Villanova Wildcats

Massimino showed Big 5 coaches the impact that can be made on players

The Palestra was nearly empty. It was an October scrimmage pitting an NAIA team vs. an Ivy League team. And the opposing coach was over 80 years old.

But much to Penn head coach Steve Donahue's amazement and delight, that opposing coach — Rollie Massimino — was still doing Rollie things.

He was up on his feet, yelling at his Keiser University players, having fun, even playfully punching a Penn player in the arm at one point after he hit a few three-pointers right in front of him during the exhibition game last October between Keiser and the host Quakers.

"He really had great passion and enthusiasm," Donahue said. "To be 82 and coaching like he did last year, I marvel at that. Coaching has changed so dramatically. Guys do it for different reasons. It was pretty apparent Rollie did it for the relationships with the young people and helping them get better. I think that's who Rollie was."

Rollie Massimino, the legendary Villanova head coach and basketball lifer who went on to run the UNLV, Cleveland State and Keiser programs, died Wednesday after battling cancer and other health problem for years.

And while his death hit the Villanova family hard — particularly his protege Jay Wright, who gave an emotional interview about what Massimino meant to him — it also struck a chord with the rest of the Big 5 coaches who came to know him well and appreciated what he meant for basketball in the city.

"He was an icon in Philadelphia college coaching," Temple coach Fran Dunphy said. "We all felt a tie to him. He was good to everybody. Once he knew what you were doing and what you were asking, he was gonna put his whole heart and soul into it.

"It didn't matter if you were a Villanova guy or you weren't. You were a basketball guy and that's all that mattered to him."

Like everyone, Dunphy has vivid memories of Massimino guiding Villanova on their stunning run to the 1985 national championship. An assistant at American University at the time (in a few months, he'd begin a 30-plus-year coaching run in the Big 5 at La Salle), he marveled at what he saw, calling it "wonderful to watch" and saying the 'Cats play "pretty much the perfect game."

Then a graduate assistant at the University of North Texas, La Salle head coach John Giannini watched in awe from his dorm lounge, saying that "I don't think college basketball fans anywhere will ever forget that."

And Donahue, who graduated from Ursinus a year earlier, remembers what the '85 championship meant for the Philadelphia — as well as the next generation of the city's coaches.

"The city needed a champion," the Penn head coach said. "It wasn't just Villanova. At the time, I was really proud that Villanova was our team. In '85, I just remember thinking this was just an incredible achievement and the city getting behind it was really remarkable.

"And I just think he made guys like myself and other people really start looking at coaching and how much you can have an impact on kids."

For young coaches like Donahue, Massimino was the perfect person to try emulate. He wasn't flashy and didn't necessarily look the part, but he focused on the important things like building relationships, having players over to his house for bowls of spaghetti, and generally treating a program like a family.

"Rollie was who he was," Donohue said. "And there was something really refreshing in that — that you could achieve greatness in coaching being yourself."

"He was a throwback, no question," Dunphy added. "He was a coach's coach."

Dunphy first met Massimino in the early 1970s when Massimino was an assistant at Penn for a season under Chuck Daly. Saint Joseph's head coach Phil Martelli came to know him well not long after when his wife, Judy, was an assistant coach at Villanova, and Massimino showed him what kind of person he is.

"He reached out to us when our daughter Elizabeth had a serious surgery at the age of 3, and throughout my career at Saint Joseph's," Martelli said. "He has been a presence both on the sidelines at Villanova and in the Philadelphia basketball world."

That relationship continued for four decades with Massimino making a stop at Martelli's camp in Avalon, N.J., this past August, taking a photo with Martelli that the St. Joe's coach said he'll "treasure for the rest of my life." Martelli and the rest of the Big 5 coaches also honored him with a special ceremony during their Coaches vs. Cancer gala in April 2016.

"That was great," Dunphy said. "He was struggling at that point physically but he'd never let you know, never entered his thought process. He was always gonna fight it."

Perhaps the best part was that Rollie was still himself in his final years, a fierce competitor on the court and a warm friend off of it. He was still the guy who once shared a wonderful dinner with Giannini during the European Championships in Sicily, bonding over Italian food and their shared Italian heritage. And he was still the guy, too, that met Donahue for the first time by approaching him at a restaurant in Havertown and pretending to give him a hard time at the request of a former player who knew them both.

"Rollie was like that — he would play the practical joke, he would have fun," Donahue said. "He was just someone who loved to be around people. Even in the last couple years of his life, he still wanted to be around people. He wanted to coach. Every day was fun for him and exciting. That's why I think he coached, literally, until the day he died."

Coaching as long as he did certainly came with sacrifices, of course. Giannini remembers a time when Massimino called him to set up an exhibition vs. La Salle while getting a blood transfusion.

"I just thought about the level of toughness it takes to be working when you're getting that kind of treatment," the La Salle coach said. "I also thought about the kind of love of basketball it takes. I think it's inspirational that, as recently as the last few months, he was still doing what he loves."

That's just one reason why Massimino will be so missed — around the country certainly but especially in the Philadelphia area's tight-knit basketball community.

"One word that's overused is the word legend," Giannini said. "But someone who changes hundreds of lives and someone who succeeds at the highest level and someone who makes history I think qualifies as a legend. Coach Massimino is definitely a legend."

"He loved coaching and he loved working with kids," Dunphy added. "And he loved the relationships with the players. It didn't matter if it was Villanova or UNLV or Cleveland State or Keiser University. Him coaching was what life was all about. And I don't know if I've ever seen anybody fight this disease as hard as he did."