Massimino hits jackpot in Vegas UNLV's new coach finds success again

February 07, 1993|By Boston Globe

LAS VEGAS -- If you were certain that you hadn't been caught in some time warp and beamed out here from the Starship Enterprise, you would swear it was 1973 instead of 1993 in this oasis of glitter where the high rollers keep arriving by the planeload each weekend looking for quick scores.

Take The Strip, still a neon marvel of hotels, casinos and entertainers. But Debbie Reynolds and Tom Jones as headliners? Please. Hang a left at the convention center and pull into Piero's, a high-priced throwback to the days of excess where you can drop a C note for dinner for two without even stuffing yourself, and you will find The Tark still holding court in the center of the room, just like the days when he was the main act in town.

But like many things in Vegas, much of what you see is an illusion. Vegas, they say, is turning into a corporate town, intent on building a foundation rather than an aura.

The Tark, aka Jerry Tarkanian, no longer is in power over at the Thomas & Mack Center, where the University of Nevada-Las Vegas still takes care of the business known as college $l basketball in this town.

All of which makes what is happening at UNLV so intriguing. Is it live or is it Memorex? Are we watching the rebirth of the Runnin' Rebels under Rollie Massimino, who recently clobbered Georgetown? Or are we watching one last sprint by Rebels players recruited and developed by Tarkanian and handed over to Massimino in a somewhat bloody transition of power last spring?

One thing is certain. The man now pushing the buttons is 58-year-old Roland J. Massimino, who concluded a 19-year engagement at Villanova last spring, deciding that it was time to head west rather than battle the demons that seemed to be closing in on him in the Big East.

There are people who will tell you that Massimino has more moods than Vegas has games of chance. Not surprisingly, opinions on Coach Mass are almost as abundant. Since the TTC zenith of his popularity in 1985, when Villanova created its own miracle with an upset of Georgetown to win the NCAA championship, Massimino's profile has increased while his reputation, especially and primarily in the media, has declined.

His departure in April was reportedly greeted with cheers on the Villanova campus from a student body that had also been spoiled by the success of the Rolliecats, as his teams were not so fondly called. Massimino's contention was that he was underappreciated at a school where he had done so much with so little. In almost everyone's opinion, it was time for a change, which Massimino gladly accepted when Vegas, in search of a successor to Tarkanian, made an offer Massimino felt he couldn't and shouldn't refuse.

"He definitely felt underappreciated," said Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese, a wholehearted Massimino backer. "He felt no one was paying attention to the basketball program. Consequently, he got very frustrated. He felt there was not enough appreciation for what he had done. He couldn't understand why people were upset. He graduated his players. He didn't cheat, and he won, yet he felt he was getting blamed for everything."

All of which created an atmosphere in which Massimino considered the idea of leaving Villanova. His first role in the Vegas soap opera was as a consultant to athletic director Jim Weaver, who had known Massimino when the two worked in the Villanova athletic department. When Weaver kept getting polite no-thank-yous from various candidates, the consultant became the coach.

If Tarkanian, who was involved in a feud with school President Robert Maxson, was regarded by the Rebels' administration as Darth Vader, Massimino was perceived as an aging Luke Skywalker, a coach with a squeaky-clean reputation who stood for everything right in college basketball. Massimino's players were role models instead of poster boys in the NCAA infractions department.

Rollie was also a winner, which he has been ever since he was a rising star as a high school coach in Lexington, Mass., in the 1960s, and that was essential since Tarkanian left Vegas as the winningest coach in NCAA history.

Massimino has played his new role well. Until they were upset by the University of the Pacific Thursday, the 10th-ranked Rebels were riding high. They won 13 of their first 14 games. Rollie has gained a tan, lost weight and kept his ability to be charming and folksy and chatty when the mood suits him.

"It's fun again," said Massimino, holding court after practice. "I enjoy the players."

Massimino also likes moving from lounge act to the main floor. "There were five schools in Philly," he said. "There's only one here. It's the only show in town."

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