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Tim Layden
March 29, 2004
Villanova's seismic victory over Georgetown in the 1985 NCAA final was a life-altering experience for the Wildcats. The coaches and players of that miracle team are still feeling the aftershocks
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March 29, 2004

The Upset

Villanova's seismic victory over Georgetown in the 1985 NCAA final was a life-altering experience for the Wildcats. The coaches and players of that miracle team are still feeling the aftershocks

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The beige suits and yellow power ties have been swapped for Bermuda shorts and golf shirts. Rollie Massimino's preferred mode of transportation is the golf cart he drives to meet a visitor at the front gate of the Jupiter Hills Club in Tequesta, Fla. Here he often plays 27 holes or more a day and lunches with roundball cronies like Chuck Daly and Billy Cunningham. Not long ago they sat around a table and pecked away at each others' golf handicaps and careers. Golden Girls meets Dr. Naismith. Massimino, 69, looks healthier than the night he coached Villanova to the title, frightened into good behavior by a ministroke last spring. "I was out to dinner with two of my sons, when my left arm just drops right into my lap," he says. "My strength is coming back now, but I'll tell you...." He shakes his head, revealing the intensity of the scare.

Massimino left coaching only last March, when he resigned after seven years at Cleveland State. Daly, who as the head coach at Penn once hired Massimino as an assistant, needles his old prot�g�, saying he'll sign on any day with Palm Beach Community College. "You're a lifer," Daly says. Massimino doesn't deny it. "I miss practice, I miss being around players," he says. "But it's gotten better as the season has gone along. All those years I worked from early morning until late at night while my wife raised our family. Now I'm doing something for her."

Massimino can't get out three sentences without dropping the names of half a dozen former players or assistant coaches, each of whom is referred to—sincerely, it seems—as a "dear friend." During a two-hour interview he gets three calls on his cellphone, all from former players. "A couple of days ago I heard from eight players in one day," he says.

It never got better than April 1, 1985, for the man called Daddy Mass. (Well, it briefly got a little better. Massimino's image shone even brighter when, in the summer following the tide, he turned down a lucrative offer to coach the New Jersey Nets, endearing him even more to the Villanova community and college basketball purists.) Of his last seven Villanova teams, however, only four made the NCAA tournament and just one advanced past the second round. Massimino was knocked in Philadelphia for not getting enough city recruits and for his ponderous style, which critics say was made obsolete by the shot clock. Worse yet, he was accused of pulling Villanova out of the annual Big Five round robin with LaSalle, Penn, Saint Joseph's and Temple. "That was a university decision," says Massimino. "But when you look at it, we were playing in the Big East, where you could lose six or seven games a year, and then you've got four games in the Big Five. You lose two of those, you're in trouble and you might not make the tournament." His last Villanova team, in '91-92, was 14-15.

It's possible that Massimino could have survived all of this. What damned his relationship with Villanova in the end was the feeling—often rumored, seldom spoken publicly by anyone—that he had gotten too full of himself. That he had changed. " Jimmy Valvano warned me that would happen," says Massimino. "My inner sanctum never changed. You can't be friends with everybody."

Stack says, "People say Rollie changed when he won the title. Rollie always had a big ego. But after he won the tide, more people were watching."

Plansky, who played three years for Massimino after the '85 title, says, "All of a sudden Rollie's got people giving him tens of thousands of dollars to make motivational speeches, and a lot of people want to shake his hand. So sometimes he'd shake their hand while he's looking away, and that guy tells people, ' Rollie Massimino's an ass.' "

In the spring of 1992 Massimino stunned the basketball world by accepting an offer to succeed Jerry Tarkanian at UNLV, which at the time was an outlaw state, the opposite of cuddly, Catholic, graduate-'em-all Villanova. His reputation had suffered so badly that at the Villanova press conference announcing Massimino's resignation—he was not present—students cheered his departure. He lasted two years at UNLV and left amid controversy when it was disclosed that he had agreed to an under-the-table contract paying him $375,000 a year beyond his annual salary of $511,000. Former UNLV president Robert Maxson, who cut the deal with Massimino, insisted that it was done ethically, and Massimino agrees. UNLV bought out the remaining three years of his contract for $1.9 million.

There was one more stop. At Fratello's urging, Massimino took over at Cleveland State in 1996 and coached seven seasons. The Vikings improved from nine wins in Massimino's first season to 19 in his fifth but tailed off and went 8-22 in 2002-03. It was an ignominious finish to his career, and '85 seemed ever more distant. "I should have stayed at Villanova," Massimino says. "That's where I belonged, and that's where I should have finished my coaching career. I can see that now."

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