Massimino still in love with the game

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Rollie Massimino’s golden years entail quite a bit of arm-waving, brow-furrowing and tucking practice plans into the back of his shorts.

In many ways, this looks like the same Massimino who – 25 years ago today – coached Villanova to victory in the 1985 NCAA championship game to cap one of the most improbable runs in tournament history.

Rollie Massimino is still pacing the sidelines at Northwood.
(H. Rumph Jr. / AP)

These days, he wears team colors eerily similar to Villanova’s – white and two shades of blue. He has the similar frenetic energy as the coach who paced the sideline at Villanova. Even Dwayne McClain, who averaged 15 points in that unbelievable NCAA tournament run for Villanova, is by his side.

“At practice, I have to turn around and laugh at some of the things he’s telling these kids because he’s saying the exact same things I heard 30 years ago,” said McClain, who is an assistant for Massimino, 75, at Northwood University.

But it’s clear Massimino is a long way from the bright lights of the Big East, UNLV and even Cleveland State. Few college basketball settings are more obscure than Northwood’s, a business-oriented college with an enrollment of around 620. The school is hyper-focused on areas of business, where electives supplement majors such as accounting, finance, international business, aftermarket management and automotive retail management.

Massimino was pulled out of retirement in 2005 by former Northwood athletic director Rick Smoliak, who coached baseball at Stony Brook while Massimino coached basketball there in 1971. Massimino wasn’t ready to spend his retirement relaxing in south Florida, and he liked what Smoliak had to say.

“I was just going to take it easy and play golf all the time,” said Massimino, who lives in nearby Jupiter.

At the time he took over at Northwood, a school that was just starting a basketball program, he was 70. He and his wife had little interest in the travel demands of other jobs. Northwood has turned out to be a good fit: None of Northwood’s Florida Sun Conference opponents are farther north than Orlando, which is about 90 minutes from West Palm Beach.

“I probably wouldn’t have done it if they had a program here,” Massimino said. “It really intrigued me to start it from scratch, to build the locker rooms, [pick] the paintings on the wall, the paintings on the floor [of the court].”

His responsibilities off the court aside, Massimino still immerses himself in the intricacies of the sport. At a practice earlier this season, he took the role of point guard, dribbling to the top of the key and passing to the wing to demonstrate a play. Later, on the other side of the court, Massimino set up the defense he would use against an opposing player who had scored 59 points in two games a week earlier.

“I’d trade five of you for one of him,” he joked to his players.

Actually, Massimino has done well enough with his own players. Northwood went 27-6 this season – the Seahawks’ third consecutive 27-win season – and Massimino has 114 NAIA wins in four seasons to add to his total of 515 NCAA victories.

There wasn’t a national championship this time around for Massimino, though. This season, he was on the wrong side of a tournament upset. Seeded 12th overall in the NAIA Division II tournament, Northwood lost to Spring Arbor (Mich.) 58-57 in the first round.

While upsets define the NCAA tournament, no series of upsets was bigger than eighth-seeded Villanova’s run in 1985, the last time the tournament underwent a major expansion. Massimino’s Wildcats ushered in a new era of “March Madness” in the first 64-team tournament, and Villanova remains the lowest-seeded team to win the championship.

In 1985, Villanova tied for third in the Big East behind Georgetown and St. John’s. The Hoyas were led by Patrick Ewing; St. John’s was led by Chris Mullin. One of those two teams spent each week of the season ranked No. 1.

Rollie Massimino and Villanova celebrated at every step of their remarkable run in 1985.
(AP Photo)

On the way to the national title, Villanova edged No. 9 seed Dayton 51-49 in the first round, then shocked top-seeded Michigan 59-55 in the second round. The Wildcats then beat fifth-seeded Maryland 46-43 in the Sweet 16 before ousting second-seeded North Carolina 56-44 in the regional final. The Wildcats dispatched Memphis State 52-45 in a national semifinal. The Wildcats were nearly perfect in the title game, going 22-of-28 from the field in a 66-64 stunner over the Hoyas.

But since leaving Villanova in 1992, Massimino’s career hasn’t come close to a similar high. He had gone from ‘Nova to UNLV, but he had to leave UNLV in 1994 after it was revealed he and the school president agreed to a secret deal to raise his salary. He landed at Cleveland State in 1996, but had just two winning records in seven seasons with the Vikings and had his contract bought out after multiple players ran into off-court trouble.

“Cleveland State didn’t end on a sour note,” said Massimino, who is third on the school’s career wins list with 90. “When I took over that program, it was like nothing. They had won four or five games [the previous season]. Every year, we won more games.”

That was true in each of his first five seasons at Cleveland State, but the Vikings followed up a 19-win season in 2000-01 with 20 combined victories the next two seasons.

In any event, Massimino said he wouldn’t have been interested in a more high-profile job even if it were available. He thought about being an assistant or an NBA scout, but then Smoliak called.

Northwood’s roster this season included athletes from Florida, but also Germany, Turkey, Australia, Jamaica and the Bahamas.

“I treat it like we’re Division I,” Massimino said. “I tell them if I put a Villanova shirt on you and a Northwood shirt on the Villanova kid, it’s the same.”

McClain agrees, to an extent. Northwood relies on the 3-point shot and sound defense. McClain points out that Massimino uses the same coaching maxims now that he used at Villanova - slogans like “time and score” when referring to shot selection, “live by the sword, die by the sword” when referring to 3-point shooting and “film doesn’t lie” when settling any game-time disagreements with players.

Of course, Massimino has mellowed in some ways with age, McClain said. McClain remembers Massimino not being pleased if his players weren’t 50 percent shooters. Now, 40 percent shooting is closer to the norm for the coach and the sport in general.

“These kids now shoot 42, 43 percent and they’re considered great shooters,” McClain said. “Maybe I’m old school, but a 42 percent shooter is not a great shooter. Maybe he’s changed that way.”

That raises the question of how many other ways Massimino will change. Those at Northwood said that despite his age, he still has plenty of time left to continue to adjust.

“When I first came here, a lot of people thought he’d coach for a year or two, but I see him coaching here until he can’t physically do it anymore,” said Northwood center Steve Ritzema, whose brother, Pete, played for Massimino at Cleveland State.

The late Chuck Daly, for whom Massimino once worked as an assistant, was fond of calling Massimino a basketball lifer. Massimino jokes about his age, saying he’s “as good as yesterday’s newspaper all wrinkled up.”

Though no player on his team was born when Villanova won the title in 1985, they’re seeing the same side of him McClain saw 25 years ago.

“He’s going to blow a gasket,” McClain said. “He just celebrated his 75th birthday. I pray at 75 I have that kind of energy to coach and teach.”

David Fox is a college football staff writer for Follow him on Twitter.
Updated Wednesday, Mar 31, 2010