Villanova's coach Rollie Massimino: He never lets anything go

January 06, 1991|By Jere Longman | Jere Longman,Knight-Ridder News Service

The coach from Boston College was waiting for the coach from Villanova, to shake his hand and say hi, good to see you, hope there's no hard feelings. Big East coaches had gathered in New York before the 1989-90 basketball season, and if Jim O'Brien of Boston College felt like a new father, who could blame him? His latest arrival -- a 6-foot-9 recruit named Bill Curley -- was supposed to do for Boston College basketball what Doug Flutie did for Boston College football.

Rollie Massimino of Villanova was not elated. His face was as glum as a soup kitchen. For Roland V. Massimino, losing goes down like 3 a.m. pizza, leaving his insides roiling and hissing and sloshing in an acid backwash. Watch him after a loss. He puts his hand to his head as if reacting to a punch. A game, a recruit, it doesn't matter.

Villanova, too, had wanted this kid Curley. Losing him was bad enough. Massimino was also irritated by some minor BC recruiting tricks. O'Brien and Massimino were friends, though. O'Brien thought he could always call on his older colleague for advice. But at this meeting in New York, when O'Brien offered his hand, Massimino returned a flaccid shake.

"I went back and told our staff, 'Maybe we've arrived when a guy starts blowing you off,' " O'Brien said. "I thought it was a little comical. Rollie shouldn't have much need to be on the defensive. But it was interesting that he took it personally. He's emotional. But maybe that's why he's so good. He doesn't let anything go."

He doesn't let anything go.

With that verbal passkey, O'Brien had deftly unlocked a personality of contradiction. In his 18th season at Villanova, Rollie Massimino remains a man of extreme opposites, exquisitely charming one instant, volcanically surly the next. Not even his friends completely understand him, how he can be warm and soothing and then turn around and become a scalding geyser. Usually, the explanation is simply, "That's Rollie."

He doesn't let anything go.

It explains why he'll call every one of his former players over the Christmas holidays. And why all 55 of his seniors have graduated. And it explains why he attends their weddings (four last summer alone) and, in moments of tragedy, their funerals or those of their parents. It explains his impeccable preparation and great success as an underdog. And the ferocious loyalty he fosters. It explains why 28 former players and coaches phoned on the first day of practice, to wish him good luck.

"My dad passed away last year when I was in camp with the Miami Heat," said former Villanova star Mark Plansky. "I flew home to Boston. The wake was on a Tuesday at 2 o'clock. Rollie had been in Miami recruiting. That Tuesday, there's a knock on the door. Rollie had flown all the way from Miami to see our family and pay his respects to my dad. No other coach in the country would do that. My dad was close personal friends with Tom Davis of Iowa. He sent an assistant coach with his regrets. Rollie came himself."

He doesn't let anything go.

If these words illuminate his magnetism, they are also lamplights that bathe his impulsiveness and irascibility and need for control. They explain why he can be such a magnanimous winner and such a churlish loser. He is an emotional man, more reflexive than analytical. ("What's in his heart is often on his tongue," said former assistant Marty Marbach, coach at Canisius.) He is so thin-skinned that grudges harden like concrete. Four years ago, Bobby Martin of Atlantic City told Massimino he'd attend Villanova, then went to Pitt instead. Not only has Massimino not spoken to Martin since, for a time he would not so much as shake hands with Pitt coach Paul Evans.

To those in his extended Villanova family, Massimino's generosity can seem bountiful and endless. They call him Daddy Mass. "My son sees him as a second father," said Robert Greis, whose son is the recently graduated center Tom Greis.

To those on the outside, his circle can seem restricted and closed, clenched like a fist. Some use harsh words to describe him: "paranoid," "insecure," even "fraud."

"With Rollie, there's a real dichotomy," said Bill Bradshaw, athletic director at DePaul. "With the inner circle, his players, his so-called mafia, there is a fierceness of loyalty. But anyone outside of the circle better beware. There's a terrific insecurity and paranoia."

Bradshaw had a serious falling-out with Massimino 12 years ago, when Bradshaw was the AD at La Salle, over a long-forgotten (by everyone else) vote in the Big Five.

"You look at his record, the kids he recruited, what kind of family man he is," Bradshaw went on. "He should be buoyant and magnanimous. But I believe there are many more people laughing at him than with him.

"He can't handle criticism. If he doesn't get a kid, the school that does 'cheated.' Or if a player makes a mistake, 'he'll never play for me again.' Or if a referee makes a critical call against him, 'he'll never referee another game.' "

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