Rollie Massimino, the fiery former Villanova University men’s basketball coach who led the Wildcats to an improbable championship over Patrick Ewing and the heavily-favored Georgetown Hoyas in the 1985 NCAA title game, died Wednesday in Florida. He was 82 and had recently entered a hospice care facility near his West Palm Beach home, according to the Florida Sun-Sentinel.
Chuck Everson, who was a member of that ’85 Villanova championship team, confirmed Massimino’s death to the Daily News. Massimino had battled lung cancer in the past, and Dr. John Y.K. Lee, a University of Pennsylvania associate professor of neurosurgery, told The News Wednesday that he performed surgery on Massimino approximately 15 months ago to remove a malignant brain tumor, called glioblastoma.
Although short in stature, Massimino had a giant personality and his name is synonymous with a college basketball era when the Big East Conference reigned supreme. In the ’85 Final Four, three of the teams — Villanova, Georgetown and St. John’s – were from the Big East.
“God Almighty, I’m so sorry to hear that. We go way back. I just spoke with him 10 days ago. It’s like when you lose one of your family,” former St. John’s coach Lou Carnesecca told The News Wednesday. “Rollie was an excellent coach. You really had to prepare when you played against him. He threw everything at you.”
Heaven and hell: Story behind Villanova upset of Georgetown
Villanova entered the 1985 Big Dance as a No. 8 seed, and after a scare in their tournament opener against Dayton, Massimino’s Wildcats toppled Michigan, Maryland and North Carolina prior to the Final Four, where Villanova played Memphis State in the semifinal.
In the NCAA championship game at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky, Villanova and Georgetown – coached by John Thompson Jr. and anchored by star center Ewing – duked it out until the final seconds when Villanova’s Harold Jensen inbounded to teammate Dwayne McClain, who fell to the floor with Georgetown’s David Wingate. But McClain held onto the ball, the buzzer sounded and the Wildcats went crazy.
“We got the ball in, and Dwayne caught it, and fell on his knees. I think he traveled, but that’s OK. And he held it for the end of the game,” Massimino told The News in 2015, for a 30th-anniversary story on the ’85 title team. “I still never saw the championship game replay in its entirety. I still think we might lose.”
McClain, who lives near Massimino in Jupiter, Fla., told The News Wednesday that Massimino was “definitely a father figure” to his players, especially the ’85 squad.
Villanova shocks Georgetown, captures NCAA title, 66-64
“Daddy Mass will be missed,” said McClain, who was a coach on Massimino’s staff at tiny Northwood University (now Keiser University) in West Palm Beach. “He’ll be forever missed. He was a fiery Italian that had nothing but love.”
Ewing, the former Knicks great and now the head coach at Georgetown, and Thompson Jr. each issued statements following Massimino’s death.
“The Georgetown family is deeply saddened by the news of the passing of Rollie Massimino. Coach Massimino recruited me to Villanova in 1981 and we always bonded over our Boston ties,” said Ewing, referring to Massimino’s coaching stint at Lexington High School (in Mass.) and Ewing’s high school alma mater, Cambridge Rindge and Latin. “Even though his 1985 team beat us, I have always had nothing but great respect and admiration for him.”
“I had the utmost respect for Rollie as a coach and friend,” Thompson said. “My prayers go out to his family.”
For one night, the Villanova Wildcats were just ‘purr-fect’
Massimino was born in New Jersey on Nov. 13, 1934 and played basketball at the University of Vermont. After coaching high school hoops, he began his college career at Stony Brook in 1969. He was hired by Villanova in 1973, and remained there until 1992. Massimino also made stops at UNLV, Cleveland State and finally at Keiser University. Massimino was still coaching at Keiser at the time of his death.
The ’85 team held a special place in Massimino’s heart, Everson said, who was a backup center on that title team. Everson said Massimino was back at Villanova on July 30 for a reunion of former Wildcat players and coaches. “Because of his Italian heritage, he was emotional whether he was happy or sad,” Everson said. “I’ll never forget after we won (in ’85), he made sure he hugged everybody. He worked hard, played hard. He loved life to the fullest.”
Last year at Keiser, Massimino got his 800th career win and in 2013 he was inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame. When current Villanova basketball coach Jay Wright led the Wildcats to the NCAA title against North Carolina in 2016, Massimino, despite his health problems, traveled to Houston and attended the championship game. It was the school’s second NCAA title.
“It’s a great loss for us,” said Carnesecca, 92. “Rollie was full of pep and vinegar. It brings a smile to my face thinking about him. He was quite a character.”
Send a Letter to the Editor