Villanova's Rollie Massimino, 82, was the underdog's champion
On the biggest day of his professional life, Rollie Massimino went to Mass. Looking back, there was some irony to that, because hours later, his Villanova Wildcats were to play Georgetown — mighty, intimidating, defending national champion, 35-2 Georgetown. The entire college basketball-speaking world assumed his team did not have a prayer.
On the biggest afternoon of his professional life, Massimino delivered the final message to his players. He told them to go upstairs to their rooms and think of two things: They would play the national championship game that evening to win and not to lose, and they were good enough to do it.
On the biggest night of his professional life, Massimino’s team was touched by magic, as Georgetown’s coronation turned to historic dust. If there is a pantheon of great Final Four moments, the Villanova Wildcats of 1985 are in the front lobby. The fearless game they played, the one shot they missed in the second half against the most feared defense in the nation, the game-rattling immortality of the 66-64 upset they pulled off.
Massimino, who died Wednesday, lived more than 82 years and won more than 800 games, but his legacy was secured in two remarkable hours in Rupp Arena on April Fool’s Day of 1985. He will forever be the icon for any underdog in search of hope. Because once upon a time, he led a bunch of players too stubborn to accept the defeat that the odds – and even logic itself – had declared they were sure to take.
He was the son of an immigrant shoemaker who had a sixth grade education. A New Jersey kid born to be a coach, starting in the profession as a high school assistant in his mid-20s. He was still doing it last winter at NAIA Keiser University in Florida at 82.
Oh, how he worked his players, the officials, the game itself. An enduring image from 1985 is how Massimino approached each tipoff looking like the cover of GQ, and by the final buzzer looked like the survivor of a bar fight. The pressed suit and neatly combed hair and perfectly knotted tie had given way to shirt tails pulled out, and hair a train wreck. He had poured everything he had into the night, wanting his team to do that, too.
What carried him through all those decades? The desire to bring players together, get them to think and feel like a family, and believe. Family was big to Massimino. He had five of his own children, and 17 grandkids.
Belief was big to him, too. That’s why the remarkable spring of 1985 will always be such a perfect snapshot of Massimino, and not just because of the trophy at the end. That was all about belief.
Villanova entered that NCAA Tournament unranked, with 10 defeats, and seeded No. 8. It was an historic March, with 64 teams in the bracket for the first time. First up for the Wildcats was a lousy break in the pairings — having to play Dayton on the Flyers' home court.
Massimino didn’t openly fret about the task. He kept talking about the great Italian restaurant he had discovered just down the street from the arena. The game was tied in the final minutes and Dayton was holding the ball, in these days of no shot clock. But a late steal and basket got the Wildcats by, 51-49.
Two days later, they skipped past Michigan 59-55. By then, Massimino’s glowing reports on Dayton Italian cuisine had not gone unnoticed by the locals. An anonymous fan bought dinner for his entire team at his new favorite Dayton restaurant.
There were more tight squeezes the next week in Birmingham, 46-43 over Maryland and then 56-44 over North Carolina. In that one, a tight-playing Villanova team trailed 22-17 at halftime. In the locker room, the Wildcats gathered round to hear the first half critique from their coach.
Massimino walked in, and proclaimed that what he really wanted at that crucial moment was a big bowl of pasta. With clam sauce. The tension eased, and Villanova blew past the Tar Heels in the second half.
So the Wildcats went to Lexington’s Final Four, which had turned into a Big East-a-palooza. Georgetown, St. John’s, Villanova. Only Memphis was the non-member. A 52-45 win over Memphis put the Wildcats in the championship game, but everyone knew that would be the end of the line.
Curious thing, though. Largely ignored then and often forgotten since was the fact Villanova had played the Hoyas close twice that season, losing 52-50 in overtime and 57-50. Massimino had the Wildcats believing they could play with Georgetown before they ever got to Lexington.
Still, all conventional wisdom assumed the Hoyas to be close to invulnerable. It would take nearly a perfect game to beat them. Nearly a perfect game is what Villanova played.
It was done with Massimino’s defense and at Massimino’s pace, and happened at just the right time. Villanova won the national title averaging 55 points in its six NCAA tournament games. The shot clock arrived the next season, to mass applause. But Villanova's upset might never have happened in 1986, or beyond.
But Massimino had his one shining moment and he had it for keeps. He coached other very good Villanova teams, and spent the rest of his life still trying to get teams to believe, from UNLV to Cleveland State to Keiser. But he never matched the fairy tale that was 1985.
In many ways, that night still stands alone. Villanova remains the lowest seeded team ever to win a national championship, and shares with 1988 Kansas the feat of being the only two teams unranked in both major polls to take the title.
It is striking how we’ve lost our championship coaches in pairs. In 2015, Jerry Tarkanian died four days after Dean Smith. This week, Jud Heathcote passed away two days before the news came on Massimino. Legends pass, but not their accomplishments.
Rollie Massimino died at 82. The most important game of his life lives on.