PHILADELPHIA -- Rollie Massimino, Villanova University's biggest Wildcat for 19 years, quit his job as coach of one of the country's most respected basketball programs yesterday and took over one of its dirtiest.
Rollie is now a Rebel.
Massimino will guide the scandal-ridden Runnin' Rebels of Nevada-Las Vegas, leaving behind him a program that had losing seasons in only four of his 19 years, made it to the NCAA regional finals five times, and went on a giddy Cinderella march ++ to the national championship in 1985.
Massimino was lured away by UNLV president Robert Maxson, who wanted a nationally prominent coach to help repair the school's image and was willing to pay mighty dollars to get him.
UNLV has given Massimino a five-year contract worth about $700,000 per year, according to sources. Massimino had three years left on a 10-year contract at Villanova that paid about $150,000 in base salary. Sources at Villanova estimated the coach may have made $300,000 extra each year from his basketball camp.
Massimino is taking all three of his assistant coaches -- son Tommy, plus John Olive and Jay Wright -- with him to UNLV.
Massimino, 57, replaces Jerry Tarkanian, who compiled college basketball's best winning percentage while at UNLV and also led the team into constant trouble with the governing body of college athletics, the NCAA. This year, after winning 23 straight games and finishing 26-2, the Rebels were forced to sit out the NCAA tournament on probation.
In a UNLV news conference last night, Massimino said he had been wowed by the enthusiasm of Maxson and athletic director Jim Weaver.
"I'm looking at this as another phase of my life," Massimino said. "Where I can do things that we did years ago and have the opportunity to, once again, start anew and develop a program like we developed it at Villanova."
But there were apparently other reasons that Massimino left 'Nova.
Sources at Villanova said Massimino had been discouraged by a perceived lack of appreciation.
They said Massimino had asked, perhaps as long as two years ago, to let him become athletic director after his coaching tenure was finished and to promote Tommy Massimino to the head coaching position. The sources said the university would not give Rollie Massimino that promise.
Massimino, never known for a thick skin, also complained that Philadelphia did not appreciate him enough anymore. He was especially stung when many fans and members of the media blamed him personally for the crumbling of the Big Five city basketball series.
Last year it seemed Massimino seized on two things -- the expansion of the Big East schedule to 18 games when Miami joined the conference and new NCAA rules that will eventually reduce the schedule to 27 games --to demand that Villanova be allowed to reduce its commitment of playing all four other Big Five schools each year.
An unsatisfactory compromise finally was reached. Villanova, Temple, Penn, La Salle and St. Joseph's each played only two other city schools. But when fans in the city, and La Salle coach Speedy Morris, placed the blame on Massimino, the Wildcats' coach said the decision had been solely that of Villanova's president, the Rev. Edmund Dobbin.
"Some of the things that had been said [about the Big Five], I couldn't handle it -- well, not that I couldn't, I don't want to," Massimino said yesterday. "No question, I really took a bath [about the Big Five]."
Unfavorable coverage by the Philadelphia media also was cited by friends as a reason for Massimino's departure.
Some coaches bridle at criticism; Massimino went ballistic. During the last two years, as his teams struggled, the Villanova coach was especially testy.
Twice this year he had angry exchanges with fans in the stands and on one occasion at The Spectrum had security kick out a heckler before the start of Villanova's game with La Salle. He had a dispute with a male cheerleader over the cheerleader's ponytail.
As the season wore on, Massimino's demeanor at games changed. He sat through many contests expressionless, even after upsets over nationally ranked Connecticut, Seton Hall, Georgetown and Syracuse.
Since winning the national title, his teams have missed the NCAA tournament three of the last six years. This year's team finished 14-15 and ended the season with a loss in the first round of the NIT.
According to Villanova players James Bryson and Calvin Byrd, Massimino was tearful yesterday when he met with the team. But Byrd, a junior forward, also noticed something about his coach this season.
"He hasn't been as happy as we've seen him in the past," Byrd said. "That was even harder for us. We tried to motivate ourselves. The coach was motivating us. But you could tell he wasn't as happy as in the past. No one was happy, the coaches, the players, the managers."
Massimino has been known as coaching a slow, rather plodding offense.
But Weaver, who had met Massimino in the early 1970s when Weaver had a brief tenure as Villanova football coach, said he picked Massimino because "UNLV needed a person whose style would keep the Runnin' in the Rebels, play tenacious defense, and keep UNLV one of the most exciting places in college sports."
It will not be an easy task. Massimino has never raided junior colleges for players; UNLV has recruited almost nothing but junior college players. Massimino has never recruited a Proposition 48 player (players in academic trouble) because Villanova won't allow it; Tarkanian had no qualms about bringing Prop 48 players.
Last night, Massimino was asked if he would recruit junior college players. He gave a qualified yes, saying he would consult with Maxson and Weaver, but then noting that "there is more of a tradition" in the West of recruiting from junior colleges.