Massimino weaves tight-knit feelings into Villanova basketball

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Rollie Massimino says his approach to coaching basketball has remained the same for three decades. The only difference is that his Villanova University Wildcats are going to launch the 1985-86 season as defending national champions, thanks to last spring's dramatic upset victory over Georgetown. The three seniors who formed the nucleus of that team have graduated, but the relationship that bonded coach to player continues, just as it does with most all of Rollie's former pupils.

Speaking of how he perceives his job, the roundish coach says, ``This is not a four-year commitment; it's a 40-year commitment. At least that's how I analyze it. Being a head coach is an ever-going process of making sure everyone is settled.''

In some cases this commitment to players may mean opening doors to a life after basketball. Other times it may call for him to pave the way to a pro career in the game, as it did with two of last season's senior starters -- Ed Pinckney and Dwayne McClain. Rollie personally interviewed the dozen agents interested in representing Pinckney and McClain, who were first- and second-round National Basketball Association draft choices respectively.

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He likes to keep the communication lines open with all his players, past and present. The current ones constantly funnel into his office in the aging Villanova Field House, where his quarters are jammed with the bric-a-brac of a career coach -- team pictures, plaques, trophies, lettered basketballs, and other assorted memorabilia.

The welcome mat is always out for former players, too, even those from many years earlier. In fact, after a testimonial dinner last spring, Massimino invited all his former high school prot'eg'es to a cookout at his place.

The togetherness that Massimino builds into his basketball program is one of the hallmarks of this accomplished motivator.

``We've always had great chemistry on our teams and sometimes that gives us an edge when we're playing,'' says assistant coach Marty Marbach.

This chemistry, of course, doesn't just happen. Rollie and his staff work hard to make sure the right people fill Villanova's blue and white uniforms. ``The big thing is I don't want unhappy people,'' he says.

To prevent that from happening, current varsity members get involved in recruiting incoming players.

Rollie is also a great believer in reserving several spots on the team for ``walk-ons,'' rather than having more scholarship players than he can comfortably utilize.

He wants people playing and contributing, even the reserves, rather than stewing on the bench. Everyone has his role, and everyone is expected to work hard to perform it. ``You don't become good playing make believe,'' says the coach, who sits with the motto ``Disposition to Dominate'' on the office wall behind him.

To play at Villanova you pay a price, and this reputation, he feels, has kept the prima donnas away. The hard-working, team-oriented types are what he wants and gets, and there's no finer example of that than his own son, R.C. A senior, he is one of the top engineering students in his class and a very determined athlete. ``Every day on our vacation he would do 600 sit-ups, 400 push-ups, 300 jumping jacks, and run 8 miles -- and he's a substitute,'' says `Daddy Mass' proudly. ``He wants to have the o pportunity to play. He's great.''

Rollie admires self-starters, but whenever he finds a player who needs a push, especially academically, he doesn't hesitate to provide it, which helps explain why his seniors bat 1.000 at graduation time.

He's as much counselor as gruff headmaster, though, and his ability to get through to his players helps explain his success. Several weeks before the NCAA tournament he awoke one night convinced that he had to have a heart-to-heart talk with sophomore guard Harold Jensen.

Jensen hadn't been playing well, and Massimino sensed that he needed some assurance. ``Harold is a wonderful young man, but he was nervous, like a pent-up rooster, and we had to talk it out.''

The talk worked, and the rest, as they say, is history. Jensen came on to become the team's supersub, and in the electrifying championship game came off the bench to hit all five of his shots, including a late basket that helped tie a ribbon on the team's incredible 78.6 percent field goal accuracy in a tense 66-64 victory. The Wildcats needed near-perfect execution of their controlled-tempo game plan to beat what Massimino has called ``maybe the greatest college basketball team ever assembled,'' and t hey got it.

It was a transcendent type of contest, the kind that captures the public's imagination by the sheer force of its drama, and in this case catapulted Massimino into the national limelight as never before. Long recognized as a brilliant strategist within his trade, now he was a veritable celebrity.

The meet-the-media grind doesn't overjoy him, but he is accomodating with the press, if not loquacious. During an interview with the Monitor he was distracted just once, and that after realizing the championship trophy was missing.

Seeking an explanation, he bolted excitedly out of the room, only to learn that this prized possession had been ``loaned'' out to the athletic trophy case during his absence. He issued a firm recall order. The instructions did not go unheeded, for as Rollie explained, ``There's only one commander of the ship and that's me.''

The tough decisions, of course, fall to the commander, and one of Massimino's toughest came last June. Pro basketball's New Jersey Nets wanted him to jump ship, to sign on as their new head coach and as an eventual front-office executive for a reported $2 million over 10 years.

The offer was almost too good to refuse, financially and otherwise. Massimino, the son of Italian immigrants, was born, raised, and eventually began his coaching career in New Jersey. He was impressed with the Nets' organization and appeared on the verge of taking the job.

Then, on the day the announcement was to be made, he called a team meeting to say that after a thorough self-examination he had decided to stay.

``With some people it's money; with him it's people,'' said Harry Booth, a volunteer assistant coach.

Rollie has come a long way to reach one of the pinnacles of his sport. A scrappy college player at Vermont, where he studied accounting, Massimino got his diploma in 1956 and turned immediately to high school coaching as an assistant in Cranford, N. J. to Bill Martin, whom he calls ``the most influential person in my life after my folks.''

Altogether he spent 11 years at the high school level in New Jersey and Massachusetts before landing his first college job as head coach at the State University of New York at Stony Brook in 1969. From there he moved to the University of Pennsylvania as an assistant, and then on to Villanova in 1973. In his first year on the Main Line, the 'Cats went 7-19, but things got progressively better thereafter, with post-season berths practically a given these days.

During 12 years on the suburban Philadelphia campus, Rollie has become very attached to many in the college community, but perhaps none more than Jake Nevin, the school's long-time athletic trainer and resident prankster. Though confined to a wheelchair, Nevin was seated next to the Villanova bench throughout last spring's tournament, and his loyalty to the school has been an inspiration to Massimino.

``Jake is a special kind of guy,'' Rollie says, adding that Nevin and other Villanovans have ``been wonderful to me. There's more to life than worrying about where your career will go, and I just decided to be a part of this whole thing.''

Surrounded by people he cares for, and who in turn care for him, Rollie has let his life become intertwined with that of the university, a medium-sized Roman Catholic institution with high academic standards.

``He likes to go into the faculty club and shoot the breeze and be involved with the immediate college community,'' says Marbach.

Two of Massimino's five children enjoy direct ties to the school, R. C. as well as his daughter Lee Ann, who is Villanova's women's lacrosse coach. And, of course, anybody who ever suits up for Coach Mass, as he's known on campus, will forever be considered part of the basketball ``family,'' a concept Martin instilled in him.

So how does Rollie view the new season, with the immense challenges it presents to his defending national champions, who move into a spacious new on-campus arena soon?

Enthusiastically, that's how.

``This is going to be fun,'' Massimino says without a smidgeon of regret about leaving past glory behind. ``It's new chemistry, new kids. I'm really excited about it.''

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