As Villanova prepared to face North Carolina for the 2016 national championship, head coach Jay Wright wasn’t sure if Rollie Massimino would be able to be there. The former ’Nova coach had flown to Houston for the Final Four but couldn’t make the Wildcats’ national semifinal thrashing of Oklahoma as he dealt with the serious health issues that slowed him down over the last few years of his life.
But when Kris Jenkins hit a championship-winning shot for the ages, good ol’ Rollie was right there in the crowd, hugging people, laughing and soaking in a magical national title 31 years after he led the ’Cats to a magical one of his own.
“He was really sick during that Final Four,” Wright said. “But when he got there, all of a sudden the lights came on and he was on top of his game. I knew — and we all knew — that it meant probably as much to him that we won as it did when he won it.”
That’s because Villanova remained a huge part of his life, long after he left the program in 1992 following a brilliant 19-year run on the Main Line. And that’s also why his death Wednesday hit the entire Villanova community extremely hard (see story).
“He knew we all wanted him to be around,” an emotional Wright told reporters Wednesday. “And he wanted to be here. He always wanted to be at Villanova.
"We’ll have the funeral here at Villanova. This is home.”
Knowing Massimino was in hospice care after battling cancer and other health problems for years, Wright went down to Florida to visit Massimino on Monday, along with many of his former players. The 82-year-old couldn't communicate at that point but Wright was able to say his final goodbyes to a man who shaped him into the coach — and the man — he is today by teaching him to treat a basketball program like a family.
He plans to continue carrying on those lessons into this season, when Villanova will honor Massimino in several yet-to-be-determined ways, and for many seasons after that.
“That’s the best thing about Coach Mass,” Wright said. “He’s such a powerful force, he’s gonna live in all the players he coached, all the coaches that coached with him. We are all products of him.”
The stories of Massimino as a man are legendary, too. Fun-loving and affable, Massimino absolutely loved the people in his orbit — and loved playfully ribbing them. After Wright joined the Villanova staff in 1987, he said Massimino joked that he hired him because he thought he was Italian — and when he found out he wasn’t, he told him to keep it quiet.
“I can finally admit it now,” Wright said, “and he won’t get mad.”
The Villanova coach recounted another story from when Massimino first got the job at Northwood (now called Keiser) in 2006 and said in his introductory press conference that Villanova would be the first game on the schedule — at Northwood. When Wright got a call asking about this, he didn’t know Massimino had taken the job or even what Northwood, an NAIA school in Florida, was. And yet ...
“I didn’t say anything but I thought, I’m probably gonna have to do it if he said so,” Wright recalled. “And we did.”
While Northwood/Keiser is certainly a much different level than Villanova, the fact that Massimino continued to coach there practically until the day he died was a remarkable thing for Wright to see — and indicative of how much basketball meant to him, even as his health deteriorated.
“He had every kind of cancer and he just wouldn’t stop,” Wright said. “He wouldn’t stop coaching. I really thought it kept him going, maybe for three or four extra years.”
Sometimes, it seemed like he’d keep coaching forever. And living forever, too.
“Coach Mass was just bigger than life,” Wright said. “I just thought if anybody was gonna beat cancer and never die, it was gonna be Coach Mass.”
In the end, though, even legends die. But from all the wins he amassed on the basketball court to the stories he made off of it, Massimino’s memory will live on forever.
“No one got more out of life than him,” Wright said. “He ate everything that was in front of him. He had a lot of good cigars. He drank a lot of wine. He had a lot of friends. He didn’t miss out on anything. He lived a full life. And all of his players from Northwood to Cleveland State to UNLV to Villanova, they all love him.
“He was just an incredible force on this Earth.”