Purdue (67-50) and slog-through-the-mud gut-wrenchers on the road over such lesser lights as Miami (70-68) and New Orleans (80-72). "We haven't made anything look easy," says Wildcat All-America senior guard Kerry Kittles, "but I promise it's not because we're overconfident. We just haven't clicked on all cylinders yet, and it's only made us realize how much work we have to do."
Nobody had more work to do than Lappas when he accepted the job at Villanova on April 14, 1992. The talent pool was shallow as a result of Massimino's flagging recruiting efforts, and the Wildcats were suffering from poor public relations in Philadelphia. For most of his 19-year career at Villanova, Massimino had relied on a steady stream of good if not great players from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, while stubbornly refusing to recruit any but the top local schoolboy players in Philly, whom he never got anyway. Philadelphians were also furious with Massimino when, in the late '80s, Villanova, claiming that its membership in the Big East caused scheduling conflicts, reduced its participation in Philly's traditional Big Five competition against LaSalle, Penn, St. Joseph's and Temple. How much Massimino had to do with the Wildcats' decision is still hard to determine, but he took all the heat, and the once beloved Daddy Mass was now Public Enemy No. 1 in a town that is tough even on its favorites. When UNLV president Robert Maxson called on Massimino to repair the scandal-beset program left behind by the deposed Jerry Tarkanian, the burned-out Massimino said, "Whew!" and the City of Brotherly Love said, "Good riddance."
Watching Massimino's slide was tough on Lappas, who left Villanova in 1988 to take his first head coaching job, at Manhattan. In four years Lappas turned the Jaspers from basketball cadavers into a 25-win team that made it to the third round of the '92 NIT. He was a natural for Villanova, having both youth (he was 38 when he was offered the job) and ties to the school ("I made all the videos because I was hugging Rollie after we beat Georgetown," says Lappas). Sources say that Massimino discouraged Lappas from taking the job, believing, through some sort of tortured logic, that it would be an act of disloyalty, and the two rarely speak. (Massimino, who is angry about an '87 article detailing cocaine use by Gary McLain, one of the players on the '85 championship team, refuses to talk to SI.) Lappas finds the subject of his fractured relationship with Massimino painful and won't say much about it. But he is sincere when he talks about the debt he owes to Massimino. "I've never forgotten what I learned from Rollie, which is basically everything," says Lappas. "I wouldn't be sitting in this chair were it not for him."
Lappas didn't spend much lime sitting after he got the Villanova job. The day after he was hired, he got on a plane to New Orleans to try to convince Kittles, who had signed with Villanova six months before with the expectation of playing for Massimino, not to jump ship. Even in their hey-day, the Wildcats rarely attracted top players from outside the Northeast, and Kittles, though not ranked among the top 50 players coming out of high school that year, was a key ingredient for Lappas, who felt that Kittles was a better player than he was ranked. "I didn't have anything against Coach Lappas," says Kittles, "I just didn't know who he was."
Lappas worked Kerry's parents hard—it helped that Villanova is a Catholic school and that Kerry's mother, Mary, had once thought about becoming a nun and his father, Acosta, had considered the seminary. Lappas encouraged Kerry to try Villanova for a year and then transfer if he didn't like it. "Hey, I'm not taking you to jail," Lappas said to Kittles. "I'm taking you to a pretty good school." Reluctantly, Kittles said he would come.
Lappas then flew to Buffalo to firm up the commitment of another key Massimino recruit, swingman Eric Eberz. "I never thought about changing my mind," says Eberz, "but it was real nice of him to make the effort."
Lappas and the two freshmen would struggle through a painful 1992-93 campaign that included a 3-16 record in the Big East and an 0-2 record in what had become an abbreviated Big Five series. No one in Philly was calling for Massimino's return, but neither was William Penn's statue atop city hall in jeopardy of being replaced by one of Lappas.
But Lappas worked tirelessly at both recruiting and fence-mending, schmoozing and cajoling and worming Villanova's way back into the good graces of Philadelphia. He showed up at all the clinics, did all the luncheons, said all the right things about the Big Five rivalry, making sure that, as he puts it, "the distance between our campus and City Line Avenue [the border for the city of Philadelphia] would be the three miles it is instead of the three hundred miles it had become."