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Massimino weaves tight-knit feelings into Villanova basketball

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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.

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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.''